May 24, 2017

Religion and Culture

(Note: Richard Niebuhr wrote a classic book called Christ and Culture.  I highly recommend reading it to understand the variety of relationships possible between Christianity and culture.  I don’t attempt to summarize his ideas here, just my own thoughts from my travels and studies.)

Recently Lisa Dye quoted Derek Prince as saying, “Never let your religion become cultural.”  On the one hand, that statement offers excellent practical advice, which I think was Mr. Prince’s intention.  On the other hand, it expresses an idea almost oxymoronic, even nonsensical.  It all comes down to the word “culture.”

Generally when we say “culture” we mean the conditions and attitudes prevailing in our time and place.  By culture in this sense we mean the movies we watch, the media we’re exposed to, and the philosophies we’ve consciously or unconsciously espoused.  We mean what we wear, what we eat, what we spend money on, and what we ignore.

This culture is what Mr. Prince meant when he warned us to avoid mixing religion and culture.  We shouldn’t conflate Christianity and the modern American or Western way of doing things.  We are all too likely to think that our way of doing church, or doing government, or dressing, or raising children, is the “Christian” way of doing it.  Some people even assume that you have to belong to a particular political party to be Christian; or that you have to be literate; or that you have to pray the sinner’s prayer in a one-knee, hunched-over crouch before you can be saved.

Mr. Prince is cautioning us not to be like the old lady shouting a final farewell to a departing missionary:  “Just make sure they all wear shoes!”  Religion is not dependent on whether its followers wear shoes — we all know that.  Cultural norms of dress, food, gathering styles, and music may have to be adapted or jettisoned when we spread the Gospel to other cultures.  We cannot afford to present Christianity as an American, or Canadian, or Australian, or whatever, religion.

Of course, Westerners are not the only ones who have cultural blinders on.  There are many Third-World Christians who think — no, they KNOW — that you have to sit in chairs and sing translated praise choruses in order to be true believers, even though they typically, according to their own culture, would sit on the floor and chant in a pentatonic scale.  Both the local believers and the missionaries who go to them assume that the Western forms of modern evangelical worship are universal, and both local believers and missionaries would insist that, say, Orthodox Christians, who stand in front of pictures and sing Eastern style music, cannot possibly be believers.  (I speak from direct experience here.)

The church can take on inappropriate trappings from non-Western cultures as well.  Many churches in post-Soviet countries are run exactly as Stalin would have run them, because that is the management style they’re familiar with.  (Here we run them like a corporation, which is of course much more Christian, isn‘t it?)  In an animist culture Christianity gets mixed up with rituals and superstitions that are often antithetical to the Gospel.  A Greek woman told me, for instance, that it was terribly bad luck to buy a Bible.  When I asked how you should get a Bible, she said that you have to steal it from a church.  (Please, before you comment, I’m not implying that Greece is an animist culture; but certainly that type of superstition is a hold-over from animism and not a Christian belief.)

The tricky thing is determining where the dividing line is.  How can we tell what is cultural and what is universally Christian?

Good question, and it leads us to the nonsensical aspect of saying that religion shouldn’t be cultural.

Everything human is cultural.  There is nothing we share that is not cultural.  A non-cultural human being would be like the enfant sauvage, the wild child discovered naked, speechless, and unsocialized in France over a hundred years ago.  It is through culture that we know how to eat, talk, work, wash, dress, build shelters, even think.  These are not instinctive behaviors, they are learned, and the word culture sums up all that we have learned to know, feel, believe, and do.

So religion can’t be separated from culture.  God made us to be cultural creatures.  When Jesus became human, he came to a particular culture; he ate what they ate, wore what they wore, spoke the language they spoke.  He was a first-century Jew as well as the Second Person of the Trinity.

Even as believers we are not to be isolated individuals but part of the culture of the Body of Christ.  We aren’t instinctively Christian, we have to be taught to grow into our new culture.  Religion must be cultural if it is to be human.

So the challenge for all Christians is to think through what elements of their beliefs and understandings are culturally particular; not necessarily to abandon them but to understand those elements as nonessential parts of the faith.  Good advice, I know, and almost impossible to do.  It does help to travel, to see how many things we take for granted are unheard of in other civilized societies.  It does help to read old books and study history, to understand how people could still be Christians before the Bible was compiled, or when they couldn’t read, or when they lived in entirely different social systems.  It does help to talk to people of different beliefs even in our own time and place — this web log is a great eye-opening way to do that.

