In a couple of months I will travel with my doctoral cohort to Kenya and Ethiopia. I’ve been to North Africa before, but never sub-Saharan Africa. I’m excited for the experience. I’m also trying to prepare for the difference in cultures. I fancy myself a fairly culturally aware person. I understand to a large degree how my worldview is shaped by the culture in which I have been formed. The direction my doctoral work is taking me has me exploring how a particular facet of my culture, namely consumerism, forms families and shapes their commitments. I will argue that the formative nature of consumerism, while unseen by most, have a greater effect in shaping “Christian” families than their professed faith does. This leads to conflict between what a family says it values and the commitments they actually make. But I digress. Back to Africa.
In advance of my visit to North Africa several years ago, I read up on the culture of the largely Islamic country I was visiting so that I could come prepared with tools to help bridge the cultural divide. I learned some basic Arabic greetings, read up on marketplace etiquette, and was good to go. Only spending a couple weeks there, that was all I really needed to make my trip more comfortable for me and my host. For most one-off short trips like that, a little preparation will suffice. But what about recurring trips to the same foreign context? What about developing relationships with communities abroad? That requires more heavy lifting. The longer and deeper the relationship, the more evident the cultural gap and the more fertile the soil for miscommunication and offense.Enter David Maranz’s African Friends and Money Matters. Maranz is an anthropologist who has spent years living and working in sub-Saharan Africa. His book comes after seeing the same frustrations over and over again by Westerners experience when they live and work in Africa. Many of these frustrations have to do with the management of money and resources, both short and long term. Maranz decided to write a book and spell out the differences in the economic and social systems of the West and Africa with an eye toward unveiling the cultural inner workings which lead to much of the frustration. The subject matter of the book is largely microeconomics, or personal and family financial affairs (p. 2). Maranz points out that there are big differences in the goals of Western and African economic systems. The latter focuses on meeting the minimum needs of the community, which sometimes means just looking after the survival of the community (4), whereas the former is focused on the private accumulation of capital and wealth (5). Both systems work to meet their aims in quite efficient manners. The confusion, and resultant frustration, often comes when one group superimposes the goals of their native economic system (often unknowingly) upon the people of a different culture with a different economic system. Maranz spends the bulk of his book detailing 90 observations in six different categories that highlight real-world differences between Westerners and sub-Saharan Africans. This is the real meat of the book. The categories, Use of Resources, Friendship, The Role of Solidarity, Society and People of Means, Loans and Debts, and Business Matters, touch on nearly every type of interpersonal relationship. In this way, Maranz offers a road map, or sorts, to navigating relationships. This book will prove to be quite useful in my travel to Africa later this year. While Maranz has received criticism that some of his observations do not take into account the myriad of nuanced cultural differences from region to region, I find that as a cohesive work, he has made a great contribution toward preparing the groundwork for right, harmonious relationships (that is, shalom relationships) between people cultured from the West and those cultured in Africa. Bryan Myers’ Walking with the Poor spends time on the need for these kind of relationships when it comes to Christian transformational development work with African communities. I’ve written about Myers’ work elsewhere. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but think how helpful a book like this might be in charting the differences between modern and post-modern (or, probably more aptly “most-modern,” to use a phrase from Chuck Conniry’s Soaring in the Spirit) Christian ecclesiological concerns. The two are often at loggerheads, missing each other altogether in their critiques and accusations. Perhaps the most recent example is the debacle that was incited by Rob Bell’s Love Wins. What could be an incredible helpful contribution to the conversation is a road map written by someone who understands both the genuine concerns of the modern institutional church and those of the emerging church. Something that would explain each to the other by highlighting the basic differences in the aims of the two, similar to how Maranz spent the early chapters of his book looking at the basic differences in the goals of the two economic systems. Again, it’s not that one worked and the other didn’t. They both work for what they are trying to achieve. It is only when you superimpose the goal of one onto the workings of the other that things really get gummed up. So, who will write this work? Does it already exist? If it doesn’t, I nominate Chris Marshall or Jason Clark. Both of these fellows are incredibly conversant in both modern and emerging church systems. They both have a deep love for the church. They both have managed to cultivate and maintain deep, meaningful relationships with people in both camps. They are humble and generous in spirit. I am pleased to count them among my friends and colleagues. But what do you think? Would such a book be helpful? Would it be read and received? Are we too far past the point where such cooperation is possible?