More on Culture

What an awesome response to “the 150% person!” Having so many people interact and express their ideas is exactly what I was hoping the blog could become.
After reading all these excellent comments, I want to exercise my power as the blog-master to steer the conversation in a specific direction. I commend those of you who are emphasizing the principle from Galatians 3 that our unity as believers is founded on the fact that we are all possessions of Christ and heirs of the promise of Abraham.
However, I want to give a gentle reminder of the context of this principle. The Galatian church was struggling with a cultural identity crisis. The Judaizers were creating an environment in the church that placed Jewish culture above the culture of the Gentiles. Paul was warning the Galatians not to fall into a trap of legalism created by culturally determined laws. So, Paul was not advocating the creation of a single unified Christian culture. He was actually endorsing a culturally pluralistic vision of the kingdom where Jews could be Jews who follow Christ and Gentiles could be Gentiles who follow Christ and they could all worship together in the same church. So when he said there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, neither male nor female, Paul was not removing all cultural distinctives. If that were what he meant, then we would also remove all gender distinctives, too.
Jesus Christ did not come to abolish culture; he came to redeem it. He is in the business of reusing and recycling the cultures of the world for his glory. He loves us as individuals, which means he loves us as the person that he made us to be. Our culture, gender, education, experiences, personality, or whatever else combines to make us a unique person are all things that Jesus loves and wants to redeem for his purposes.
The concept of the incarnation helps to illustrate this. Jesus was a Jew, and he was a man. He spoke Aramaic. He was educated in the Jewish tradition, and he taught using Jewish Rabbinical techniques. Jesus was circumcised. Jesus worshiped at the temple and observed the Jewish festivals and customs. But, when Jesus died and was resurrected, did he lose his Jewish-ness? Did he lose his masculinity? Did he speak to his disciples in some otherworldly tongue instead of Aramaic? We can even assume that if the resurrected Jesus had scars on his hands and side, than he was probably still circumcised, too.
My point is that Jesus’ whole plan for redemption was acted out through a specific culture, and even after he was given a resurrected body, he still possesses his cultural identity. Culture is part of the Lord’s creation that was declared to be GOOD. Today, our cultures suffer the effects of sin and the curse of the fall. Part of our role as the first fruits of the new order of the kingdom is to redeem culture for Jesus, to make it good again.

Neil said something great “I am genuinely confused about culture, being a bit of a hybrid myself.” Neil, I’m confused, too. I often find it hard to determine who I am and what culture I actually fit into. The color of my skin makes it easy for me to appear like I fit into certain contexts, but because of New City, I rarely ever feel completely comfortable in all-white contexts. (yeah, that’s right, I said ‘white.’) One of the most awkward moments in my life was when some friends invited me to “Cotton Eyed Joe’s” which was a country, line-dancing club in Knoxville. I felt like a complete outcast and alien there even though everyone had the same skin color as me (except for my friend; she was actually black.) So, I don’t claim to have all this culture junk figured out. Aimee spoke of labels and boxes. It is true that this is a pitfall that comes with embracing our diversity. I hate being labeled as a “white-boy.” Someone once jokingly referred to whites as “the rhythmically challenged.” I’m sure they didn’t realize just how offensive that would be to me. But, these pitfalls are part of the messiness of being a church. Sometimes we offend each other or say stupid things to each other because we’re sinners. If you expect to find that NCF is free of any stereotyping or racism, then you will eventually be really disappointed.
The Lord has laid out his plan for us in scripture. Imagine that plan as a road with swamps on either side. On one side of the road is the swamp of cultural neutrality, which eventually explodes into mistrust, division, and legalism when we try to deny or hide from our cultural distinctives. On the other side of the road is the swamp of stereotyping, caricatures, labels, and boxes, which was so clearly illustrated by Odetta’s uplifting “O Happy Day” experience. Stereotyping and caricatures can sometimes happen when well meaning Christians try to reach out or relate to a culture with which they are completely ignorant. As Aimee and Worku point out, we can sometimes emphasize the differences to the point of loosing our common bond in Christ.
May God’s grace direct us safely down his kingdom road as the light of his Word reveals where each step should fall.
Some specific responses:
Black & White
Darwin pointed out that in his day the catch phrase was “Black is beautiful.” African Americans were embracing that term and taking pride in their “black-ness.” But, the problem I have with these terms is what do you do to delineate between an African- American and an African? Sure, the terms black and white work fine in an exclusively American context, but in our church where we have both Africans and African Americans, the terms just don’t work anymore. The two ethnicities are too different to lump them both into a term that is loosely based on skin color. Conclusion: it’s hard to label people.
Mash Ups
Neil, what do say to a “mash-ups” T-shirt? I can see it now, “New City Fellowship, where the mash-ups worship!” What a great term! I like how it relates the total random combination of cultures that we are as well as the violence and discomfort of being molded by Christ.
Stupid People
Aimee, I’m sure you realize that the people who are asking, “Where are you from?” are actually trying to get to know you better. They are not intending to place you in a box. It’s true that they are making an assumption based on your ethnicity, but try to at least give them the benefit of the doubt. People are stupid; I know because I’m people. Also, don’t be afraid to look for the cultural marks that are a real part of your personality. I never thought of myself as particularly “Southern” until I traveled to California. I never thought of myself as particularly “American” until I spent a few weeks in London. God made you to be Aimee, and he was the one who placed you into the contexts from which you developed your particular identity.

  1. #1 by Neil on November 10, 2005 - 1:52 pm

    Kirk, thanks for the excellent summary. I agree wholeheartedly that culture must not be eliminated. I may chip in more later, but I wanted to tell you where I got my mash up phrase and hopefully that will explain better what I meant by it. This first link talks about how a DJ Mouse made a “mash up” combining Jay-Z and the Beatles:
    They are also known by the cruder term of “bastard pop:”
    My point was simply that these can be a good metaphor for what may occur in an individual or a family or an institution vis a vis culture, and the result can be to celebrate both cultures and the hybrid.

  2. #2 by Aimee on November 11, 2005 - 12:42 pm

    Interesting to watch this post appear and evolve…
    Thanks for addressing my points. Something I did not touch on his how much I love the ways that “culture”, for lack of a better word, enriches my life and makes it unique. Our experiences and environs make us each unique, for that matter. They are tools God has used to shape us and all that, yes. I felt that to be a part of a different discussion at the time, but now it’s been addressed. One of the cool things about cultural diversity is to see that God’s artistry spans many styles of expression…
    Someone asked me how much it bothered me that he had asked me “where I’m from.” It was an interesting question because I knew it bothered me, but I had never assessed how much. I know now that my response to the question is not much more than an internal sigh with a subconscious shrug. I know it’s generally asked out of habit, after all. (It’s only truly upsetting if someone speaks pejoratively or is insistent on validating an incorrect theory they’ve formulated based on my physical features.) Then we graciously move on for the sake of fellowship. The iconoclast in me usually wants to challenge anyone’s obviously dated notions with a fresh yet perfectly truthful response. “I’m American.” (Because I SO am.) I’m not trying to be contradictory or rude. I’m trying to be honest, to broaden someone’s horizons, and maybe help them shed the bad habit of operating on preconceived notions.
    A thing that we “minorities” (also for lack of a better word) must watch out for is reverse prejudice. When someone reveals their inexperience in interacting with people who are not of the same race as their own, we ought not immediately group them into a category labeled “racist” or “clueless” and give up on them. It’s an opportunity to share, after all.

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