A Question of Culture

I have to apologise. Starting this post on my laptop and then finishing it on my phone caused WordPress to lose the last third of it. I hope it’s not too convoluted; I failed to type it up in Word first like I sometimes do. Anyways, enjoy!

GodsNotDead2PosterSo we watched God’s Not Dead 2 last night, and I have to say that I think it shows more than anything that we as Christians are in the middle of a culture gap. One of the best scenes in the movie gets at the reality that Christianity is offensive and has been for the 2000 years of its history and why should we change who we are or be forced to change who we are just because people get offended. There’s a lot of truth in that, but it’s easy for us to forget that there’s a flip side to that. We can get offended just as easily as anyone else, and in attempting to protect our right to do so while at the same time avoiding any consequences of it we can be guilty of the very controlling approach that the movie portrays in such a negative light.

Our cultural ineptness actually doesn’t come as much of a surprise to me. As a Canadian living in the South, for example, I know firsthand how easy it is for a given culture to be painted in a specific light that may or may not be true. When I first came down here to visit my wife 7 years ago now, it came as a shock to find that most of the people in this neighbourhood own at least one firearm. I suppose it shouldn’t have, given the reputation that Americans have back in Canada for having a “gun culture,” but it did. Over time, however, I found that gun culture really had little to do with it. We live out in the country, away from the big cities, and it makes sense to have something to defend yourself with if the need arises. It may be an oversimplification but there’s a lot more to gun ownership down here than simple love of firearms or a legacy of the Old West, but that’s something you only come to learn through living in a culture and interacting with it.

As Christians, we’re not always big on doing that. We’d rather preach than converse and learn. I’ve touched on the subject before, but throughout history our approach to other cultures has sadly been that it’s not enough just to be like Christ; you have to be like me, too. There’s one case study from my Global Ministries course in seminary that I’ll never forget. It had to do with missionaries from a Western country reaching out with the message of Christ to a tribal culture in Africa. The gist of it was that the Western missionaries approached the issue from their own philosophical background. It’s probably another oversimplification, but we in the West tend to base much of our thinking on Descartes’ maxim “I think, therefore I am.” I think, I make decisions, and I have a life. In short, we value the individual. There are cultures around the world, including this hypothetical one in Africa, where the maxim is not that but rather “I participate, therefore I am.” The culture depends on the group for survival, and therefore the individual matters only so much as they contribute to that end. It thus came as a surprise to the missionaries to find that their efforts yielded not a number of individual responses to the gospel but rather the group leader deciding to accept Christ on behalf of the community, and this left the missionaries at an impasse.

Salvation being an individual thing, how were they to respond? Given the size of the community, it’s likely that not everyone present agreed with the leader’s decision and may therefore think they have responded to the gospel when really they haven’t. Should the missionaries push the issue on an individual level, knowing full well that doing so will likely alienate the entire community and prevent any further possibility of relationship? Or should they leave it as is, trusting that their respect of the culture will keep the door open for the relationship to continue?

Which would you have chosen? I know what we tend to go with, and it’s not really respectful. My own inclination is to go with the latter option. Meeting people where they are at means delivering the message in a way that they will actually hear. The Apostle Paul speaks of this in 1 Corinthians 9 when he talks about “becoming all things to all men.” He came across in a way that people could relate to and understand and this changed depending on who he was dealing with at the time.

Our cultural ineptness colours our relationship with the LGBTQ community perhaps more than it does with any other group at present. We tend to think that because they live in the same country as we do that they are simply an extension of our own culture and as such they can be preached to as ones who, even if they don’t understand where we’re coming from, will at least respond to it as we did. In doing so, we forget that there are multiple cultural groups within this country and that not all of them see things as we do. (If you’re reading this as an LGBTQ individual, I am not for a moment trying to suggest that what makes you who you are is something as subjective as a cultural difference. I am simply trying to point out to my fellow Christians that in projecting our own preconceptions onto others we can alienate the very ones we’re supposed to care about the most.) In my interactions with the LGBTQ community over the last year, I have found that by and large they just want to be who they are. Many of them have spent years trying to sort out just who they are and coming to terms with that, and then they’ve had to fight for the right just to be that person. Every time that we as evangelical Christians have interacted with them, as far as I can tell, we have completely and utterly failed to acknowledge that. In doing so, we have alienated them as surely as our fictional missionaries would have done so had they pushed their own views on that African culture. What they want from us is the freedom to come to Christ as LGBTQ individuals if they so choose, and then to not have to change that just because they’re not a follower of Christ.

