Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church (Book Notes)

Many Colors: Cultural Intelligence for a Changing Church (Moody, 2010) by Soong-Chan Rah

Book Cover

In Many Colors, Soong-Chan Rah aims to equip local churches and their leaders to be better adapted to becoming multiethnic churches by developing cultural intelligence. Cultural intelligence and understanding how culture operates in a church community are foundational to any hopes and efforts at building a multicultural church. 

The book has three parts. Part I, Understanding Culture, lays the foundation for the rest of the book. It seeks a working definition of culture from a biblical worldview perspective. After drawing from different views of culture, including a biblical perspective, Rah arrives at this definition of culture:

So what is culture? It is a human attempt to understand the world around us. It is the programming that shapes who we are and who we are becoming. It is a social system that is shaped by the individual and that also has the capacity to shape the individual. But it is also the presence of God, the image of God, the mission of God found in the human spirit, soul, and social system. (p. 38)

That last sentence is important to Rah because he wants to emphasize, over against some popular misconceptions among Christians, that culture is positive, and God is already at work in ALL human cultures, through his image-bearers, even prior to the church being in those cultures. “The mission of God means that God’s work is evident through the specific revelation of Jesus Christ, but also through the general revelation of creation and culture. God’s wisdom in planning redemptive history leads us to an appreciation of the myriad of cultures in the world.” (pp. 31-32)

Rah does not believe that the church should abandon the world. Rather he believes that the church is called to positive engagement with the culture and to bring God’s shalom as significant acts of evangelistic witness to the world (see pp. 72-73).

In Part II, A Constructive Cultural Paradigm, Rah looks for ways to construct a working cultural paradigm. This involves developing a multicultural worldview, finding connections between cultures, as well as recognizing power dynamics at play. 

In order to expand one’s worldview, which tends to be limited to one cultural viewpoint, we need to engage and be exposed to other cultural worldviews. “Cultural intelligence requires creating an environment that allows for connection and understanding to occur. It is the willingness to seek understanding from a perspective beyond one’s limited worldview. By engaging in relationships across the cultural divide and learning from others, we create the possibility of expanding our cultural worldview.” (p. 85) 

A multicultural worldview, and cultural intelligence, recognizes that culture is complex and has external and internal parts. The external parts, that which we can observe, see, taste and hear, are like the tip of the iceberg exposed above the water surface. These, for example, are cultural food, fashion, literature, music, language, acknowledged beliefs and values. But there are internal parts of culture that are hidden beneath the water surface, like unconscious beliefs, cultural patterns, values, and myths that are implicitly learned and affect everything a person does and sees. (p. 87)

A multicultural worldview also recognizes that there is a spectrum of cultural expressions. Each church’s culture may emphasize different poles along this spectrum. For example (see pp 88-98):

  • Individual vs Group Orientation
  • Guilt vs Shame
  • Equality vs Hierarchy
  • Direct vs Indirect
  • Task Oriented vs Relationship Oriented

Other ways of broadly classifying the spectrum of cultural expressions are through Primary vs Secondary, Hot vs Cold, High Context vs Low Context cultures. Combining the insights of these various schemes, Rah develops the following spectrum of cultural categories (p. 106):

Primary/Hot/High ContextSecondary/Cold/Low Context
Pre-industrial, tribal cultureIndustrial culture
Oral communicationWritten communication
Personal, face-to-face communicationCommunication through machines
Relationship orientationTask orientation
Group identityIndividual identity
Everything mattersAnything goes, within reason

“Multiple consciousness [a multicultural worldview] requires a lifetime of learning and developing a cultural intelligence and sensitivity that allows an individual and a church to speak multiple cultural languages.” (p. 110)

An important part of cultural intelligence is recognizing power dynamics that are at play. “Moving into cross-cultural settings requires careful, wise, and humble consideration of how power should be used to honor [God’s] purposes.” (p. 120) “When a majority culture is dominant, it is that culture that determines how power is used and distributed.” (p. 120) Unfortunately, different cultures also have different perceptions of the power dynamic. Some cultures assume fairly egalitarian views on power, while others tend to assume hierarchy and unequal distribution of power. There are also issues of privilege and power to a dominant cultural group. When people from different cultural backgrounds engage each other, these different power dynamics can play a significant role in how they relate to each other. “It is the love of power that can be corrupting, not power in itself.” (p. 125)

