October 1976 · Vol. 5 No. 4 · pp. 30–31 

Book Review

Culture and Human Values: Christian Intervention in Anthropological Perspective

Jacob A. Loewen. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1975. 443 pages.

Reviewed by James N. Pankratz

For those who were regular readers of Practical Anthropology (now Missiology), this collection of Jacob Loewen’s articles from that journal will provide a welcome opportunity to become reacquainted with the writings of one of the major contributors to that journal. For those who did not read the articles when they were originally published, their publication in book form will introduce them to the experiences, reflections, and analysis of an anthropologist and missionary who writes about missionary work with great insight.

Loewen, Russian-born but raised in Canada, took his professional training at the University of Washington. He has been a missionary with the Mennonite Brethren in Colombia and Panama and has taught at Tabor College, Hillsboro, Kansas. He is currently a translation consultant with United Bible Societies.

Although Loewen’s articles are reprinted here in exactly the form in which they were originally published, the book is not merely a serial reprint of the articles. The articles are arranged topically rather than chronologically, and this draws attention to several of the central themes which recur in Loewen’s work.

One theme is the importance of careful observation and listening in new situations. Loewen recounts numerous situations in which the Gospel was not properly understood because those who proclaimed it had not been careful enough to be sure that they were “scratching where it itches.” Their preaching fit the culture from which they had come, not the culture they had come into. Loewen also describes how the Gospel transformed situations into which it was brought by missionaries who first listened and then proclaimed. {31}

Another central theme is reciprocity in identification. Missionaries who enter a new culture are always faced with the need to decide to what extent they should “go native”. On the basis of his own experience and the experiences of other missionaries, Loewen suggests that the issue is not primarily the size of one’s house and the extent of one’s wardrobe; rather, the issue is the willingness to share what one has and to accept, in return, the generosity and hospitality of those with whom one lives. If a missionary welcomes people into his home and accepts their invitations to visit in their homes, the size and design of his home is unlikely to be a barrier to friendship and communication. If, however, a missionary lives in a very modest home in which other people are unwelcome, and if he is reluctant to accept their hospitality in their homes, there is little chance that the missionary will develop a relationship of trust with those to whom he is preaching.

One important implication of this emphasis on reciprocity is Loewen’s discussion of the humanity and fallibility of missionaries. He suggests that missionaries often create barriers by acting as though they have none of the weaknesses and sins against which they preach. To maintain this illusion they protect themselves from close relationships with those around them. Loewen provides ample evidence to prove that this veneer of pious infallibility is nearly always “seen through” by the missionaries’ acquaintances. He also shows how liberating it is for missionaries to admit their weaknesses and to accept the counsel of their new brothers and sisters in Christ. Self-exposure does not imperil the Gospel; it frees others to admit their weaknesses, knowing that God will strengthen and other Christians will uphold them.

Many of Loewen’s articles describe the changes which are occurring in societies, often because of the presence of missionaries. There are provocative suggestions for the role of the missionary and the church in the resocialization of social groups which have suffered considerable disintegration because of changes introduced by contacts with other cultures.

Essentially this is a reflective, even an introspective, book. Loewen is a missionary who is searching for better ways to proclaim the Gospel, for more honest ways to live the Gospel, and for more openness to be an agent for the healing of the Gospel. This is not simply a book of anecdotes, nor is it a book of theory. It is a warm and fascinating account of how missionaries have tried to proclaim the Good News so that it will “scratch where it itches.”

Dr. James N. Pankratz
Assistant Professor of Religion
Mennonite Brethren Bible College and College of Arts
Winnipeg, Manitoba