Two Reposts: Pursuing Questions That Lead to the Answer[er] & Finding a Culture’s Quest/ion

“Gold Guy With Question” (c) Scott Maxwell / Fotolia #16798720, Licensed to Brad Sargent.

Introduction (2017)

Questions are something I find central to pretty much everything I do in terms of professional work, personal ministry, and pastimes. Editing is about questioning a text to see if what it says makes sense — or, if not, how to work with the author to refine it so it does. Research writing involves questions that guide the search for details (Who did what?), timelines (When did that happen, and how did that shape the context of what happened?), personal profiles (Who are you, and what drives your life in the pathway that you’re on?), and practicalities (What went wrong, why, and how can we repair that?). As to hobbies, I especially enjoy movies because, it seems to me, each one typically wrestles with two or three Big-Idea-Earth-Shattering-Or-Life-Shaping Questions. So, if I can identify those questions, I have a resource to share with people who are looking for an answer, or who’ve been living out an answer that doesn’t really fit The Question That Drives Their Life.

Anyway, I recently became acquainted with someone who really, REALLY likes the topic of questions. So, I thought I’d edit and repost these for my new friend’s enjoyment. I wrote the first one for Advent almost a decade ago in 2008. That same year, I republished an article from 2004 about questions the catalyze subcultures — another topic I find very intriguing, especially since it ties right in with social change. (I first wrote about subculturization in 1997 and, if all goes well, I’ll be able to pick up that thread again sometime soon to revisit it from the angle of social movements and how social entrepreneurs can navigate them.)

  • Hope Awaits: Pursuing Questions That Lead to the Answer[er] (2008)
  • Finding a Culture’s Quest/ion and Shaping Their Transformative Trajectory (2004)

I hope friends old and new will find something of interest in these articles, in picking up new questions or polishing reflections from old ones.

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Hope Awaits:

Pursuing Questions That Lead to the Answer[er]

“What is the answer?” [ I was silent ] “In that case, what is the question?” (The last words of Gertrude Stein as told by Alice B. Toklas in her book, What Is Remembered.)

I like questions. I see questions all around me. They tug at both my brain and my heart. They draw me in and push me forward because I want to solve the puzzles they pose. In my occasional work as a journalist-interviewer, I seek to find the previously unasked question for my subject to consider. And if I hit that jackpot, their face certainly registers some kind of emotion, because my query touched on something deep. Perhaps they scowl at what I ask, or perhaps their face lights up in delight — but there is no neutrality with provocativity!

My love of questions is probably why I pursued training as a futurist, because some of the most fascinating of all questions to me deal with what the future could-should-will be. In that regard, once I was even introduced for a guest lecture on church and culture as, “Someone who is working on answers to questions that no one else is asking yet.” And in my blogging, one of the reasons I use movies so much as illustrations is because they have enough time to develop a theme — to ask a question that typically has some kind of theological answer available.

I see questions generated in what I do, what I experience, what we do as groups of people. I wrote previously about how a subculture forms around values that pose a question to the surrounding mainstream culture. [I’ve posted that article below this one.] And in that question is their quest — the journey to find an answer they can own to counter a similar question with an unsatisfying answer posed by either the conventional/mainstream culture or their own (sub)culture of origin.

The past few days, I’ve had a surprising series of conversations about questions. The core ideas boil down to this:

In the storyline of our lives, a spiritual question resides. Questions we pick up from our providential circumstances – like “Why me, God?” and “Who am I and how do You want to use me?” – help sensitize us to watch for the answer. And we simply cannot fully figure out the answer in advance. Hopefully, as we process the “embedded question” as best we can, it readies our discernment to see the answer when it unveils itself. And, ultimately it turns out the Answer is not a what … it is a Who, an Answerer.

I think this is part of the story of Job and why it resonates so deeply with us. Of course, there are questions about God’s character that arise when such a horrific series of events happen in the life of this man. Of course, it seems like God doesn’t care, doesn’t respond, and actually allows or causes evil to happen. However, give Him time and He will answer — or at least He will be the Answerer. Hopefully, we become satisfied with clinging on to Him, even if we are not satisfied with His answer.

But questions are not always “negative” kinds of “Are You a sadist, God?” wonderments that seem to assail or assault God’s character. Think of Mary, the mother of Jesus, as she asks in essence, “Who am I that You would even consider me at all?” Her question seems more tied in to an unveiling of God’s character than a questioning of it. “Wow — this is who you are!” instead of “Whoa — I don’t get it about what you’re doing.”

