Nida, Eugene A. Customs and Cultures: Anthropology for Christian Missions. New York: Harper & Row, 1954. 306 pages.
Original Context and Author Bio
Despite the widespread impact of this book, when people remember Eugene Nida today, they rarely think of him as a cultural anthropologist. He was an ordained Baptist minister, a renowned linguist, one of the primary agents behind the publication of the United Bible Society’s Greek New Testament, and arguably the most influential person in the world of Bible translation in the twentieth century. As the father of the dynamic equivalence theory of translation, Nida brought about a paradigm shift in how we think about the task of Bible translation.
Nida was born on November 11, 1914, four months after the beginning of World War I, a conflict that officially ended on his fourth birthday. As a child, he made a commitment to Christian missions and thereafter became a dedicated student and natural scholar, graduating summa cum laude from UCLA with a BA in Classics. Thirsty for more, he completed a Masters in New Testament Greek at the University of Southern California in 1939 and a PhD in Linguistics at the University of Michigan in 1943. That same year he was ordained, married Althea Lucille Sprague, and joined the American Bible Society.
During his time at UCLA, he joined a Bible club where he learned of the work of Cameron Townsend, who had founded the Summer Institute of Linguistics in 1934. After graduating in 1936, Nida began taking summer courses through SIL and the following year used his then rudimentary training in linguistics to teach courses in morphology and syntax. This became a regular summer activity for sixteen years.
Nida began his work with the American Bible Society as the Associate Secretary for Versions and worked in that capacity for two years. He was then promoted to Executive Secretary for Translations, a position in which he remained until his retirement in 1984. His accomplishments were considerable. In 1946, he was the American Bible Society’s delegate to the initial conference of the United Bible Societies. In 1949, he founded the journal The Bible Translator and then served as the editor for the next ten years and on the editorial board for another decade after that. In the early 1950s, he began recruiting young scholars to act as translation consultants for Bible translation projects around the globe. His book Customs and Cultures: Anthropology for Christian Missions came about partly because he saw the need for greater cultural awareness among his recruits. In 1953, he helped launch another journal, Practical Anthropology, which merged with the journal Missiology in 1973. In 1964, he published Toward a Science of Translation in which he first proposed his theory of dynamic equivalence. Later he worked with Charles R. Taber to further develop this theory in The Theory and Practice of Translation, a text that became the standard primer for anyone pursuing a career in Bible translation. Having already persuaded the United Bible Societies to publish the Greek New Testament as a foundational text for Bible translators, he went on to work with Johannes P. Louw and Rondal B. Smith to create a Greek-English lexicon based on semantic domains. This only scratches the surface of his numerous publications and enormous influence in the world of missions and Bible translation over a forty-year career. His friends described him as a man obsessively driven by his call to mission. His incredible intellect, ecumenical spirit, and indefatigable resolve created an impact whose reverberations will continue to be felt for decades.
Nida’s wife, Althea, died in 1993, shortly before their fiftieth wedding anniversary. In 1997, he married Dr. María Elena Fernández-Miranda, another brilliant linguist and translator. He died at the age of ninety-six on August 25, 2011.
While a book on cultural anthropology may seem to have been peripheral to Nida’s focus on Bible translation, it was really his own budding theory of translation combined with his deep understanding of the nature of language that led him not only to write a book on cultural anthropology but also to establish the journal Practical Anthropology around the same time. Nida was convinced that all translation had to be receptor-based. If a translation did not seem clear and natural to the listener, then the listener would either misunderstand it or rapidly stop trying. Language is an expression of culture. One cannot simply take an English word like “bed,” locate its exact equivalent in a target language, and move on to the next word. He realized that exact equivalents between languages were rare, if they existed at all. Word meanings are tied to how their referents function within a culture. Does this “bed” have legs? Is it made of wood, stone, fabric, or some other material? What components of meaning differentiate a “bed” from any other kind of platform? Do people sleep on it, eat off of it, sit on it, offer sacrifices on it, or use it for other purposes? Who can use this bed? Does it elicit positive or negative feelings? Are there taboos associated with it? The goal of translation is to create a mental and emotional impact on the target recipients similar to what was experienced by the initial recipients in the original language. Clearly, this is impossible to achieve if the translator is ignorant of the culture for which he or she is translating. Nida realized that people, by default, understand the meaning of events and objects in the way they think of them in their own context and irrationally assume that everyone else agrees. It takes extra effort and awareness to ask what these things mean in someone else’s culture (xi).
Nida saw himself not only as an American Bible Society administrator and a linguist but also as a teacher. In order for the American Bible Society to be effective in the work of Bible translation, the people he was recruiting to oversee that task needed the proper training and tools. The insights gained from the study of cultural anthropology belonged in that educational toolbox.
