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The Real World in Their Heads
Dr. Orville Boyd Jenkins
A review of the book by Roland Muller
The Messenger, The Message and the Community:  Three Critical Issues for the Cross-cultural Church Planter (Osler, Saskatchewan, Canada:  CanBooks, 2010, 316p.)

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This is a serious anthropological analysis provided as a resource for cross-cultural Christian workers.  But anyone who takes seriously the effect of their contact with people of other cultures will benefit greatly from the insights this volume provides.

Muller has laid out the components of the different worldviews among earth's peoples in a way I have not seen done.  He uses standard terms of the related professional disciplines.  This ensures the integrity and consistency of his contribution.  He relates his findings and analysis to other scholars and analyses.  He likewise maintains clarity.

His important work here will be easily read by less familiar readers.  He is a clear and readable interpreter of this perspective.  He provides charts and graphic illustrations and well-told case studies.  The book is also available in eBook form.

Three Worldview Paradigms
The reader will be enlightened by his contrast of three major categories of worldviews as they affect obligations, relationships, personal responsibility, blame and punishment, retribution and punishment or restoration and reconciliation.

He finds that the worldviews and societies of the world all fall into one of three systems of relating to the society and the unseen world.  The three dominant paradigms are:

He especially details how these differences affect worldview beliefs and practices regarding guilt and punishment.  And indeed all societies will have some balance of all three.  One of the three will be dominant by far.

These three paradigms likewise determine the character of relationships between members of the group or society.  The focus affects the relationship of the individual to the group as a whole.  For instance, in Shame-Honor societies, the role and actions of the individual reflect on the group and it is the group that bears the Shame or Dishonor.

The individual in a Shame-Honor society is therefore under deep obligation to the family, clan or tribe to act in line with social and moral expectations.  The reputation and integrity of the group as a whole is at stake in the actions of any individual, thus the whole group has an important stake in making retribution or effecting reconciliation with another individual of an outside group who has been wronged or offended in some way.

Muller lays out very clearly and logically the components and meaning and then the implications of these factors in the various paradigms.  For cross-cultural workers, much of this is known and recognizable, but even experienced cross-cultural individuals will benefit from Muller's effective elucidation of the dynamics involved.

How We Read
For instance, when reading the Story of Eden from Genesis, a Guilt-Innocence culture will see the story in terms of breaking rules, and the resulting guilt that has to be removed by punishment.  In contrast, a Shame-Honor focus will see the great Shame the Humans brought upon themselves, and see the Need for Honor to be restored.

Thus the story in a Guilt-Innocence context is seen as a legal problem.  In a Shame-Honor context, it is a Shame caused by betraying a realtionship that must be removed in order to restore that broken relationship.

The traditional western concept is Guilt-based. Westerners interpret matters in terms of broken laws, fault and blame, and the necessary punishment.  In contrast, for Shame-Honor cultures, Covenant relationship and group solidarity are primary values.  Notice how often Shame is mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Of course western societies have a concept of shame.  But Muller indicates that Shame in a western legal and societal sense is a mechanism for punishment or social control of the individual.  Guilt and punishment or restitution are the basis on which relationships are determined and maintained.

In a Shame-Honor culture, shame is the primary factor in determining that character of relationships.  This is aligned with a strong group identity and a weak individual identity.

This matches what I have observed living in third-world countries.  Group identity is primary, and the identity of the individual derives from the group.  An individual is defined in most societies of the world by relationship to the family, clan, group or society.  The individual has high security and protection, but more limited personal options and freedoms in the western sense.

The Fear-Power paradigm focuses on dangerous spiritual powers we need to avoid or appease.  Examples of the Fear-Power paradigm are found in Africa.  The unseen world and forces are the organizing principles for many African societies.  In reality there is a strong component of the Fear-Power paradigm in western popular thought, supporting the Guilt-Innocence format.

Many people who claim Christian faith organize their life around a view of God as one who must be appeased in order to avoid wrath or punishment for a misstep, and warding off demons by various means, such as prayer or power formulas.  Sometimes called superstition, this pattern in endemic in western popular Christianity.

Many people see prayer as a formulary practice for protection or fulfillment of a required pracice to avoid negative effects (the punishment component of the Guilt-based paradigm).  In other words, many people treat prayer as a verbal amulet or charm.

Western Range
I have observed a range of these three paradigms in different regions and cultures of the United States.  For instance, while the whole western world is far more individual oriented than much of the world, there is more of the Shame-Honor focus in rural and small communities and more of the individual-oriented focus in the cities.

In contrast African societies as a whole are heavily oriented to the collective group identity and operate more in a Shame-Honor paradigm.  The dynamics of Shame-Honor seem much stronger and more seriously enforced in Arab and some other Muslim cultures.

Understanding Muslim Societies
Muller provides excellent examples and analysis of Arab and Muslim cultures.  He provides important insights for westerners, who are usually puzzled and frustrated by these cultures.

They often cannot see the group identity as a valid value, and cannot come to a meeting of the minds about how things operate in Shame cultures.  The problem is exacerbated by the American desire for simple and quick solutions or resolutions.

Honor killings of apostates or others who stain the honor of the group create a virtual impasse between these cultures and western worldview sensibilities.  Perhaps the insights here will at least help provide some understanding of how insiders of these cultures see the world and how these dynamics work for them.

In western societies, anonymity and the lack of cohesive community in the cities leads to a need for legal and arbitrary ("objective") means of control, coercion and protection where no cohesion occurs in the society.  The attempt in law to be fair by being impartial, neutral and consistent ironically can result in unfairness, exploitation and injustice, through lack of consideration of individual conditions.

Western Individualism
Isolation and powerlessness of the individual is a common unintended practical result of western idealism in its pragmatic implementation.  The more urbanized and "sophisticated," it seems, the more individualistic and isolated the society.

This atomized individualism of western societies is very different from the support and balance found in a rural community.  The interpersonal and inter-family relationships of rural communities trend to be stronger and individuals generally feel a stronger identity with and sense of responsibility to the whole society.

Westerners often fail to see the positive values of "third-world" and "Islamic" relational societies which are Shame-based rather than Guilt-based.

Valuable Resource
All readers of whatever culture will be rewarded here with valuable insights and tools to understand their own cultures and societies better and enable them to understand and appreciate other cultures.  Here lies the basis of meaningful communication across these great differences.

Related Blog Review of the book

See related reviews and articles on this site:
[review] Cultural Dynamics and Moral Responsibility in Ancient Canaan

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Posted on Amazon 9 January 2013
Develoepd 2 February 2012

Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2013 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Please give credit and link back.  Other rights reserved.

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