But I think that American Christians are also challenged to believe that we are cultural beings. In fact, it’s a very modern, American thing to say that religion shouldn’t be cultural.  That statement would have been productive of blank stares in any other time or place.  We delude ourselves that we are individuals independent of our culture, that we think exactly what we want and do exactly what we choose, that religion is just the Bible and me.  No, we, like all people, are a product of our culture, and that’s not a bad thing.  In that sense religion not only should be cultural, it must be cultural.

We will never get this right.  We can’t really understand what our culture is any more than a fish can understand what water is.  We can only pray to have our eyes opened, study a far wider world than we experience, and stop thinking our way of doing things is the only way.

So the challenge becomes humility and discernment. I have to know what it is I don’t know, see differences I didn’t even know could exist.  I have to be wise about what in my culture is truly Christian, merely neutral, or demonic.  I have to learn from people of other backgrounds, both Christian and non-Christian, and see what aspect of God shines through them.  I have to consider which unthinking, deeply held beliefs are in fact leading me farther from God and my true nature, even if they seem to me to be the only obvious way.  My religion will be cultural, but may that culture be more and more the culture of the Kingdom of God.

Comments

  1. “Of course, Westerners are not the only ones who have cultural blinders on. There are many Third-World Christians who think — no, they KNOW — that you have to sit in chairs and sing translated praise choruses in order to be true believers, even though they typically, according to their own culture, would sit on the floor and chant in a pentatonic scale.”

    This is not just a third world phenomenom – we’ve been doing the same thing to First Nations people (a.k.a. American Indians) for over 300 years. We’ve been telling them they must sit in pews in rows, singing hymns (and in English at that) to the music of organs. Only in the last 15 years has a movement begun in which First Nations peoples have begun sitting in circles and singing, chanting, and yes, even dancing, using native rhythms and tonalities, and using native drums and wooden flutes. Only in the last 15 years have First Nations people begun to worship from within their own cultures, rather than accepting the white man’s lie that they must abandon their culture to truly become Christians.

    The worst part of it is, the resistance this movement faces is not only external, i.e. from the established white church, but internal as well – from those within their culture who “KNOW” that their culture is fatally flawed, and that they need to abandon that culture to follow Jesus.

    And finally, it should be noted that the American church’s treatment of First Nations people has been so horrendous that believers typically eschew the use of the word “Christian.” Rather, they will refer to themselves as “followers of the Jesus way.” Such is the history of cultural tyranny where the First Nations people are concerned, a cultural tyranny that is only now beginning to lift.

    • Damaris says:

      Interesting, James. What you say parallels a lot that I saw in post-Soviet Central Asia. Thanks for the insight, and I pray that all Americans can hear the Gospel as it should be told and see it as it should be shown.

    • 15 years. Wow. What is that, 485 or so years after contact? That is very, very painful to think about.

  2. I think don’t let your religion become cultural means something entirely different. I’ve been saying for many years now that the Christianity of most Americans is merely a cultural, not a religious phenomenon. What I mean by this is that their Christianity has been passed down to them from generation to generation and so they see their Christianity as a part of their culture, just like baseball and apple pie. Ask them any specifics about their religion and they will look at you dumbfounded and stumble for words. Most people don’t have the slightest Biblical knowledge at all. For them, their religion is cultural, that’s why the war on terrorism is a cultural war, not a religious war. Any attack against Christianity, whether in words or actions, is seen as an attack on our culture, never mind that most people don’t have any idea what that culture means or where it came from. Most protestants today couldn’t even tell you the basics of the Reformation.
    Christianity has become cultural in this country, no different than paganism was for the ancient Romans. No one actually believed in the pantheon of pagan Gods. It was a cultural phenomenon and considered unpatriotic not to at least pay the gods lip service. That’s what most American Christians do. They pay lip service to God on sunday and then worship mammon the rest of the week. Jesus is a cultural figure, just like Thomas Jefferson and George Washington. And I, for one, am sickened the the entire charade.

  3. After he described how the missionaries came and made the natives wear clothes, Mark Twain said of the Hawaiians:
    “It’s a shame that they had to tell all of those people living in Paradise that they were going to Hell and would have to leave.”

    I wonder if we can actually spread the Gospel without spreading culture.

    • It didn’t work too well for Columbus did it? He spread Christianity by destroying entire cultures.

      • I would argue that Columbus, and those who followed him, were more concerned with spreading their Christian culture, than they were with the Gospel. I would say that it’s not much different today.

        • I think Columbus didn’t care about spreadin’, was more interested in gettin’ spices from India. Any spreadin’ was totally accidental.

    • Damaris says:

      Two things, Lambpower. One, of course Hawaii wasn’t Paradise, though it wasn’t Hell, either. Two, no, it isn’t possible to spread the Gospel without spreading culture.

