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Fall 2001 · Vol. 30 No. 2 · pp. 224–27 

Book Review

The Bible in Cross-Cultural Perspective

Jacob A. Loewen. Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2000. 334 pages.

Reviewed by Willard M. Swartley

This book is Loewen’s magnum opus, drawing on and synthesizing his contributions of a lifetime. Jacob A. Loewen, with his wife Anne, have had vast multicultural experience, beginning with a ten-year Mennonite Brethren missionary assignment in South America in 1947. For two years of this period, 1953-1955, Jacob studied anthropology at the University of Washington. After 1957 he finished his Ph.D. at Washington University and then served as professor of anthropology and modern languages at Tabor College. In 1964 he began working with the American Bible Society in South America. This work as Bible translation consultant has taken him to many countries worldwide, especially in Africa. Since his retirement and later stroke-paralysis in 1993, he continues research and writing with the help of an assistant.

William A. Smalley, now deceased, writes the foreword and points out that Loewen’s prolific writing and submission of numerous articles in the 1960s enriched the journal Practical Anthropology (now Missiology), which Smalley edited. Smalley’s comment about Loewen’s method of work, as well as Loewen’s comments about himself, and his writing show a man who relentlessly probes for answers to hard questions, sometimes stubbornly so. Hence the book’s five main sections: The Bible in Cross-Cultural Perspective; The Universe: Physical and {225} Metaphysical; God and the Sacred; The Significance of Names [especially for God]; and Some Implications of Cross-Cultural Perspective. Reflecting areas of special emphases in the twenty chapters of the book, two of the three appendices are information specific: numerous citations from the O.T. Pseudepigrapha and God’s Names in European Translations. Eleven tables enhance the pedagogical payoff of the book. A wide-ranging bibliography and two indexes, Ancient References and Subjects, complete the book. A good picture of Jacob and Anne together with a brief biography add to the touch of the book, especially in chapters 1 and 20: Loewen’s self-reflection on his life and work.

The book is indeed a cornucopia of information on cultural anthropology, drawn from tribal understandings of cosmos, Creator-God, and cultural customs that sustain the fabric of varied societies, which Loewen learned through his Bible translation work. On the one hand, the book is a Guinness book of cultural facts; on the other hand, it discloses the inner essence of what culture mythically veils. Further, culture is always plural, for cultures understand cosmological origins, worldviews, the sacred, mores, and customs in vastly different ways.

Loewen puts this vast diversity in dialogue with the Bible and then exposits Scripture in insightful and often disturbing perspective. For example, though trained as a biblical theologian, I have never before perceived the O.T. names for God, especially Elohim and Yahweh, in their variation and extensive usage as essentially two types of names: generic-class-universal (Elohim, shared with the world beyond Israel) and tribal-special-family-personal (Yahweh, though granted Yahweh takes on universal claims in later O.T. writings, as Loewen indicates). His treatment of this phenomenon seems to depend on source analysis only secondarily—a point of prime place for biblical scholars. Rather, of primary significance for Yahweh is the notion of a local god and family-clan protector, which later is universalized.

While Loewen’s recurring emphasis is to resist making “God too small,” yet this analysis had for me the effect of making Yahweh much smaller than I had ever conceived. Typical of my response to Loewen’s numerous provocative insights, I ask: but is this really the whole story? Further, to what extent do the comparative cultural insights on cosmology, deity, morality, etc., reveal more clearly what the Bible means to disclose to us, or to what extent does this welter of comparative data blunt the particular intent and power-value of the Scripture?

This question comes to a head for me in his discussion in several chapters (5-6, 11-12, 19) of the spirit-world, exorcism, and demon possession. He makes a yeoman’s contribution in comparing the African, {226} biblical, Western materialist, and Western Christian assumptions in their respective worldviews (see tables on pp. 135-44). The African and biblical worldviews are often similar, but the materialist Western rejects nearly all the fundamental assumptions held by the other two. Loewen contends that Western Christians, especially Evangelicals, are schizophrenic on these matters. They are modern in their worldview but they also want to believe the Bible. So they are torn, and their schizoid-problem becomes evident in their missionary work. Loewen recounts several stories where dramatic healings (59-60) and exorcisms were effectual when either he as a doubting Westerner was absent, or the Presbyterian Church had to refer a woman’s request to be dewitched to the African Independent Church (220-22).

Loewen’s own solution to this worldview quagmire is to seek to expand the Western worldview to include elements of spirit-reality as part and parcel of science, but simply not yet understood. He takes the lead of Scott Peck here in saying that ninety-five percent of exorcisms can be explained by psychiatry, but five percent cannot. While Peck allows thus for the need of the “supernatural” in some cases, Loewen holds that these also may yield to naturalistic explanation as science advances. He appeals to scientific inklings about the power of the psychic, the body producing antibodies against evil powers, destructive DNA, and “quarks” in physics.

It seems to me that this is Loewen’s sellout to the very problem he laments, Western Christianity’s view of God as “God of the gaps.” It appears that Loewen’s persistence to answer this question of mystery as a Westerner leads him to choose between worldview schizophrenia and “God of the gaps.” He chooses against the former by closing out all gaps theoretically, for ultimately science will explain everything.

What I miss here, distressingly so, is a model—much needed in my judgment—that incorporates the discoveries of science with the God of mystery and the spirit-world and consistently transcends the empirical and naturalistic. John White, psychiatrist to whom Loewen refers in discussing John Wimber, may point in this direction. But if so, then all the psychiatric work that he does must participate not only in science, but also in the mystery of religious belief and claim. Perhaps Loewen needs a fifth column on his tables cited above, one labeled Christian Postmodern!

This book evokes dozens of questions for debate long into the night. These are just a few: does the evolutionary “growth of knowledge of God”—used throughout the book—serve adequately an understanding of Israel’s spirituality and faith? How does Loewen’s good exposition on {227} holiness connect to Alan Kreider’s view of holiness in his equally good Journey Toward Holiness? Did the Hebrews really believe that the female sex was inferior to the male (183)? Does Loewen’s appeal to Wink (78) really make his point, that Wink’s emphasis on the inner and outer essence of the powers—mostly structural—bridges between the “African-Biblical” and modern Western worldviews? Also, a few infelicities: the note numbers belong with the “Biblical” column on pp. 135ff. What specific work is cited in the Temporini/Haase (not Hasse) voluminous production, Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt?

Finally, for the book’s title to serve its contents, “Cultural Anthropology” belongs there also, for the book consists of insights that go beyond many “cross-cultural” analyses.

Willard M. Swartley
Professor of New Testament
Associated Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Indiana

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