Category Archives: culture

Looking back to Sarajevo

On this trip I was on my own a lot and was able to explore beautiful Sarajevo on my own terms.

Here are a series of pix I took in a neighborhood up the hill from Old Town. They are of a kind of neighborhood mosque with many graves from 1992-1995 and the main mosque in the Old Town.




My assumption is that these died in the siege during the war when Serbs bombarded the city from the surrounding mountain tops.


Down the hill, I went to the main mosque, it’s minaret was visible down this alley…


And upon entering you are given the rules…


On Fridays this mosque is filled with Muslims…


Walking by the side I noted the extra prayer rugs stacked in the window…


Martin Luther said that Muslims (among many others including Jews and many “Christians”) worship the same God, but they worship him incorrectly. As I study Islam (for my Cross Cultural Studies program) and read from many sides of this discussion, it seems Luther makes a sound argument. The enemy of God wishes to keep people away from him and the best way is a way that looks right while being wrong. A one degree error send KAL 007 into Soviet airspace and hundreds died when the Soviets shot it down. Worshipping the right God the wrong way, through works, may look good, but is not His way.

We depend on grace alone, trusting in the final and complete work of Jesus: death, burial and resurrection. In Christ alone.

Allow not a desire for pluralism to water down the way and the truth.

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Where cultures meet: Sarajevo

In the old town of Sarajevo one finds endless little shops selling, primarily, Turkish coffee sets hammered out from brass that, presumably, comes from a seemingly endless supply of brass shells left over from the war. A testament to how many shells were fired at this city.

On the main walk to the old town from, what I call downtown, (it’s old too, but is more of what I call a downtown), kinda where the old town and downtown meet, is this…


This really is a place of cultures meeting.

This city is, according to a reliable source, over 90% Muslim, I counted 13 minarets visible from my window…


Which a friend told me includes this one, the main mosque…


I was here to visit my friends who serve among these people and his focus is the study of Islam toward helping Muslim friends come to a true understanding of Jesus.

With my doctoral studies in mind and what I had learned from our conversations and the books I’d read in preparation, I struck up a brief conversation with a young economist. I asked him who Jesus is. He replied that it depends of what you believe and that he wasn’t religious.

He may not have been, but I made one observation that is not scientific. When I first came to Sarajevo in ’07, there were not many women wearing head coverings. 8 years later, head coverings are common. My count, based on video survey was that as much as a third of women are now covered.

While waiting…


for my favorite Sarajevo food, burekški…


we observed that all the women working in the eatery were covered. This is a sign, I concluded, of increasing emphasis on the Islamic culture becoming more defined in this city where cultures meet.

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Last post from Sarajevo

In the early morning, a light snow falls as I wait for my ride to the bus.


I leave this fascinating city where east meets west.

Next stop Kula, Serbia

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Thoughts on Christmas

Today there will be last minute trips to the store, the final wrapping of gifts, greeting family and friends, lots of cooking, for some there will be Christmas Eve services.

I remember my one Christmas in Budapest. Days before, signs were posted in the public transit informing the public that at about 3 pm on Christmas Eve the transit system would shift to night busses only until the morning of the 26th. Things really shut down. Christmas Eve night Sweet Anna and I walked a half hour or so through the cold snowy quiet from our daughter’s home to where we were staying. A silent night it truly was.
Then the next morning we went back for Christmas.

Upon our arrival something was needed from a store. The only thing open was a 24 hour shop the size of a closet. After I made my purchase I walked across the street to the local parish which was in the middle of one of many Christmas masses. It was packed with all ages. I hope they understood the real story.

In Cambridge, England today that story will be told. the annual Lessons and Carols event will originate from King’s College Chapel at 10 U.S. Eastern time… Click here for more it is a helpful reminder to me each year of what the whole Christmas is: from the Fall to the promise and then Redemption.

