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Blog / Crossing Cultures in Scripture: An Interview with Marvin J. Newell

Crossing Cultures in Scripture: An Interview with Marvin J. Newell

Marvin J. NewellFrom Genesis to Revelation, the Bible is replete with narratives of God’s people crossing cultures in pursuit of God’s mission. What are the lessons for today to be learned from these stories?

Bible Gateway interviewed Marvin J. Newell (@marvnewell) about his book, Crossing Cultures in Scripture: Biblical Principles for Mission Practice (InterVarsity Press, 2017).

Briefly explain what human culture is.

Marvin J. Newell: Since Crossing Cultures in Scripture is focused on the topic of culture and humans crossing cultures, I deal with the essence of human culture right at the start. In the first chapter I define culture as “the distinctive beliefs, values, and customs of a particular group of people that determine how they think, feel, and behave.” Three components are coupled together: beliefs/think, values/feel, and customs/behave. These are the basic elements of every culture found anywhere in the world.

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What cultures do readers encounter in the Bible?

Marvin J. Newell: It’s amazing how many cultures are found throughout the Bible. Stop and think for a moment of some of the cultures that we encounter in Scripture: Hebrew, Chaldean, Egyptian, Ethiopian, Hittite, Mesopotamian, Syrian, Assyrian, Philistine, Canaanite, Moabite, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, and Roman to name most of them. Here’s the amazing part: God worked in and through his servants crossing through these cultures to bring his grand story of redemption to us.

You say God included culture in the Garden of Eden. How so? And how is culture deteriorating from that high point?

Marvin J. Newell: Genesis 1:26-27 is key to understanding how humans are cultural beings. We’re made in the image and likeness of God. From the phrases, “let us make…in our image… after our likeness,” these three phrases are striking because of their reference to a divine plurality by the repeated use of the personal plural pronouns us and our. The creation of man is of such importance that Moses portrays God as conferring in his plurality about his final and crowning creative act.

In his plurality God had to have relationship, and with relationship exudes the phenomenon of culture. Also, the double modifying phrase, “in our image…after our likeness,” signifies that he did so act. These two phrases aim to assert with emphasis that man is closely patterned after his Maker. The first word image, has the root meaning, “to carve,” or “cut from.” The second word, likeness, refers to “similarity.” These two conjoining phrases are used, among other things, to show that a God who himself possesses culture, created mankind with it as well.

In contrast, animals don’t possess culture. They have “traits,” “characteristics,” and “instincts,” but not culture. Their missing elements, referencing our definition, are beliefs and values.

To answer the second part of your question: as a result of this divine act, it can be inferred that in their perfect, pre-fallen state, Adam and Eve lived their lives in a harmonious, unadulterated culture—its highest form. Since their minds were permeated with truth, they had perfect beliefs. Since their pattern for living was modeled after God’s, they practiced perfect values. And since they knew no evil, they exhibited perfect customs.

Theirs was an unimaginably rich, full, and satisfying culture at its very finest. It was absolutely perfect! No humans who’ve lived since—because of the subsequent fall into sin (Genesis 3)—have experienced the high degree of cultural perfection that Adam and Eve lived and practiced. The zenith of cultural perfection was theirs.

How was the Tower of Babel the beginning of cultural diversity?

Marvin J. Newell: The story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) is central to understanding how cultural diversity came about.

The account tells us that, because of their blatant disobedience, God placed a judgment on the oneness of humanity at that time by breaking them into, and then scattering them in, linguistic affinities. This has a direct correlation to the multiplicity of cultures. It naturally followed that once humans separated themselves from one another into distinct groups occupying distinct regions, that over time they developed distinct cultures. That’s because language is the audible expression of emotions, concepts, and thoughts of the mind. Over time these audio expressions manifest themselves in distinctive beliefs, values, and customs—the very components that make up culture.

A community affirms those beliefs, values, and customs by corporately living them out and transferring them to the next generation. A cultural identity develops. It can therefore be deduced that plurality of culture followed plurality of language directly after the Babel event. Multiculturalism emerged after the dispersion of peoples throughout the world.

What are some cultural lessons you’ve gleaned from prominent Old Testament characters and stories?

Marvin J. Newell: In Crossing Cultures in Scripture I deal with 16 Old Testament major crosscultural encounters. There are rich lessons of us today about crossing into other cultures.

From the story of Sarah and Hagar (Genesis 16 & 21) we learn about honor-shame dynamics, something we’re blind to here in the West.

From the encounter of Abraham with the Hittites (Genesis 23), when he negotiated a burial place for Sarah, we learn about the importance of social credit and how to successfully negotiate crossculturally.

