Friday, 20 November 2009

anthropology according to the gods

Have you seen the movie, the Gods Must be Crazy? You might remember at the beginning there is a documentary-style introduction to the lives and behaviour of the Kalahari bush-men. You might then also remember that they lived together in perfect harmony, sharing all their possesions, without complaint or argument; even their children played together without fighting or bickering. Truly wonderful.

Until of course, western civilisation dropped from the sky (in the form of a coca-cola bottle) and corrupted everything.

This is typical of the anthropology I grew up with. I don't know where it comes from or how it got to me. It's what was imbibed through television, books and school. It's the anthropology that suggests not just that all cultures are equally good, but that the more primitive the culture is, the less influenced by western civilisation it is, then the better it is and the more morally superior it must be.

I don't know anything about the culture of the Kalahari bush-people except what I saw in the Gods Must be Crazy and an extremely different picture gleaned from the Number One Ladies Dectective Agency books (neither a very credible source!) in which a young girl rescues her baby brother from being buried alive on the death of his mother.

This is what I do know about the Kalahari Bush-People.

They are sinful.

Western Civilisation, as evil as it can be, does not make people or cultures sinful. They do that on their own.

It's not just the Kalahari. It's man-Santo, in the middle of this pacific island, still never to have seen a white-man. It's the Nepali on the slopes of the Himalayes. It's Indians in the Amazon.

Nor do I mean that their music is not beautiful; their craftmanship not skillful and their dance not incredible. Nor that there is not much that we can learn from them. There is.

However, I do mean this. All cultures are equal in this regard: they are full of people who,  though all equally made in the image of God, are all equally sinful. Any anthropology that leads you to believe that "untainted by western civilisation" is the same as being innocent or pure is naive, mistaken and ultimately, evil.

After I wrote this I found this interesting article which explains a few things. Unfortunately the link "anything but innocent" doesn't seem to work.


Mike said...

interesting. I've found that because of the terrible treatment of other, more 'primitive' cultures in the past that the pendulum has swung the opposite direction, such that much teaching about culture highlights how bad our own culture is and how good the others are. All in an attempt to say that all cultures are equal and no one culture is superior, or closer to God.

Also, I think there was some philosophical movement that argued that people in any culture were inherently good, and it was just systems, or institutions that made them evil. The noble savage might have been part of the philosophy.

My question of that article are why do we always want these untouched peoples to remain untouched. Often I think its because we think its romantic and we like it - almost like a museum exhibit. Which ultimately is self seeking.

Also, there are some awful parts of our society, and in the next few years I think we'll see the damages that technology can ravage upon us. But progress has brought so many good things, and why wouldn't we want to share those good things with these groups of people. Things like health, nutrition, variety of foods, the convenience and liberty of time brought about by things like washing machines and plumbing. Why we we hold back giving these good things. And who in our society would seriously consider living like one of these people groups. And if they are not willing then maybe there is something 'better' in the way they perceive our own life styles.

Finally, and this is a serious question I've been thinking about a lot: if our own culture has seriously shaped by christian values, such that we hold dear the value of every individual, justice, faithfulness and peace, can we continue to say that all cultures are equal, and some are not superior to others? that is not to say that our society is either christian or perfect, but I also don't think we can dismiss the effects that the gospel has had and say that they are meaningless. What do you think?

I also love remembering that story you told me about the ni-van tour guide talking to the group of tourists about missionaries in vanuatu.

Mike said...

also, see this:

particularly the last little list about what would you prefer!

I don't really need to point this out, but notice how one culture is presented idyllically and the other at its absolute worst. But what 'primitive' culture can claim all those beautiful things to be an every day reality?

Admittedly, they do represent a little too fairly the plight of many of these groups, who are absorbed into greater society and then exploited and left in a sorry state. You just have to look at the indigenous people of aust. to see the sad and sorry truth of that. However, that in itself is not an argument against incorporation and contact.