      • I think that Twain was somewhat commenting on how the Hawaiians had to change.

        The second point bothers me. If we can’t help but spread our culture when we spread the Gospel, do we then run the risk of spread our culture’s problems as well?

        • Damaris says:

          Yes, we do. We can’t help it, just as we can’t help sharing diseases when we go to new places. I don’t know why God does it this way . . .

    • Steve Newell says:

      There are aspects of Christianity that will affect many cultures. For example, I would expect that Christianity to bring to an end human sacrifices. Or this a cultural aspect that we should consider acceptable since it is part of their culture.

      You cannot have it both ways. You cannot have Christianity without having an impact on the culture. This is evident in the book of Acts.

      • I assume that bringing Christianity to a culture will have an impact. What bothers me is that we bring along elements of our society that are not part of the Gospel. Damaris used the example of disease. We try to superimpose our cultural standards (Christian and non-Christian) so that the culture that we are evangelizing looses its identity.

  4. Damaris says:

    The challenge is distinguishing inessential human culture from the culture of Christianity. The first council of Jerusalem, described in Acts, is about this very thing. How Jewish did you have to be to be Christian? James’ wisdom in simplifying the burdens the church put on people of other cultures is exemplary, as is his refusal to leave them with no restraints at all. The epistles, too, are very much about this problem — How much of their old life could the Corinthians keep? How much did the Galations have to add? When should Paul claim Roman citizenship and when should he fulfill a Jewish vow? It’s worthwhile to read Acts and the epistles in this light, if you’re interested in the issue.

    • It’s also important to keep in mind that Judaism itself was very much divided, both culturally and religiously, in the first century. From Palestinian Judaism to Diaspora Judiasm, temple-centered or synagogue-centered, Hellenized or anti-Hellenists, Sadducees or Pharisees or Essenes, the intellectual and sophisticated Jews of Alexandria to the poor, uneducated, second-class Jews of Gallilee — Jews in general were struggling over their identity as a people during that time. And that’s one reason so many Jews were so violently opposed to this new Jewish sect called Christianity. As they saw it, Christians like Paul were admitting gentiles directly into Judaism without the usual strict cultural and religious requirements — which threatened to water down and ultimately destroy those few practices and beliefs that most Jews still agree upon and which formed the very definition of Jewishness at that time. And, of course, Christianity struggled with its own cultural identity for those first couple of centuries, gradually becoming less Jewish and increasingly Greco-Roman until Constantine sealed Christian culture with a definitively Roman stamp (and vice versa), though with a lingering flavor of Jewish moral sensibility. Since the Reformation, Christianity has been on a series of journeys to rediscover or reinvent its cultural identity — and we’re still coming up against the same age-old questions: Which aspects of culture are compatable with the gospel and which are not? And which aspects of what we now variously define as the gospel, Christianity, and the church still bear the original DNA of Christ and which are merely products of cultural influence, be it recent or passed down through the centuries?
      Maybe this long struggle to find the correct cultural identity and then universally enforcing that identity has been an extended exercise in missing the point. Maybe the gospel of Jesus is like a divinely engineered virus designed and intended to infect people of any and every culture, transforming them and ultimately their cultures from the inside out. And maybe, just maybe, Jesus is patiently trying to teach us to see, think, and love outside the box and narrow lens of our inherited cultural context.

      • Damaris says:

        Your last paragraph, RonP, should be printed on leaflet and dropped from helicopters over a large area. Not really, that would be littering, but it is profound and deserves thinking about. Thanks.

      • Check out an Eastern Orthodox church. Much middle east culture still exists. And its not very comfortable with our American casual lifestyle. But the Word is deeply entrenched and Christ is definitely there. The only problem: when my husband left it to belong to a protestant church we were told we were going to go to hell. Which I didn’t (don’t) believe. They accept “other’ christian baptisms, so I didn’t understand this thinking.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says:

        It’s also important to keep in mind that Judaism itself was very much divided, both culturally and religiously, in the first century.

        Remember the old saying “Two Jews, Three Opinions”?

        According to my Jewish contacts, that one goes back a LONG time.

  5. Beelzebub's Grandson says:

    It’s all culture. Religion is part of culture. We get to decide which aspects to keep, and which to discard. There are no absolutes.

    For those who disagree, shoes and chairs are too easy as examples. What about courtship and marriage customs? What about worldviews?

