Post last updated on December 3, 2021
Image credit: Wikimedia Commons
This post recalls a series of events which took place in Kathmandu, Nepal in 2019 and is written from that perspective, much of it having been reworked from a letter I wrote at that time.
Just a few days ago, I visited a barber to have my hair cut. Even before he took his scissors in hand, the barber placed his phone on the counter in front of us, adjusting its angle so that he could easily see and hear the music videos already playing. Of course, this means that I was also made to see too much of what the barber wanted to see. I have never had any interest whatsoever in Indian pop music; and so, this was hardly the attraction that it might otherwise have been; nevertheless, it was soon obvious that this particular song and video were unquestionably wicked.
After another few minutes, the barber asked whether I liked Bhojpuri1Bhojpuri refers to a people and language, mainly found in the Indian state of Bihar; but many Nepalese, especially on the Nepal-Indian border are ethnically Bhojpuri. music. I thought about all that was now playing on the phone, but also what the barber expected to hear from me. His question was friendly and uncomplicated, taking little real account of what then played on his phone; the barber was likely more interested in what I thought of his people and culture—a question that deserved a considerate and respectful answer, attentive to more than the vulgar superficialities now playing onscreen. Pop music had, once again, become an unfortunate moniker for culture.
Still, the barber’s question was such that one could hardly avoid the substance of the in-house concert, which meant that my answer must also deal with the same. I knew, however, that my answer would be heard differently heard than it was said, which reminds us that conversations often collapse under the weight of their misapprehensions. It wasn’t all that I wanted to say, but I certainly couldn’t avoid the obvious: I did not generally like Bhojpuri music. I smiled when I answered the barber, but that would have made little difference to what the barber likely understood.
This scene may well seem insignificant to some readers—like thousands of others that pace the space between tastes and choices; but it illustrates a difficulty of any conversation, especially one dedicated to conveying truth in another culture. Otherwise clear points won’t be heard for all of the unspoken assumptions bound to them. I do not really refer to misunderstandings but misapprehensions—what is not caught in deeper recesses than the mind.
When I answered the barber that I did not like Bhojpuri music, this is actually true on several levels, and simple enough if one were content to trade in preferences. That said, the barber might have eheard my “no” in still a different way than I intended it, as a denunciation of all Bhojpuri music and, perhaps then, all things Bhojpuri. That, certainly, was not my intention, but it may have very well been my answer’s effect. It is likely that I inadvertently shamed the barber’s people, even while trying to demonstrate my own correct awareness of a single song’s unrighteousness—accompanied as it were with a rather weak implication that he should be aware of the same thing.
The conversation went on. I let a minute pass, and then explained to the barber that the song was lustful, and that this was a large reason for my objection to it. (This is the best translation I can give here, but licentious better reflects what I would have said, had I known its equivalent). Did he, I then asked, not feel any guilt when he watched the video? The barber’s answer revealed that he did not understand my question, itself an almost incomprehensible reply, given the video. But it is not that the barber was incapable of understanding my words, nor was he insensitive to moral evil; but rather, it is more likely that he had never thought of such a question in the personal terms that I asked it.2I am not by this one explanation denying an important other: the blindness that accompanies the affections and apprehensions of unregenerate men. That is, indeed, a large explanation of circumstances. See for instance, Ephesians 4:18. That said, the point attempted here is that these conversations often fail because Western Christians do not actually consider how their Eastern neighbors hear. It is also probable that my initial and incidental denunciation (in his mind) of all things Bhojpuri seemed far more striking than my inquiry of the barber’s personal sense of guilt. I was foremost concerned with the question of righteousness, but the barber was more likely considerate of the shame of his people. And yet, these are not unrelated.
* * *
Both guilt and shame are consequences of the Fall, but many people in a Western tradition consider them in a different order and degree than those in the East—like a different reflex against the habits of a different cultural and religious history. Westerners are then sometimes surprised when appeals to guilt do not as frequently find resonance in the Hindu world. Too often, this response is met with other tendencies: to rely on superficial presentations of the gospel, or to stop preaching it at all. But, in fact, none of us think very much like God, who comprehends and discloses both guilt and shame as fellow companions of sin. After all, when Adam and Eve first sinned by eating of the forbidden tree, the blood of animals provided for the forgiveness of Adam and Eve, but the skins of the same animals also covered the couple’s shame, newly demonstrated in their nakedness.3See Genesis 3:7-8, 21. Importantly, Adam and Eve’s attempt to hide from God’s approach in the garden after they ate of the forbidden tree, also relates their apparent fear. And, of course, it is guilt, shame, and fear that missiologists and anthropologists often highlight as different expressions of what is means to be a sinner, displayed in degrees in different cultures. These three expressions can be overly considered, but more often than not they are too rarely considered as reasons for the different ways in which people respond to the different emphases of the one gospel message.