Finally, Part III, Cultural Intelligence in Action, offers some practical ways of applying the theoretical lessons from Part II. First, the power of storytelling. “The power of story is the power to change how we view the world and our place in it.” (p. 128) 

Secondly, multicultural learning must be in the context of a multicultural community. “The process involves journeying together, sharing meals together, multisensory opportunities, and participatory learning.” (p. 148) 

Third, we need true, genuine hospitality, not the shallow versions of hospitality. Hospitality in the ancient biblical context is a high moral value, almost the pillar and foundation. In fact, it requires moving from “simple hospitality to becoming a household” (p. 176) where no one is a “guest” or an “other” or stranger. As a family, we make long-term accommodations for each other, we have each other contribute, we make room for each other and allow each other’s voices to be heard. We learn from each other. “A family does not merely tolerate differences, but it embraces them.” (p. 181) To move to this form of radical hospitality requires humility and openness to learn and try different things.

Finally, organizational change – to change towards a more multicultural church community – requires systems thinking. Cultures are not simple systems that operate on a straight line. They are complex systems with many loops and curves. The Western culture’s typical approach to problem solving involves linear thinking that works better with simple systems. But complex systems require different kinds of problem solving. Rah uses the helpful illustration of a toaster and a cat. Both are different systems that require different approaches to problem solving. You can’t “fix” your cat the same way you fix your toaster. (p. 191)

In addition to the various spectrum of cultural expressions and the whole discussion on systems thinking, another item I found helpful is the Cycle of Social Construction of Reality (p. 34-38). There is a three-step process that leads to the creation of a social system or cultural system. And this system is both shaped by individuals and also shapes individuals.

The first step is the process of externalization. Individuals gather together and each externalizes their individual values, views and experiences. This is where individuals are giving shape to culture or the social. The group identity or values are drawn from the contributions of individuals.

The second step is the process of objectification and institutionalization. When the individual values and contributions become a collective value system, it “becomes objectified and institutionalized as the system takes on a life of its own.” (p. 36) Institutions that embody these cultural values outlast the lives of individuals that shaped them.

The third step is the process of internalization. “Not only has the institution taken on a life of its own, it now has the capacity to affect and shape those who are within that system.” (p. 36) The system, via institutions, now shapes the individuals within that system. Individuals internalize the collective values and viewpoints. 

And this three-step process repeats itself in an unending cycle. For those within the social/cultural system, this is reality-as-we-know-it. This is our normal. We both shape and are shaped, in turn, by the social institutions and collective values we live in.

Therefore, to also employ the systems thinking concept, we cannot change our culture simply by a linear simple approach. We cannot change culture simply by changing individuals, one individual at a time, so to speak. Because we have to deal with the force or weight of institutions and cultural systems shaping those individuals, internalizing their values and worldviews on them. Neither can we just seek to change social policies and institutions without regard to individuals because individuals can shape institutions. We need, at the very least, a both-and approach to social change.

This is a good book with a lot packed in. I appreciate the book a lot. One critique I may have is that the biblical exegesis parts are rather thin. Although I don’t disagree with his conclusions about the biblical passages, his explanations of how he got those conclusions seems to take a few quick leaps. Those who have differing views probably won’t find them persuasive. 

That leads to another critique; for a book aimed at churches and Christians, there isn’t enough discussion on how cultural assumptions influence how we read and interpret Scripture. Western readings of Scripture can differ from non-Western readings, deriving different lessons, and even, different truths. At the very least, a difference in emphasis.

I also have a more nuanced view of power than Rah’s treatment of power. Yes, I agree that power itself is not evil but rather the love of power is. But I think that can be nuanced further. I think there can be a spectrum of exercise of power. On one pole is power-over that is coercive, manipulative, controlling over others – treating others as objects under one’s control and domination. On the other end of the spectrum is power-with – sharing of power, giving power, empowering of others, treating others as subjects in their own right with their own self-determination and self-control. Our various uses of power can lean towards either end of this power spectrum. And I think, from my biblical viewpoint, power-with aligns closer to an exercise of power that is rooted in agape love (unconditional love), and closer to how God actually loves humanity. 

Therefore, I think that might have improved his whole chapter on power dynamics. It is not only that some have more power than others and there are different perceptions and understanding of power. There are also different expressions and forms of power. And some forms (power-over) are more inherently dangerous than others (power-with). 

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