Here are Scriptures I’ve been meditating on:

For God so loved the world…

For unto you is born this day in the city of David a savior who is Christ the Lord…

Therefore since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ…

How wonderful that the Prince of Peace has come to this world.

We live in a busy culture that rarely slows down.

Why not slow down today and consider the good news that the Incarnation happened so that you may live in a state of peace with God who sent His only begotten Son so that you and I can be His sons and daughters.

Merry Christmas!

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Follow up to UVa saga

The university president spoke to the Washington Post, here is their report.

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culture of sexual assault: what can leaders learn?

This is (I think) the final set of my thoughts on this saga. This story is now like a rain soaked flooded river that is carrying trees and all kinds of debris and descruttion. The problems with the magazine, the writer and the reported victim now are serving to distract from the bigger problems. These bigger problems are what need to be addressed by leaders whose work, actions and policy decisions have impact on the safety and well being of young people.

At the Board of Visitors meeting immediately after the story broke, both quick action and pause were called for. It would appear that the school president chose to develop an action plan. Granted, much of that action has been to have consultations, but in her address that I have posted on this blog (just scroll down) she outline some very practical and positive steps: more police partnership, more counselling resources, and a review of policies. From this keyboard, it looks like she is on the right track. She is addressing the symptoms of the problem as best she can. She can do little to address the disease. The disease is a culture that is falling apart before our very eyes.

Indeed, at so many levels, this saga is like a veritable kaleidoscope manifesting cultural flaws. The more this story gets turned, the more we see the flaws in our culture. It has shined an international spotlight on the way the university wrestles with all the aspects of rape (I would suggest that this is true at every American college at one level or another). It has cast a spotlight on the Greek culture, where out-of-control 18-22 year olds live virtually unsupervised and are usually looked upon with “tisk-tisk” or worse, “boys will be boys,” and “say nothing until my lawyer gets there.” It has cast a spotlight on poor journalistic practices at a national magazine (did none of us consider the source?). And now the competition is having a field day tearing the story up and the reported victim was ‘outed’ last night on Twitter and her life is coming into the spotlight.

I could go on, but won’t, because the real problem now, as this story unravels, is that leaders (now that their feet are out of the fire) will be distracted. There are systemic problems brought up in the story that need to be addressed. All deans at all colleges need to be asking “What are the ways that we are not serving our student body in this case?” But they can only treat the symptoms of a greater cultural disease.

I’ve said it before, college presidents and boards of visitors don’t change culture. Culture is changed one person at a time. And the only way to affect real change to cultures is done as God changes hearts. This is why Jesus came. This is why we followers of Jesus celebrate Christmas. He came. God with us. Emmanuel.

So the leaders of the university need to press on with needed reforms. But one reform I would suggest is that leaders of the university take a fresh look at the way they treat Christian ministries to the university. Rather than putting roadblocks in front of these ministries, who seek to bring the life changing good news of Jesus, the university could realize that these volunteers may be their greatest ally.  For this life changing good news of Jesus is the only real means to change hearts and therefore cultures.

Finally, I would suggest that the leaders of churches take a long hard look at the way they have abdicated their responsibility to take the gospel across town (admittedly a cross cultural endeavor) to the university. Yes, there need to be people specifically called to the university community. But I suggest that the senior pastors get together with the leaders of the university ministers and say “How can we partner with you? What can our churches do to help you as you bring the gospel to this community?”

Laws and policies don’t change hearts. Broken laws and policies just point to hearts that are in need of reform from the inside out. Jesus came, died, and rose again for said change in hearts. That is how culture is changed.

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thinking about culture as key to disciple making part 2

In the first post I stated that for one to serve Christ well in a culture other than her own, one should become a student of that culture. In this post we think about the question: What is Culture?

