Being a missionary where God has you isn’t just an attitude or posture (though it certainly begins there). It requires a certain set of skills that can be developed over time. One such skill is cultural exegesis.
All you Bible scholars out there know that exegesis (literally “to draw out”) is the act of studying something (text, art, language) and extracting meaning from within. The opposite of exegesis, then, would be eisegesis (literally “to draw in”), where the observer brings the meaning to the thing being observed from outside (usually his own presuppositions).
When reading and interpreting Biblical text, we can either find meaning in the text, or we can project our own meaning into it. We usually purport to value exegesis over eisegesis, but we tend to do quite a bit of both.
Applied to culture, exegesis means discovering why people in a particular culture do what they do by observing them and viewing their cultural influences from their perspective rather than interpreting their behavior through our own cultural lenses.
This, of course, is very difficult. None of us are outside culture– the ways in which we view the world around us are largely dependent upon the cultures in which we were raised. Thankfully, cultural exegesis doesn’t require absolute objectivity– it does, however, require immersion, personal engagement, and dependence on the Holy Spirit.
In textual criticism, we seek to (as much as possible) return to the original material. A credible interpretation of, say, the Gospel of Matthew, won’t come from a study of 1 Corinthians or a commentary on Matthew. You’ve got to read the book itself to be able to understand it. Same thing with culture– reading Darrel Bock’s Breaking the DaVinci Code isn’t the same as reading Dan Brown’s popular novel. Listening to me explain postmodern culture isn’t the same as you spending time with those who hold that worldview.
Immersion is necessary. Think Jesus spending enough time with drunks and sinners to be accused of being one of them, or Paul knowing popular Greek philosophy well enough to quote Epimenides and Aratus, (who, I’m told, were the Jonas Brothers of the 500s BC.
That said, cultural immersion can be dangerous. Sure there are spiritual dangers in every culture. But most of us have been raised to be able to identify the dangers in our own cultures. Put us into a culture that isn’t our own, and we’re not so good at seeing the warning signs. It’s not enough to watch all the popular movies or read all the influential books– unless we’re deliberate about what enters our minds, our cultural activity won’t result in insight, it will only serve to corrupt our thinking.
Personal engagement is, quite simply, making friends within culture. These friends will serve as guides and informants for us as we dive in. They’ll be able to explain their own reasons for why they do what they do. True friendship will provide us with a more sympathetic attitude toward the people we’re getting to know. It’s hard to listen to people you hate, and it’s hard to hate people you know and love.
The Holy Spirit is our only defense against the charms and temptations that can snare us in culture. Only by walking in total and step-by-step dependence on Him will we learn a culture well enough to be able to engage in missional translation of the gospel into culture. He knows what’s in a person’s heart- what motivates and moves him. The Spirit was present within a culture before we ever were, and will continue His redemptive interaction long after we leave.
Cultural exegesis is something we have to practice. At first, we’re tempted to bring our own meaning to what we observe; especially when what we observe appears to be similar to what we’ve seen in our home cultures and know to be evil. A “bar” in the United States is not the same thing as a “Pub” in England. A “coffee shop” in the Netherlands isn’t like your local Starbucks (not usually, anyway!) “Tells” in your home culture (“Only a prostitute would dress like that.” “You can’t be politically liberal and theologically conservative.”) don’t necessarily hold true in host cultures. Only time, intentionality, and God, can help us gain the sort of cultural fluency that allows us to preach and live the gospel in it.