Last night it was looking up at the same moon that is visible all round the world, that we have all seen since we can first remember, and suddenly realising this universally observable heavenly body looks quite different when seen from a Malawi perspective.
If you have grown up in the northern hemisphere you will be subconsciously familiar with the phases of the moon: the new moon growing from the right and then wanes to the left. It is just one of those building blocks of our existence we don’t think about.
However – disconcertingly – there last night was the new moon growing from the bottom. Just for a second it felt like I was in one of those sci-fi movies looking out on an alien sky!
OK, academically – as a once-upon-a-time physicist – I knew in my head that the phases of the moon must vary depending on the viewpoint of the observer. However, I had just found out that knowing something academically is different from experiencing it first hand!
(Now for those who like to know these things … in the southern hemisphere – as some of you will be able to verify I am sure – basic geometry would say that the new moon grows from the left and wanes to the right. Hence, given a moon that orbits roughly at the equator, for an observer at the equator it grows from the bottom.)
So with the moon, different people in different places can have different but legitimate perspectives on the same universal unchanging object. After months reflecting for my dissertation on what might be appropriate contextualisation of theology, preaching and preacher training – and after a week helping train pastors/leaders in the very different context of rural Malawi – this seems to me a perfect metaphor for the challenges and opportunities of cross-cultural Christian ministry.
The challenges include being able to recognise the legitimacy and value of the insights brought by the different perspective of different cultures on the eternal and universal truths of the Gospel, while being true to that unchanging Truth. Another challenge is to truly embrace this fact emotionally and practically and not just academically.
The opportunities for the cross-cultural adventurer include the way exposure to the new culture allows you to better strip away the cultural aspects of your own faith and hence to understand a little better what might be a true biblical worldview. Also, there is the opportunity to look back at the Church in your own culture and better see the unconscious cultural syncretism that exists there.
Either way, once you get over the spiritual motion-sickness of such cross-cultural travel you gain fresh new insights. For example the way the African sense of collective identity and community sheds fresh light on so much of biblical teaching compared to our western tendency to read into the bible an overly individualistic interpretation. You also find you can better look back and see that, just as the African Church is damaged with the deep rooted synthesis of African traditional religions with Biblical Christianity, so the western Church is damaged by its own synthesis with materialist enlightenment philosophy.
It continues to be an invigorating and refreshing time for us. Next time you look up at the moon, remember the Church in Africa, remember our Malawian brothers and sisters, and commit yourself to striving for a truly biblical worldview whatever cultural perspective you start from.