The best place to start is with definitions. According to “The Willowbank Report,” the word ‘culture’ “…means simply the patterned way in which people do things together.” To get a broader definition, we turn to scholar and co-founder of The Gospel Coalition, D. A. Carson, who, in his Christ and Culture Revisited, relied on the widely used definition of Princeton cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Geertz defined culture as

an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic form by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about life and attitudes towards life. (Carson, p.69)

Symbols were key in the work of Geertz and, as I consider the word ‘symbol,’ I realize my gesture with the tissue (in the previous post) was just that, a simple, living cultural symbol. One that communicated sensitivity because the unknown sniffler and I understood that it was unacceptable in Hungary to sniffle. Having previously observed strangers giving people tissues , I learned that this was generally viewed as an acceptable gesture. This may well have been used, on another occasion, as an open door for conversation.

I think Geertz’s definition also relies on the word ‘historically’ as a kind of fulcrum on which the leverage of culture depends. American author and social activist George Weigel described the importance of history as it is contained in “literature, music, and dance;” … “painting, sculpture, and architecture;” … as well as “theology and ethics and religious ritual;…” Thus history is the basis for the means by which culture is passed down and even changed via “relationships between men and women, young and old, parents and children, teachers and students, the powerful and the powerless.” Hense, according to Weigel, history is culture. At the very least I will agree that ‘history’ is essential to the transmission of culture. To clarify, history, in this context, is not just an academic subject or a book, it is the inter-generational transmission of culture, whether it be from my mentor to me, or from me to my grandson.


Weigel brings specificity to our discussion when cataloging “painting, sculpture, and architecture” and then “theology and ethics and religious ritual.” In the modern (postmodern? is that still a thing?) West, some argue against the value of religion, but Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, a leading thinker on the subject of culture and Christianity, disagrees: “In most human cultures, religion is not a separate activity set apart from the rest of life.” Indeed religion is central to culture.

It would be inappropriate to go further in our exploration of ‘culture’ without considering the work of Richard Niebuhr. He provided a cornerstone for the study of culture in the Christian context over half a century ago (even though many have contended that this cornerstone was not well laid). In the early pages of Christ and Culture we may glean a definition that is embedded in five pages of elaboration: “Culture is…” “…always social”… “…human achievement…” “…a world of values…” “…for the good of man…” and “…is concerned with the temporal and material realization of values.” Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary and missiologist, provides a helpful summation of Niebuhr’s position on culture as “…that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capacities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

Further, Tennent asserted that Niebuhr “inadvertently secularizes culture, creating an unbiblical dichotomy between human cultural activity and Christ.” His assertion is that “Niebuhr’s understanding of culture was constructed on the foundation of secular anthropology.” Tennent later stated that his own “…central concern is whether secular anthropology can really provide an adequate foundation for Christian anthropology to build upon…” Perhaps this is a fair critique of the philosophy behind Niebuhr’s work, but I assert that one should not throw the anthropological baby out with the secular bathwater. Let us not discard research simply because it is ‘secular.’ Tennent stated that “every culture is dynamic, adaptive, and changing.” Thus, while I consider his work extremely helpful, I will not discount Geertz or Niebuhr’s work on the basis of ‘secular’ anthropology. Looking now from definition to roots of the word, we continue with Tennant’s work.

Tennent’s etymological research is helpful: “the English word culture is derived from the Latin verb colere (to cultivate or instruct) and the noun cultus (cultivation or training)….” These Latin roots undergird the importance of the intergenerational passing on of culture. As culture passes from one generation to the next, the natural outcome is change. Some call this progress because it, ostensibly is development for the good of the people. Whether considered progress or not, culture is dynamic, not static.

Finally, I would submit a working definition: Culture is the dynamic collection of beliefs and norms that are passed down (history) and cultivated (development) regarding the language and actions (behavior) of a people. These characteristics distinguish one group from others. That said, how does this line of thinking help us in our mission within God’s Kingdom? That question will be foundational to the next posts in this series.

*This is part two of a series of posts that are the fruit of some work I am doing toward a doctorate in cross cultural ministry.

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