Nida wrote Customs and Cultures in a mere six weeks. He had flown to Brazil to participate in two workshops that were two months apart. The first one was cancelled and it was too expensive to fly home before the next workshop, so Nida checked into a hotel and began writing. He had spent over a decade observing people around the world and keeping meticulous notes. This was his opportunity to pull all of his research together and focus on this project alone.1
As an anthropology textbook, it is unlike the systematic works of more recent scholars like Charles Kraft, Paul Hiebert, and Brian Howell. If one were to sum up Nida’s main point, it would be that people everywhere think and act differently, and here are the examples to prove it. Nida structured his book more like a linguist than an anthropologist. Much like what he, Louw, and Smith did with the Greek-English lexicon, he took all of his notes, sorted them into semantic categories, added a bit of alliterative humor, and built the book on that framework. His technique was to state a theme, such as aesthetics, then give examples from dozens of other cultures that show how they think about aesthetics and how it differs from our culture. He intentionally avoided scholarly jargon. He was not writing for the academic anthropologist; he was writing for missionaries who needed to understand the complexities of culture if they were going to be effective in sharing the gospel or translating the message. Since these were examples from a limited number of cultures, the implication was that every situation was unique and that it was the job of the missionary to investigate how his or her host culture dealt with each subject.
It was Nida’s contention that the point of cultural anthropology was to answer three questions: “What makes a culture click?”, “What makes a particular member of society act as he does?”, and “What are the factors involved in a culture’s stability or change?” (27). It was not enough for a missionary merely to describe what was visible to the eye. The effective missionary must delve into the meanings, motivations, and functions that lay behind those objects and activities. We must examine each culture on its own terms. Any assumptions or shortcuts are potentially misleading.
At the end of the second chapter, Nida sums up three major lessons that cultural anthropology teaches us. First, “the behavior of people is not haphazard, but conforms to a pattern” (52). If people do something that we find offensive or shocking, there is going to be an underlying reason, most likely associated with their worldview and not ours, that has led to that behavior. There is logic to what all groups do and think, even if it makes no sense to us. The differences between cultures have more to do with their cultural assumptions than the type of logic they use. Therefore, if people assume that illness has spiritual causes, that assumption will lead them to certain types of consistent behavior. If, on the other hand, they hold to a worldview that places the blame for illness on microbes, that will lead them to other behaviors.
Second, “the parts of the pattern of behavior are interrelated” (52). Nida reached this conclusion at a time when other social scientists were starting to look at a systems approach to psychology and sociology. Actions are never isolated; they are connected to other actions. If you try to change one part of a culture, it is almost certain to have ramifications in many other parts of the culture—a valuable insight for any missionary.
Finally, “the life of a people may be oriented in many different directions” (53). Americans have historically glorified individualism and self-determinism. Other cultures may be more group-oriented. Some cultures may honor youth, others hold the elderly in highest esteem. Western missionaries would be wise to examine their own cultural values in light of the gospel before trying to impose those values on others.
After introducing the kinds of surprises other cultures hold for Western missionaries in chapter 1 and laying out the importance of the study of culture in chapter 2, Nida goes on in the following seven chapters to look at various cultural themes and provide anecdotes of various ways different groups around the world have operated. He inundates the reader with examples from dozens of people groups, nearly all of which he observed first hand during his visits to over fifty countries on behalf of the American Bible Society. Whether he was writing about matters of race, technology, aesthetics, marriage, or malevolent spirits, he had a penchant for finding the most remarkable and even bizarre behaviors to illustrate what a missionary might encounter. The message is clear: be ready for anything and withhold judgment until you understand it at a deep level.
In the final chapter, Nida addresses his missionary audience more directly. The major difference between successful and unsuccessful missionaries has to do with how effective they are at identifying and communicating with the people. There is no substitute for living with a group of people, coming to understand their way of thinking, and learning their language. This very action communicates love and acceptance. Furthermore, he states, “it is not primarily the message but the messenger of Christianity that provides the greatest problems for the average non-Christian” (250). Even our comparative wealth is not a great barrier as long as we are able to communicate concern for the people. Missionaries must avoid any appearance of condescension and encourage the development of an indigenous leadership of the church as early as possible in spite of any perceived risks that may entail. We must remember that all peoples share the same basic needs—physical, emotional, aspirational, relational, and spiritual. Those constitute our true points of contact with others. In the end, God’s Spirit is responsible for the results of our labor.