Really, though, I believe both positive and negative kinds of questions are a revelation. And if we choose to interpret life in a larger narrative framework, we’ll work to perceive God’s providence as a text in the context of “the watching universe.” Something deep and unique is going on in the life of every individual, every couple, every family, every community, every ethnicity, every race, every nation, every civilization. Something that reveals a unique flash of color from the Triune God’s opalescent character. Something — and this may get me in trouble with missional friends but I’ll say it anyway — something that goes beyond simply an enfleshed message for the missio dei, but something that addresses the denouement of restoration for all God’s creation and not just us as humans made in His image.

I believe this is why we resonate with storylines that resolve in justice done, love lived out, wounded parties reconciled, health restored, etc. Our hearts are wired with desires for God’s justice, love, healing, restoration to be made manifest — as they surely will in the due course of time. But until we see the full reality of which these storylines are a mere reflection, we wait in the midst of the questions of our lives which lead us onward to seeking for the Answerer.

(Sidenote: For several years, I’ve argued that the missio dei is too narrow and potentially narcissistic of an integration point for our theologies. I’ve suggested the need to expand to a broader narrative approach that sees God’s working among all the actors on His stage of creation – angels elect and fallen, the earth, the universe, and humanity. This gives us a larger and more holistic picture of what in the cosmos God is doing, and a better base for understanding the dynamic tensions among spiritual warfare, ecology, anthropology, soteriology, and etceterology. Ultimately, it offers us a better base for dialogue with people from other spiritual and religious traditions whose approaches address more of these areas than we typically do. And how that works is a question I expect to continue exploring as time goes by.)

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Finding a Culture’s Quest/ion and Shaping Their Transformative Trajectory (2004)

Introduction (2008)

This is an interesting piece for its questions about “The Question” in a culture. In re-reading it for the first time in a long time, I wondered if the overall process I recommended in 2004 about connecting with a subculture group could be used in missional explorations of neighborhoods. In a way, neighborhoods present a socio-cultural profile. Why are people in this or that specific area rather than elsewhere? What does the composite of this group of people “say,” even if there is not one single quest or question that represents them? Especially in an era of economic uncertainty, perhaps the search to find a culture’s question offers an opportunity for other kinds of issues than the demographics of consumption to come under consideration.

I also wondered how this process could be used even in understanding online groups and networks. In the past few years, the expansion of virtual tribes and communities through online linkage gives us new questions to shape our understanding of how such identity groups form. Does a virtual culture integrate more about values in common, as identity subcultures in actual settings seem to? Or is it only around leisure activities? Service activities? Other interests? Perhaps subcultural analysis is not valid, or not quite as pinpointed, for URL groups as for IRL subcultures. Anyway, something to consider.

So, here’s the article, basically unchanged from its 2004 version.

Finding a Culture’s Quest/ion and

Shaping Their Transformative Trajectory (2004)

The Situation Overviewed

“Rad-Dood,” a friend of mine who mentors church planters, is working with someone from a specific subcultural group, let’s call him “Guy.” And Guy senses a strong burden for people of a different subcultural group from his own virtual tribe. Guy wants Rad-Dood to help him start a Bible study with members of this other tribe.

Now, this other tribe has some very evident internal values that are both anti-biblical and are also not shared by the mainstream community. I’ll not list the subcultures involved, or the specific anti-biblical issues involved, so I can focus on the general principles that I believe would apply to anyone who gave me their case study of a subculture. (Like, welcome to the world of subcultural tribes! Even the mainstream Christian subculture in America has internal values not shared by the mainstream general community!)

Rad-Dood asked me whether I had any suggestions on what kind of Bible study would be loving yet truthful for this tribe, something that would be revealing to them in particular about God … but not start out by taking on their particular issues that everyone knows are not exactly biblical perspectives. Here’s what I wrote back:

Finding the Quest/ion

Hey Rad-Dood … I could give you an answer (which I already have in mind from my background in subcultural studies, and which I’m willing to share … soon) and you could give Guy an answer (mine and/or yours). But I think it would be better to ask a question set first for you and Guy to consider and brainstorm together on, that would help you develop more relationship as a potential mentor-strategist with him, and for him to learn how to do some cultural analysis that could help confirm his calling. Here tis:

Think about the members of these cultures Guy is concerned about.

  • What topics do they most talk about with you, and with others of their own “tribe”?
  • What topics dominate their political lives, their recreational/social interactions?
  • How do they spend their money – and what issues most draw out their discretionary charity-giving funds or giving to friends?
  • If you had to list the top 10 questions they would want to ask God about what He would say about their lives, their values, and the kinds of personal journeys that are typical of people in their tribe, what do you think should be on the list?

