Understanding different categories of culture

Lesson Materials

In this session, David looks at differences in culture from a Western Perspective. Sharing stories from his own travels and others, David illustrates how culture is every part of our lives through how we dress, how we interact with others and more.


TEACHING ON CULTURE | Session 3  - Understanding different categories of Culture


1/ Introduction


    • There are different ways of categorising cultures – all, of course, are generalisations and there is a spectrum within any culture.


2/ Law/Guilt, Honour/Shame, Security/Anxiety Cultures


    • Society/cultures in terms of understanding “right and wrong”, or better, what is “acceptable or unacceptable” are often distinguished between those that are “guilt” based or “shame” based.  Our application of grace is usually to “guilt” in Western teaching.
    • There are probably three factors – Anxiety, Shame and Guilt.    
        • Anxiety often in animistic cultures, eg African.
        • Shame – fear of the disapproval of parents (or society at large) more important than the actual performance of a deed.  Loss of “face” to be feared.
    • Law/guilt can lead to concepts of “right/wrong” “my rights” and individualist approach to life and the gospel.
    • Anxiety, shame and guilt are all seen in the story of the fall of man in the garden – Gen 3:6-13.  Over 150 references in the Old Testament to shame and its derivative words eg Jer 3:24-25, Hos 4:6-7.  Jesus scorned the shame of the cross – Heb 12:2.  The cross was shameful, a curse – Gal 3:13.
    • Grace offers the support that allows trust to replace anxiety, acceptance to restore honour where we were shamed and forgiveness to resolve guilt. … This unconditional love called grace is a gift, gratuitous, unmerited, an acceptance that cannot be earned or achieved.  Whether ones theology views grace as ‘the appraisal of humans as worthful’ or ‘the bestowal of worth on humans’, the grace is unmerited and the worth unearned.  Whether ones theology has stressed the anxiety – punishment – release motif of grace, or the shame – alienation – reconciliation model, or the guilt – condemnation – forgiveness pattern, grace offers acceptance, inclusion, forgiveness as gift.” – David W Augsburger in ‘Pastoral Counselling Across Cultures”.
    • In the cross Jesus bore the guilt of our sins, the shame of the offence against God and one another and the power of Satan was broken this setting us free from all fear and anxiety  - Heb 2:15.  We need to preach grace in all these contexts – Jesus maintained the “family honour” – he honoured his father and enabled his promises to be fulfilledThe “Christus Victor” approach to the cross and the atonement.
    • This affects worship and the choice of songs in different cultural contexts and multicultural contexts.


3/ Hot Climate/Cold Climate


    • ‘Hot Climate – relationship is the main basis of everything, ‘cold’ climate – efficiency is the ruling value – Does it work?  
    • Priority of values – all cultures value relationship and achievement but with a different priority.
    • The definition of time as a “measurement” or an “event”.


4/ High Context and Low Context Cultures


    • High context cultures operate on the following assumptions:
      • The context of an event is as important as the event itself
      • The listener is responsible for understanding communication 
      • There is ‘no distinction between the idea and the person’
      • Experience is equal in value to fact
      • Life is viewed “holistically”
    • It is difficult for a high context person to view life in compartments.  There is no work life, home life, social life or spiritual life, but rather life.  
    • High context thinkers do not separate themselves into who-they-are and what-they-do categories. 
    • Low context cultures believe:
      • The content of the message is more important than the context
      • The speaker is responsible for the communication
      • They and others are defined by their recent achievements
      • Analytical thinking is preferred.


5/ Oral and Print Cultures


This would be better described as those who learn best by story and those who learn best by principles/concepts and writing things down.



    • Currently, at least 25%-33% of world’s people are illiterate.
    • Currently, at least 35%-45% of world population is functionally illiterate--cannot read and write with sufficient understanding to function as a literate, reading, writing, analyzing and conceptualizing person.  For many this is a matter of choice/upbringing/personality.  They can read and write competently but do not learn that way.
    • Global illiteracy and functional illiteracy is 61.7%.
    • Illiteracy does not equal unintelligence
    • 50% of USA’s population desire a non-literate approach to learning and decision making.
    • At least 70% of the world’s least reached people are oral communicators.



    • “Without writing, the literate mind would not and could not think as it does, not only when engaged in writing but normally even when it is composing its thoughts in oral form.”   --Walter Ong.
    • Reaction to sermons.


‘Oral communicators learn in a very different way than do literates.  A primary oral communicator only know what he or she can remember and reproduce from memory at a given moment of need.  Conversely a literate tends to feel he or she ‘knows’ whatever they have been exposed to and whatever is available to them in their notes, files, computers and materials regardless of whether or not the information can be recalled from memory’ Dr Jim Slack.  Literates ‘know’ it when they know where to look it up!  ‘Oral communicators find it difficult to understand and remember outlines, lists, steps, principles… most literates can’t remember them but literates can look them up’ Slack.  ‘Preachers can tell that many of these people have oral communication tendencies when those members tend to remember the preachers illustrations but not their sermon points.’ Slack.


Oral learners

    • Learn best through stories
    • Like to keep things intact (holistic)
    • Use intuitive reasoning
    • Store truth in remembered stories and proverbs


Print learners

    • Use lists (of points, principles, steps) 
    • Like to break things apart (analytical)
    • Use formal logical reasoning
    • Store truth in written, abstract principles


Preaching for oral learners

    • Preach from biblical stories frequently
    • Keep the narrative quality of the passage intact in the sermon
    • Sprinkle the sermon with proverbial sayings


Preparing Narrative Sermons

    • Respect the power of the biblical story.
    • Retain the suspense and drama of the biblical story.
    • Help listeners relive the story.
    • Resist the temptation to over-explain.
    • For secondary oral learners, explain cultural background to make the story have the same impact as upon original hearers.


6/ Biblical Considerations in Oral Cultures 


    • The Bible was intended for public reading.
    • The apostles letters would have been read out publicly to the and probably committed to memory .
    • The stories and teaching in the gospels were preserved to us by oral learners.


Other Biblical evidence


    • “Receiving and delivering” language suggests oral transmission (1Cor 11: 2, 23  15 :3-5).
    • Similarly – passing on of teaching in 2Tim 2:2 note “heard” “say” “entrust”.
    • Mark 4:1 – 34 – Taught in parables. 
    • “…it would be quite clearly wrong to see (Jesus) stories as mere illustrations of truths that could be articulated in purer, more abstract forms.  They were ways of breaking open the worldview of Jesus’ hearers, so that it could be remoulded into the worldview which he, Jesus, was commending.” N T Wright (The New Testament and the People of God p77). He says elsewhere “stories are, actually peculiarly good at modifying or subverting other stories and their worldviews.  Where head – on attack would certainly fail, the parable hides the wisdom of the serpent behind the innocence of the dove, gaining entrance and favour which can then be used to change assumptions which the hearer would otherwise keep hidden away for safety.” (ibid  p 40)


7/ How I teach in most public settings



    • 50%-90% of content – depending on situation.
    • Teach the original cultural context.
    • Give background story to e.g. teaching in Epistles both immediate and underlying Old Testament stories.




© David Devenish

Understanding different categories of culture - Teaching on Culture - Session 3 - Bournemouth - March 2015