    • I agree that religions are particular manifestations of a larger cultural context — and those cultural frameworks are manifestations of the realities of the human condition and the dynamics of human interactions. And, of course, all this human stuff exists in the even larger context of nature and the physical universe.
      However, I also believe that Jesus and His message — even though He lived in an identifiable cultural and historical context — represent an insertion or invasion of something (or Someone) from outside the context of human culture and even that of the physical universe. And while this religion called Christianity in all its varieties might indeed be 99.99 percent pure human culture, I believe that those who truly know and follow Christ carry a kind of spiritual DNA that is not the product of human culture or the human condition.
      That, to me, is what the gospel of Christ is all about — that a transcendent, creator God (who exists outside and independent of the contexts of human culture and the physical universe) entered our reality as one of us and, by submitting Himself to death on a cross, planted the seed of Himself in our reality so that we might have access to Him and a higher, truer reality.
      Call me nuts, but I do believe that.

  6. Headless Unicorn Guy says:

    Some people even assume that you have to belong to a particular political party to be Christian; or that you have to be literate; or that you have to pray the sinner’s prayer in a one-knee, hunched-over crouch before you can be saved.

    No, you have to pray it word-for-word while kneeling on both knees, hunched over holding your face in both hands, and Weeping. Not crying, Weeping. Just like in all those Jack Chick tracts.

    Mr. Prince is cautioning us not to be like the old lady shouting a final farewell to a departing missionary: “Just make sure they all wear shoes!” Religion is not dependent on whether its followers wear shoes — we all know that. Cultural norms of dress, food, gathering styles, and music may have to be adapted or jettisoned when we spread the Gospel to other cultures. We cannot afford to present Christianity as an American, or Canadian, or Australian, or whatever, religion.

    Yet this has happened so many times it’s become a running joke. A common example is New England Puritan missionaries to Hawaii in Victorian times, trying to turn the Hawaiians (in their tropical climate) into Good Little New Englanders (cold climate) in dress and architecture and culture, despite the vast differences in their cultures and trappings.

    Christians are not the only ones who do this. The current surge of Islam is called “Arabization” by non-Arab Islamic cultures — bankrolled by Saudi money, their style of Islam REQUIRES all converts to become Arab Tribesmen in every way — Arab name, Arab dress, Arab blood feuds, all cultural aspects coming from the harsh zero-sum game of the Arabian deserts, where altruism or mercy can get you killed.

    Either Chesterton or Lewis (or both) warned against making Christ and the Gospel ONLY expressible through a specific culture and its trappings. Because cultures are mortal, and fixed in particular time. (Though mortal, they can still last a long time, but not forever.) And once the Gospel has been welded to a particular culture, it is now fixed in time and will become old-fashioned as the attached culture ages through its life cycle.

    • Headless,
      Thank you, that’s my point. Christ is bigger than culture, transcends social mores. The Twain quote I used before speaks exactly to that.

  7. This post reminds me of Lesslie Newbigin’s books “The Gospel in a Pluralist Society” and “Foolishness to the Greeks” (among others). He was the first to awaken me to the fact there is no idealised ‘supra-cultural’ gospel.

    • …and (from what I recall) he said that the missionary’s peculiar task is to learn enough of the ‘target’ culture – and be clear-sighted enough about his own culture – to ‘translate’ the gospel into the target culture. But at some point, the process will be taken out of his hands, and the people of that culture will continue the translation – and their culture will also be subtly transformed as certain parts of it come into conflict with the gospel.

      Another great example of this is Vincent Donavan’s experience with the Masai – he did what the lasts paragraph says – took the time to understand and try to communicate the gospel in terms of their culture. What was unexpected and exciting was that his own understanding of the gospel was transformed as his eyes were opened to see the places where he had confused gospel with culture. It’s a must read (Christianity Rediscovered – http://www.amazon.com/Christianity-Rediscovered-Vincent-J-Donovan/dp/1570754624)

    • Damaris says:

      Great points, Ben. Thank you.

  8. I think I might be able to offer some insight into that Greek woman’s scruples about buying Bibles. Unless I miss my guess, I’d say she is following a practice deriving from the idea that buying a Bible is simony- i.e. paying money for something holy, like Simon the magician wanting to buy the Holy Spirit in Acts.

    I’ve met people who have been scrupulous about not buying religious objects (relics, icons, rosaries or whatever) that have been blessed by a priest or bishop because of that passage and would only accept such things as freely-given gifts. I don’t know if the Bible-simony connection is widespread in Greece (assuming I’m right), but perhaps the suspicion of simony has devolved into a now-superstitious practice that people just adhere to having forgotten the original reason for it. Then again, even if it has, I can’t judge. I’d feel scruples if I didn’t say grace over a meal.