(Note: Richard Niebuhr wrote a classic book called Christ and Culture.Â I highly recommend reading it to understand the variety of relationships possible between Christianity and culture.Â I donâ€™t attempt to summarize his ideas here, just my own thoughts from my travels and studies.)
Recently Lisa Dye quoted Derek Prince as saying, â€œNever let your religion become cultural.â€Â On the one hand, that statement offers excellent practical advice, which I think was Mr. Princeâ€™s intention.Â On the other hand, it expresses an idea almost oxymoronic, even nonsensical.Â It all comes down to the word â€œculture.â€
Generally when we say â€œcultureâ€ we mean the conditions and attitudes prevailing in our time and place.Â By culture in this sense we mean the movies we watch, the media weâ€™re exposed to, and the philosophies weâ€™ve consciously or unconsciously espoused.Â 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.Â We shouldnâ€™t conflate Christianity and the modern American or Western way of doing things.Â We are all too likely to think that our way of doing church, or doing government, or dressing, or raising children, is the â€œChristianâ€ way of doing it.Â 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 sinnerâ€™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:Â â€œJust make sure they all wear shoes!â€Â Religion is not dependent on whether its followers wear shoes — we all know that.Â Cultural norms of dress, food, gathering styles, and music may have to be adapted or jettisoned when we spread the Gospel to other cultures.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â (I speak from direct experience here.)
The church can take on inappropriate trappings from non-Western cultures as well.Â Many churches in post-Soviet countries are run exactly as Stalin would have run them, because that is the management style theyâ€™re familiar with.Â (Here we run them like a corporation, which is of course much more Christian, isnâ€˜t it?)Â In an animist culture Christianity gets mixed up with rituals and superstitions that are often antithetical to the Gospel.Â A Greek woman told me, for instance, that it was terribly bad luck to buy a Bible.Â When I asked how you should get a Bible, she said that you have to steal it from a church.Â (Please, before you comment, Iâ€™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.Â 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 shouldnâ€™t be cultural.
Everything human is cultural.Â There is nothing we share that is not cultural.Â 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.Â It is through culture that we know how to eat, talk, work, wash, dress, build shelters, even think.Â 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 canâ€™t be separated from culture.Â God made us to be cultural creatures.Â When Jesus became human, he came to a particular culture; he ate what they ate, wore what they wore, spoke the language they spoke.Â 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.Â We arenâ€™t instinctively Christian, we have to be taught to grow into our new culture.Â 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.Â Good advice, I know, and almost impossible to do.Â It does help to travel, to see how many things we take for granted are unheard of in other civilized societies.Â 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 couldnâ€™t read, or when they lived in entirely different social systems.Â 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, itâ€™s a very modern, American thing to say that religion shouldnâ€™t be cultural.Â That statement would have been productive of blank stares in any other time or place.Â 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.Â No, we, like all people, are a product of our culture, and thatâ€™s not a bad thing.Â In that sense religion not only should be cultural, it must be cultural.
We will never get this right.Â We canâ€™t really understand what our culture is any more than a fish can understand what water is.Â 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 donâ€™t know, see differences I didnâ€™t even know could exist.Â I have to be wise about what in my culture is truly Christian, merely neutral, or demonic.Â I have to learn from people of other backgrounds, both Christian and non-Christian, and see what aspect of God shines through them.Â 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.Â My religion will be cultural, but may that culture be more and more the culture of the Kingdom of God.