It had been better if I had first asked the barber, “Do Bhojpuri [people] think that it is right that someone corrupt Bhojpuri music with the behavior that we see in the video? Does this not shame you and your people?” I could have in this way better related sin to him as something that is an offense, and not only a transgression—something that excited shame and not just guilt. After all, whenever people are on the receiving end of a transgression, they frequently recognize sins that they otherwise suppress. What they hide as offenders they shout as the offended. They even feel offended. Their integrity is suddenly injured, and they sound the same to all. It is proper to recognize such as a proud and hypocritical reaction in men, but we must also admit that it is an inevitable one—an echo that we all actually expect and long for at least a kind of righteous world, even when we wickedly try and place ourselves as its center. This sort of reaction is common, for God created man in his image (Genesis 1:26-27). And it also means that even when a man denies guilt, he will inevitably guard his reputation—a purposed effort against shame.
This brings me to a second incident, which happened only the week before my visit to the barber. After a month of delays, government officers finally visited our company’s office in Kathmandu. Our visas were very soon expiring, and the officer’s visit was the last part of a long and frustrating renewal process. The inspection seemed to go well enough until all of us—the two officers, my attorney, and me—sat again in the taxi to begin the return ride. At that point, one of the officers began one of the most astounding verbal lashings that I have received in some time. I sat in the front seat of the vehicle and looked ahead as the officer laughed aloud and mocked my effort to setup the company office as was required. I did not know whether to laugh at the officer’s audacity or to cry for what this now seemed to say about our chances of us obtaining our visas.
Moments later, the same officer then announced that he would give us but fifteen-day visas, though we hoped and rightly expected to be given one-year extensions. This whole scene seemed preposterous, unless you also understand that it was meant to publicly shame me. (The same officer had been polite when we were in private conversation.) That said, I felt no shame at all, despite the public abuse. I knew that we had done our very best, given the resources and time to make everything ready for the required inspection. More importantly, I was confident that we were meeting every demand of Nepalese law. In other words, I was convinced of our legal integrity; but to the point, the officer had decided to shame me: our small and simple office was not outwardly impressive enough to excite superficial notions of honor, despite is real functionality.
A third and final incident may be helpful. One afternoon I was running on the north edge of the Kathmandu Valley. It is a particularly religious area, not only because of its many high-caste inhabitants, but also because an old, well-known Hindu temple is the center of life there. Just as I neared the top of the hill, I saw a Hare Krishna handing out literature to people on the roadside. I sort of muttered to myself, wondering why this Hare Krishna could hand out literature when we were forbidden to do so. After all, he was also a foreigner, all of which were then restricted from such activity. I ran a few more feet before, seeing the police station just ahead of me. I decided to stop there. I would approach the police about this.
I told the guard at the gate why I had come, and was then nervously directed to the chief officer on duty. I entered the compound and then respectfully approached him and his attending officers, wielding a respectful Namaste—two hands clasped together in the ways that Hindus often greet one another. I talked and joked with them a bit before explaining how I had just seen the Hare Krishna passing out literature on the street. I then made sure to tell the officer that I welcomed the Hare Krishna’s opportunity to do just that, but I also wondered if I could pass out literature as well, as long as I did not force anyone to take what I offered. By asking the officer what I did in the way and place that I did so, I honored his position before all of his companions. I gave honor to whom honor was due (Romans 13:7), without regard to other questions of my rights and justice. The officer was a little surprised, but then gave me permission to pass out literature publicly, just as the Hare Krishna was doing in the same area. I did not shame the officer, but I honored him. He then, rather surprisingly, conferred to me a right.
Sin is quite the same everywhere, but it is often recognized differently in places and between peoples. At the risk of generalization, we might say that, in the West, guilt, innocence, and individualism sometimes serve as a contrast to the ways that shame and honor are tied to communities in the East.4There is a large and growing body of literature that traces this tendency. It would be easy to overemphasize the differences between the cultures, but it is far easier to not understand the differences at all, even in our proclamation of the gospel. Obviously, neither guilt nor shame are enemies of the truth, since they both recall man’s rebellion against it. The point here is that shame hears the gospel when pride seeks to evade guilt. And as westerners abandon the scripture to contrive innocence, they must surely visit shame again.
Notes & References
|Bhojpuri refers to a people and language, mainly found in the Indian state of Bihar; but many Nepalese, especially on the Nepal-Indian border are ethnically Bhojpuri.
|I am not by this one explanation denying an important other: the blindness that accompanies the affections and apprehensions of unregenerate men. That is, indeed, a large explanation of circumstances. See for instance, Ephesians 4:18. That said, the point attempted here is that these conversations often fail because Western Christians do not actually consider how their Eastern neighbors hear.
|See Genesis 3:7-8, 21. Importantly, Adam and Eve’s attempt to hide from God’s approach in the garden after they ate of the forbidden tree, also relates their apparent fear. And, of course, it is guilt, shame, and fear that missiologists and anthropologists often highlight as different expressions of what is means to be a sinner, displayed in degrees in different cultures. These three expressions can be overly considered, but more often than not they are too rarely considered as reasons for the different ways in which people respond to the different emphases of the one gospel message.
|There is a large and growing body of literature that traces this tendency. It would be easy to overemphasize the differences between the cultures, but it is far easier to not understand the differences at all, even in our proclamation of the gospel.