Identifying your blindspot. (Do Asians and Westerners think differently - Part 2)

This is a guest post by missiologist Ryan Kuja in response to my first post, “Do Asians and Westerners think differently?

A few years back while living in South Africa, I was sitting around a fire one evening with some new acquaintances, having an enjoyable conversation. I got up for a bathroom break and when I returned, one of the guys was in the midst of telling a story:

“The family was so clever. The adults sent the infants through the window of my house!” he exclaimed excitedly.

“Then the little ones opened the doors,” he continued, “and the whole crew got in and raided the cabinets, threw flour all over the place, ate everything in sight, and defecated on the couches. It was an awful mess!”

I could hardly believe what I was hearing. How could parents do something like that, using their kids to break into his house and create a debacle of epic proportions?

Awww - the story is so much better when it’s about cute baby baboons creating chaos….

Awww - the story is so much better when it’s about cute baby baboons creating chaos….

What I hadn’t realized is that I hadn’t heard a very key detail: the characters weren’t people. They were baboons!

I had missed vital information at the beginning of the story: the context.

You probably hear the word context on a regular basis. But what does it really mean?

Essentially, context has to do with setting and circumstances. I like to think of it as the thing beneath the thing. Religion. Culture. Values. Worldview. Relationships…

Simply put, context = background.

In his last post, Craig explained how people from Asia and other collectivist cultures tend to have a robust understanding of context because their worldview is centered on interrelatedness. Asians tend to view themselves as part of a larger whole, in a holistic way where context is taken into account.

On the contrary, Western cultures have a very different organizing principle: individualism. Rather than relational harmony and connection, individualist cultures value personal freedom and independence rather interdependence. These societies focus on the individual self rather than the group as a whole. Context is not valued as much in Western societies as it is in Asian societies.

This is a blindspot for most Westerners.

Now here is where things start to get really fascinating. These differences between Westerners and Asians don’t merely show up as subtle sociological and psychological differences.

They are actually embedded in the brain itself.

Over the past few decades, a brand new field known as cultural neuroscience has emerged that looks at the impact culture has on the brain. Researchers have found that neuropathways—the corridors in the brain along which neurons transmit information—are shaped by culture.

Cultural neuroscience isn’t just giving us interesting but useless information. It’s actually telling a brand new, fascinating story about the brain, which in turn is asking us to reconsider some of what we thought we knew. The brain, it turns out, isn’t simply the autonomous instrument of consciousness that scientists once thought.

So what is the brain?

It’s a cultural organ!

It turns out that where we live shapes our brains. Geography literally impacts how our brains are wired.

One research study revealed that when Japanese and American participants are shown pictures of fish swimming in an underwater environment, people from Japan recall contextual details—the environment the fish were swimming in—better than Americans.

A second study measured the brain activity of American and Chinese participants while being shown pictures of a giraffe on a savannah followed by the same giraffe on a football field. The results revealed that the brains of the Chinese participants were affected more by background context—the giraffe standing on a football field—than their American counterparts, whose brains showed no difference whether the giraffe was on the sports field or the savannah.

The Western brain just isn’t wired to notice the background stuff as readily as the Asian brain.

Context is everything —and not just regarding key details in stories about renegade baboons!

The Biblical text emphasizes the importance of context, nowhere more so than with the Apostle Paul, who wrote nearly half of the New Testament.

When he traveled to Athens to share the gospel with the Greeks, Paul didn’t just show up and announce a message divorced from their context. Instead, he used Greek philosophy and concepts - the background context - so that people could better understand and resonate with his message.

Paul had to introduce Jesus in the context of this bunch of muscle-bound gods!

Paul had to introduce Jesus in the context of this bunch of muscle-bound gods!

The Greeks were mainly polytheistic, with a pantheon of gods including Zeus, Athena, Poseidon, and others. In Acts 17:28, Paul quotes pagan sources in order to teach that God is at the heart of existence: “For in him we live and move and have our being. As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’”

The Athenians could understand that type of religious paradigm. It resonated with their polytheistic worldview. Paul was able to powerfully relay the gospel message to the Greeks because he honored the importance of looking at context.

We don’t know the particulars about how Paul’s brain was wired. But one thing is clear: Paul came to be regarded as the greatest Christian missionary and theologian to ever live.

So, what is your religious and cultural context?

How much effort have you put into studying that context in depth?

How are the teachings and the life of Jesus understood in that context?

No matter how our brain is wired, we can learn from Paul’s fluency in seeing the wider context.

Kuja challenges the exploitative roots of “McMission” and calls us to something deeper.

Kuja challenges the exploitative roots of “McMission” and calls us to something deeper.

Ryan Kuja is a writer, counselor, and missiologist with a background in international mission, relief, and development. He holds an MA in Theology & Culture as well as a Diploma in Humanitarian Assistance. Ryan’s book, From the Inside Out, weaves together stories from his experience living alongside marginalized people on five continents with biblical and theological reflection, psychology, and spiritual formation. It challenges many widespread misconceptions of cross-cultural ministry and invites Jesus followers to awaken to a fresh and liberating engagement with God’s redeeming work in the world, while offering a new way forward marked by memory, mutuality, and imagination.

Craig Greenfield