So, if you don’t really have responses to those questions, answer this: Are you ready to present – or even to prepare – a Bible study for the people in these groups? You don’t have to wait til you think it’s perfect in order to begin a study. I’m just trying to get at the question of whether the ramifications of starting something have been considered. That’s because he/you/all y’all will need to be ready to help disciple beyond those initial Bible study sessions when people choose to embark on a unique transformational journey toward Christlikeness that fits their trajectory – their unique starting combination of “pro-biblical” and “anti-biblical” mix of values, beliefs, and behaviors. In other words, I’d recommend that you don’t start Alpha if you don’t have a Beta being prepared in the wings … and don’t do Alpha or Beta if you don’t know what are the character qualities in the Omega, Jesus Christ, who is the Goal that you hope to lead them toward.

And, after there are some responses to the above questions, here is perhaps the biggest signpost that can serve as a readiness marker:

  • If, after considering the people of these specific cultures, you could summarize all you know of them into the one big question their lives pose to the cosmos and therefore to God, what would you say that question is?
  • What is their raison d‘être – their reason for being?
  • What specific quest drives their tribe?
  • What one issue or concern so dominates their psyche as individuals that it draws them together as a virtual tribe when they find others who resonate with that same quest/question?

I realize that people are more complex than just one thing or one question. But it is certainly an intriguing assumption in this era of virtual cultures to think that one main issue of values distinguishes this tribe from that one – not racial or other genetic links, and not even a common language. That’s why punks from the UK, Japan, Germany, and US can act in ways that show a shared paradigm, despite speaking different languages.

In my opinion, if you know a tribe’s one main quest/ion, you are not guilty of reductionism, though some may think I’m advocating that. Instead, I believe you have identified their tribe’s unique and specific main doorway to the Kingdom. You have wisely used analysis of details in coming to see the global big-picture of whom they see themselves to be. You have shown yourselves to be careful listeners, and you have prepared yourselves to be ready to respond biblically to questions they are already asking, not trying to cram down their throats the biblical answers to questions we “know” they “should” be asking.

A “trajectory” involves a starting place, the location of a goal, and a pathway in between. Ignore a culture’s doorway issues, and you cannot exactly join them on their unique trajectory from where their culture already is. I believe you’ll lose the opportunity to help influence them in a transformative pathway to become more like Christ as individual disciples, and to manifest more Kingdom culture qualities as a subculture (i.e., add in values, beliefs, and behaviors that biblical commands require of disciples but that are currently missing from our culture; and modify or remove values, beliefs, and behaviors from our culture when they go against what God tells us is what He wants for us to be, do, or not do).

Ignore their doorway, and the only other alternatives are (1) to ignore or marginalize them completely, or (2) read them the riot-act as if they should already be at the goal, or (3) try to yank them onto the trajectory path that is more suited for you or your own tribe – as if you are the standard for the transformative journey. (That last one, by the way, is the essence of legalism, and also the core issue that faced the early Church in Acts 15: Do gentiles have to first become Jews in order to then follow Christ — or can they start where their culture is at and pursue Him directly from there?)

So – okay, Dr. Rad-Dood! Some provocative thoughts and questions. Let me know when you’re ready for what my response would be to the one main quest/ion for these tribes you mentioned, and I’ll be glad to share it, and my reasons why …

Meanwhile, hope these help you have some great Socratic dialogues with Guy!

Originally posted July 12, 2004, in futuristguy’s Randomocities.

2 thoughts on “Finding a Culture’s Quest/ion and Shaping Their Transformative Trajectory (2004)”
  1. First: The way we shape our question preconditions our answer. So, if we can discern the essential question in a culture, we can understand a bit better about how we might best respond to their values, interests, needs, etc. – assuming those are all wrapped up somehow in The Question.

    [EXAMPLES ADDED 2017: For instance, if we ask, “What is THE missio dei?” we assume there is only one correct answer. This is either/or, closed-system thinking.  But if we ask, “What elements (plural) are in the missio dei?” we leave it open to multiple acceptable responses. This is both/and, open-system thinking. Black-or-white thinking typically shuts down discussion about discerning an array of reasonable options because it assumes a debate about identifying pointed right-or-wrong answers.

    Second, we often try to approach “contextualization” through compiling a bunch of statistics and demographics. Facts and concepts don’t necessarily get us any closer to the human element involved, though. However, if we phrase things in terms of a core question instead of facts and such, we immediately shift from informative to narrative. The Question is the core of a tribe or culture’s story. That doesn’t mean research is unimportant. It just means that all we get from research is a bunch of “What.” A storyline (i.e., like Jeopardy, with the answer in the form a quest/ion) draws the “What” together into one essential “So What?” — i.e., What does this mean to them? From there, we can figure out the “Now What?” — i.e., How could we best respond?

    I’ll have to come back another time – and maybe in a post instead of just the comments section – to respond to the second question. It would be important to summarize how I use various words these days, when I used to put them all into the “Contextualization Container.” But no longer … anyway, that is a story for another day. Ooh! See? Another Quest/ion, another story!