Embracing the Unfamiliar

By Jack Reese

Our plane had just landed after a long flight from Detroit to Seoul. Even though my wife and I had never been to Korea, we thought we were ready to encounter an unfamiliar culture. We pushed our way through crowded streets, taking in the rich variety of smells—a mixture of car exhaust, ginger, garlic, and the pungent aroma of kimchi, the spicy, fermented cabbage that I only later learned to enjoy. We understood not a word of the animated speech taking place around us.

When our hosts gestured toward a snow cone stand, we were elated. We couldn’t believe it. Right here in Korea they had snow cones. A smile snuck across my face. I wasn’t totally freaked out as the vendor poured condensed milk on top of the shaved ice he had scooped into a cup. And he added little jelly things into the mix. I could live with that, I suppose.

What finally turned my delicate, American stomach, however, was what I found lurking at the bottom of the cup, placed there, surely, only to surprise an unsuspecting tourist—a big spoonful of black beans. I stirred the dish valiantly while smiling to my hosts.

Most of us recognize such moments. We travel to different parts of the world, or perhaps to the next state over, and we listen to people’s accents and observe their manners. We find there people not like us, people who, from our perspective at least, are odd. Our next response is most crucial. How will we engage them? How will we judge their behavior? Will we listen to them? Will we insist that they conform to our expectations, our customs and practices?

Tyranny of the Proximate

You may be familiar with Charles Hummel’s often-quoted phrase, the “tyranny of the urgent.” He suggests that people often are hindered from doing things they believe are truly important because they are handcuffed by matters of unrelenting urgency. In such circumstances, they can’t see or do what is most needed because they have been blinded or sidetracked by what is most urgent.

Similarly, I believe most of us have a tendency toward what I call the “tyranny of the proximate.” We often cannot see what is really going on in the world because our eyes are so focused on what is proximate to us, that is, what is near, what is familiar.

Our tendency is to view everyone and everything through our own experiences. As a result, we sometimes find other behaviors and perspectives strange or even wrong. When we assume that what is normal for us is—or should be—normal for everyone else, we are tyrannized by the proximate.

As I have visited churches around the world over the years, signs of the tyranny of the proximate have not been difficult to spot. In each case, Christians have a hard time seeing beyond the norms set by their own experiences. We assume the way things are done where we live is the way things should be done everywhere.

In one place, church members could hardly grasp that American women didn’t wear scarves on their heads when they go to church. One South American minister said he thinks large churches are sinful. “How can you Americans go to church and not even know the names of all the people you worship with?” he asked. We have talked to some Asian Christians who can hardly fathom why Americans don’t kneel when they pray and European Christians who shudder at the ignorance of most Americans regarding the great but increasingly neglected hymnody of Western civilization.

Most often the tyranny of the proximate works the other way as Americans transport their customs and practices to foreign soil. In some cases those who grow up in churches begun by devoted and well-meaning Americans have a hard time distinguishing what is gospel from what is American because the two were never differentiated.

Several years ago we visited a non-American church where we were told by the local minister, “This is the most conservative church in our country.” I asked what he meant by that. He told me, “You will find this church to be exactly like churches in America.” My first thought was, that’s an interesting measure of conservatism. My second thought was that the style of the service was, in fact, almost identical to that of many American churches, though I had not actually attended a church like that in the U.S. since the 1950s when the missionaries were first sent. Again, the practices themselves were perfectly fine though the leaders were largely unaware that much of what they were doing was almost as American as it was Christian.

Even when we focus only on our own congregation, this tyranny is often evident. Many conflicts within churches occur not because of serious doctrinal differences but because the views and experiences of some of the members do not allow them to imagine the beliefs and practices of others. We tend to see things from our own point of view, with our own interests at the center, with our own experiences as the norm. If others have a different starting place or ask different questions or prefer a different approach, we feel threatened or baffled. And in such circumstances our instincts are to make our church in our own image and to keep strangers—in other words, anyone not like us—at arm’s distance.

Our Citizenship

American Christians may be more guilty of having such a narrow perspective than most. Because we are Americans, we rarely have to adjust our behavior to others’. We expect everyone else to speak our language and to know our cultural icons. After all, everyone else goes to our movies, watches our cable news, and uses our technology. We are the great superpower, the functional center of the world. Therefore, we sometimes feel that others aren’t quite as competent as we are and don’t see things as clearly as we do.

For Christians this can be especially dangerous. Not only does it place us in positions of assumed superiority in relation to others, it makes us judgmental and smug. More dangerously, it causes us to assume God blesses our nation more than others, that we have a special role or mission in God’s eyes, that America’s aims are God’s aims, that God’s dream is the same as the American dream. The word the Bible uses for such a notion is idolatry.

Let’s be clear. To one degree or another everyone is affected by this tendency. As we assume that our own practices and points of view are the norm and are blind to the significant impact of our own experiences, we are tyrannized by the proximate. We can’t imagine how others could be right or at least OK. We know what we are used to, and we tend to like what we have always done. Most of us do not take pleasure in being pushed outside our comfort zones. Rather, we seek familiarity and wear it like a cozy sweater.

When we are exposed to the unfamiliar, however, we are forced to examine ourselves more closely. Seeing others not like us gives us the possibility of changing the lens through which we see our world, of being more aware, more humble, and less insistent on our own way.

The apostle Paul said as much to the Christians at Philippi: “In humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus . . .” (Philippians 2:3-5, New Revised Standard Version). And later in that letter, he made it quite clear: “Our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” (Philippians 3:20, NRSV).

Jack Reese is a professor of preaching and worship and the dean of the College of Biblical Studies and Graduate School of Theology at Abilene (Texas) Christian University. His education is from ACU, the University of Oklahoma, and the University of Iowa School of Religion, where he received the PhD in theology. He began teaching at ACU in 1988.

Reese has served as a minister for churches of Christ in Missouri, Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, and Tennessee. He has preached and done workshops across North America as well as in Asia, South America, Africa, and Europe. He is on the editorial staff of Restoration Quarterly and Leaven Journal. He coauthored The Crux of the Matter: Crisis, Tradition, and the Future of Churches of Christ (ACU Press, 2002) with Jeff Childers and Doug Foster.

Reese has recently authored The Body Broken: Embracing the Peace of Christ in a Fragmented Church (Leafwood: 2005) from which this article is adapted. The book deals with issues that have historically divided the Stone-Campbell Movement as well as the many fragmentations that affect local churches around the world.

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