From David’s encounter with Uriah (a Hittite), the husband of Bathsheba (2 Samuel 11), we learn about the dynamics of power-distance, something that again many times we in the West miss.

The encounter of the Queen of Sheba with King Solomon is a wonderful example of the progressive stages a foreigner experiences as a guest in host culture. And there are many, many more.

How did Jesus model crosscultural outreach?

Marvin J. Newell: I’m glad you brought up Jesus in this discussion, for Jesus is a prime example of how to effectively deal with those of other cultures. His encounter with the woman at the well in Samaria (John 4:1-43) is a good example. Principles extracted from this model of Jesus taking the gospel crossculturally to the Samaritans are helpful to message bearers today.

Taking initiative, like Jesus did, is the very first and important step of crosscultural outreach. But coupled with initiative must also be a strategy. That strategy may be putting one’s self in the place of vulnerability, like Jesus did, so as to first be served by the very people one goes to serve. This is difficult for those today who feel they have a superior culture, personal status, education, technical expertise, or income level compared to those they go to serve. This attitude must be put aside if one is to identify with the people of the culture that they enter.

After those initial steps are taken, one must engage in the hard work of learning and then working through the worldview of the focused culture. Only after mastering its dominant beliefs, values, and customs, as Jesus demonstrated with the Samaritans, does one earn the right to speak into it and bring people to an understanding of the gospel. Once achieved, transformation of the heart can be realized.

What are Jesus’ “Marks of Crosscultural Success”?

Marvin J. Newell: The evening prior to his crucifixion, Jesus took time to reflect upon what he had accomplished during his three years of public ministry. In what is commonly called the “high priestly prayer” (John 17), he rehearsed to the Father in a candid report the essence of what he had accomplished as a crosscultural message bearer. Briefly, here are “marks” that come from that prayer:

v. 6“I have manifested your name to the people…” This statement speaks of incarnating himself among mankind. He had presented himself well. He didn’t stick out like some kind of misfit. He fit right in with the beliefs, values, and customs of the people. This related to Jesus’ winsome and impeccable interpersonal/relational skills.

v. 8“I have given them the words that you gave me…” This statement speaks of declaring. He proclaimed well, or correctly, the very words that the Father wanted people to hear though him. This related to Jesus’ teaching ministry skills.

v. 12“I have guarded them and not one of them is lost…” This statement speaks of protecting. He cared well, guarding so that no true follower became lost, especially to other competing beliefs. This related to Jesus’ protective ministry, or skills.

v. 18“I have sent them into the world.” This statement speaks of commissioning. He effectively “passed the baton” on to his followers. Jesus may be speaking prophetically of the Great Commission statements he still needed to give his disciples following his resurrection. But that obviously needed inclusion in his report at this time, before the events of his suffering took place. This related to the transitioning part of his ministry, or skills.

v. 22“The glory that you have given me I have given them…” This statement speaks of authorizing; he empowered his followers well. This related to Jesus’ willingness and ability to empower others, his empowering skills.

v. 26“I have made known to them your name…” This statement speaks of revealing. He transmitted understanding about the Father well. This related to Jesus’ communication ministry, or skills.

What do you want readers of Crossing Cultures in Scripture to put into practice in their Christian faith?

Marvin J. Newell: To start with Scripture when it comes to engaging other cultures. The Bible should be the first and final authority for all that we believe and practice, and this includes what it has to say about the phenomenon known as human culture. The Bible itself is a textbook on cultural understanding. Granted, there’s a place for the social sciences in understanding cultural dynamics. But these disciplines are imperfect, and should never take precedent over the teaching of Scripture on any subject, including how to encounter those of other cultures.

What are your thoughts about Bible Gateway and the Bible Gateway App?

Marvin J. Newell: I have the Bible Gateway App on my iPad® and find it one of the most convenient ways of accessing the Bible and related study tools. I particularly like using the audio feature to listen to the Bible when driving.

Bio: Dr. Marvin J. Newell (DMiss, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is senior vice president of Missio Nexus, a network of evangelical mission agencies, churches, and training centers in North America. Previously he served as a missionary in Papua, Indonesia, a mission administrator, a professor of missions, and director of a missions association. He’s the author of Crossing Cultures in Scripture: Biblical Principles for Mission Practice, A Martyr’s Grace, Crossing Cultures in Scripture, and The Broad Road, Commissioned: What Jesus Wants You to Know as You Go, and Expect Great Things: Mission Quotes that Inform and Inspire. He’s also adjunct professor at Moody Theological Seminary and Western Seminary, and sits on the board of five different mission organizations. Marv and his wife Peggy have been involved in missions for 40 years.

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