I know that last paragraph made some of my readers cringe a little. Let me explain. I am aware that there are those who will point out that respecting where LGBTQ individuals are coming from is not something we as Christians can do. Cultural differences are one thing, but the Bible calls same-sex relationships sin and we should, too, and that’s that. As a minister and a student of theology, I am very much aware that there are passages in the Bible which call it a sin. Now despite being a minister and a student of theology, I have to admit that I have no idea what to do with these passages. On the one hand, my respect for Scripture and my own research into biblical history means that I can’t dismiss these passages as some have recommended, seeing them as translation errors or as a modern concept read back into an older text. On the other, I am not about to go to someone who has struggled for years to figure out who they are, and dealt with all the fallout that goes with that, and say sorry, that part of you isn’t good. It has to go. I have too much respect for people who struggle to do that. And where’s the love in that? Paul’s example in 1 Corinthians 9 is to be “all things to all people,” not have all people be what I think they should be. (That also leads to a host of other questions, like is it possible for people “to be born that way”. Speaking again as a minister and student of theology I believe that it is, although I cannot yet defend that position from a scriptural background as well as I would like. The bottom line is that they’re people, too, and worthy of our respect. Too often we forget that.)

Having said all of that, I am aware that there are also those who will object that even if a gay, or lesbian, or trans person can become a Christian (and there’s absolutely no reason why that’s not possible), that part of them still has to change once they know Jesus. My response to that is simply to ask, why? It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict of sin (John 16:8), and if he doesn’t do that with these people then who the hell are we to take up that task on our own? He works with each of us in different ways on different levels, and if he can show his glory through a trans Christian, or a lesbian Christian, or a gay Christian, why can’t we just let that be?

One of the lessons that my Global Ministries course emphasised again and again is that the gospel message transcends culture. No one culture has a claim to it, and you don’t need to belong to a certain culture in order to be acceptable to God. That being said, we are guilty, I think, of equating “American” culture with “Christian” culture. How much of what we as Christians share with differing groups is the gospel itself and how much of it is our own cultural baggage? “You have to be like me, too.” It is well past the point where we need to look hard at our beliefs and work to separate the one from the other. Only in answering that question of culture will we be able to see that those we call different really aren’t all that different at all.

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2 thoughts on “A Question of Culture

  1. I don’t get the whole gun ownership thing myself. There are plenty of people out where who have their own hoard of them and they way they talk: “anybody touches her, I’ll shoot him” “if he sets one foot on my property, he’ll catch some lead poisoning” etc. it’s as if they’re itching for a chance to shoot somebody. I don’t think that’s a great mentality for Christians to have. The Ancient Christians weren’t supposed to trust in Egypt’s chariots; the most powerful weapon of the day, nor should we trust guns to save us. If somebody is going to be a dangerous wildcard – they’re going to do it whether or not you have a gun, and I don’t think anyone wants it on their conscience they shot dead a would-be intruder who turned out to be dating their daughter (happens all the time.)
    On collective vs. individual salvation; let’s not forget the instances in the Scripture where the head of a household made a decision to believe and then the entire household was baptized. Jesus lives in a society where collective salvation was the reality and it was just as good as individual salvation because a collective is made up of individuals who are on the same page. It’s us who don’t know the culture of the Bible who might think it odd because it’s not just the Bible, but a tradition handed down through us as based on the interpretation of others.
    One forgotten principle is that Christians should try to live a quiet life, being at peace with everyone as far as it depends upon them. It’s when Christians try to regulate others, that they start a conflict. Jesus lived in a world controlled by Rome, a Rome that had a tolerant attitude to homosexuality, Jesus never instructed his disciples to be hostile to Romans who don’t believe as they do. But that was when Christians were not the ones in power. Christians are the ones in power and they can’t seem to resist using it to push their agenda and create laws. That’s not what Jesus had told them to do – he said that they should lord their authority over others.

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    1. I understand where you’re coming from on the whole gun ownership issue. I don’t view it that way myself. There was an attempted break in nearby a few years back, and from what I heard afterwards, the act of cocking the shotgun was enough to scare the guy off. That’s how I view it, as a deterrent. Actually using it is a last resort. And maybe that does mean my faith isn’t as strong as it could be. I’m not sure.

      As for the rest, you hit the nail on the head. We’re supposed to serve others, not push our own views on people who don’t agree with them.

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