The book concludes with a useful appendix that lists sources for further study and culture-learning strategies for the new missionary. While the reader may learn a great deal about the diversity of the world’s cultures from this book, Nida regarded it as merely a first step in becoming an effective missionary. As he said in the book’s opening sentence, “Good missionaries have always been good ‘anthropologists’ ” (xi).
This book brought about a new era for missionaries and missiologists in several ways. In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, missionaries co-existed uneasily with anthropologists and other social scientists. The object of anthropology was to observe and record. Social sciences in general were taught from either an agnostic or an atheistic perspective. Even though they frequently used missionaries as informants for their research, anthropologists often regarded them with suspicion, believing that they interfered too much and created change in cultures that should have remained pristine.2 It was not until the mid-1920s that Edwin W. Smith and a few others proposed using the insights from cultural anthropology to advance their own missionary agenda. Nevertheless, the research itself remained under the purview of secular anthropologists.
Nida’s book ignited a new direction in primary missiological research in which Christian missionaries and scholars made use of anthropological methods. The Bible Societies, the Summer Institute of Linguistics, the School of World Mission at Fuller, and Catholic Theological Union in Chicago all emphasized ethnographic research as a part of their programs in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Mission scholars came to see that worldview differences created a major obstacle to the communication of the gospel—not just those between western culture and “primitive” cultures, but also between any modern culture and the cultures that produced the biblical texts.3
For Bible translation in particular, Customs and Cultures made translators aware that meaning is fully connected to context. To translate Scripture or any other text apart from an intimate knowledge of the target culture would almost certainly create disastrous misunderstandings.
After the publication of Customs and Cultures and the establishment of the journal Practical Anthropology, there was a marked upsurge in the number of missiological articles and books dealing with the relationship of anthropological research to missions. Today, no reasonable person would question that the two belong together.
Relation to Contemporary Thought
One would think that any book on cultural anthropology based mainly on anecdotes is going to become dated after a few years. Since the publication of Customs and Cultures, the world has changed dramatically. Governments have fallen. Technology has given us instant access to information and to one another. The Cold War has ended but the world now seems plagued with threats from religious extremists. Globalization has spread Western values and business models like a virus around the globe. Mass movements of immigrants and refugees have turned people with widely disparate beliefs and practices into neighbors. Cities in the Bible Belt now host mosques and Buddhist temples. Christianity has become the religion of the Global South instead of the West. We live in an entirely different universe from that of 1954.
But Nida’s work, dated as it might be, was prescient in many ways. Even though anthropology emphasizes the relativity of meaning, Nida warned against a growing preference for relativizing truth, particularly the truth of the gospel (22). The postmodern tendency to regard all religions as equally valid attempts to relate to God would find no advocate in Eugene Nida.
However, Nida did believe that the church would benefit from listening to and learning from people of other faiths. Indeed, there is much we can learn from others, and opening ourselves to learn those lessons might, in itself, build bridges between cultures and break down barriers to the gospel (13).
Beyond globalization, one of the biggest issues in modern missions has been the rise of the city. Once again, Nida observed this pattern long before the population of cities comprised the majority of the world’s people. As is now evident, urbanization, along with its potential financial and educational benefits, also leads to the disintegration of cultural values and traditional relationships. Nida addresses this problem almost as if he were speaking to us today (ch. 9).
Finally, Nida’s technique of creating an inductive text based on hundreds of examples serves to make this book timeless. It may be that the cultures he mentions have changed. Perhaps the people no longer behave or think in the same way. It does not really matter. The point is for the reader to experience the diversity. The mere fact that people everywhere think and act differently will always apply. Missionaries still have to take the time to observe, question, and learn to understand a culture before they can communicate the gospel effectively.
Customs and Cultures is a remarkable book written by an even more remarkable man. With this and his other works, Nida set off a revolution in the world of missiology. His influence has been immeasurable. We would do well, even today, to spend some time sitting at his feet and absorbing the lessons of this pivotal text. You never know what new thing you might learn.
Michael Sweeney is an associate professor of World Mission and New Testament at Emmanuel Christian Seminary at Milligan College. Before joining the faculty at Emmanuel, he served as a Bible Translator and Translation Consultant with Pioneer Bible Translators in Papua New Guinea from 1991 to 2006. Michael also served as an Honorary Translation Advisor with the United Bible Societies and the Bible Society of Papua New Guinea. He is married to Linda, and they have two grown sons.
1 Philip C. Stine, Let the Words Be Written: The Lasting Influence of Eugene A. Nida, Biblical Scholarship in North America 21 (Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004), 98.
2 Charles R. Taber, To Understand the World, to Save the World: The Interface between Missiology and the Social Sciences, Christian Mission and Modern Culture (Harrisburg: Trinity Press International, 2000), 95–96.
3 Ibid., 97.