Monday, June 06, 2011

Christians Have a Culture, Too

There is a Biblical mandate for God's people to be distinct from those who do not know God.  There always has been.  It was that way with Israel, and it is to be that way with Christians (though I would argue in different ways).

Today, this very Biblical concept can, I believe, sometimes become misguided amongst Christians.  There are two things that often happen.  First, we become ethnocentric and elitist.  As a result of that, we start to care only about our tribe.  We don't often care too much about the broader culture or cities and towns we live in -we only care to the degree that the environment impairs or obstructs our Christian ideals and wishes.  We may be involved in lots of charity work and give to the poor and what-not, but at the end of the day that is what it is: a good deed we are supposed to do.  We don't really see them as equals.  Second, we make up lots of rules and implicitly act as though they are what God wants, even if we would never outwardly admit that.  For example, "No real Christian would watch R-rated movies."  Or how about, "Serious Christians don't have television."  Still better, "You listen to secular music?  Eww... I can't believe you don't have a Chris Tomlin shrine like I do!"

The main reason this happens, I think, is because we don't see that we have a culture, too.  There is a layer of abstraction in the middle that becomes invisible to us -our own culture.  We often see ourselves so much in terms of distinction from the broader culture that we are blind to the reality of our own culture.  What's the point?  The point is that culture is a layer of abstraction that we must be aware of in order to think and live justly and lovingly in this world.  Otherwise, we fall prey to the two errors above.  Christian liberty is lost.  And the unbelieving culture around us, honestly, usually just sees a bunch of up-tight, 'got-it-all-together' religious people that they would never go to with their problems and hurts.  We can say, "Oh no... I don't have it all together.  I'm a sinner."  But when they see our attitude, they aren't convinced.  Couldn't it just be the smell of Christ?  It could be, but it could be the smell of filthy rags, too.

Tim Keller, in his book Generous Justice, illustrates what I mean by being "blind to our own culture" with the following:

"When I went to seminary to prepare for the ministry, I met an African-American student, Elward Ellis, who befriended both my future wife, Kathy Kristy, and me.  He gave us gracious but bare-knuckled mentoring about the realities of injustice in American culture: 'You're a racist, you know,' he once said at our kitchen table.  'Oh, you don't mean to be, and you don't want to be, but you are.  You can't really help it.' He said, for example, 'When black people do things in a certain way, you say, "Well, that's your culture." But when white people do things in a certain way, you say, "That's just the right way to do things."  You don't realize that you really have a culture.  You are blind to how many of your beliefs and practices are cultural.'  We began to see how, in so many ways, we made our cultural biases into moral principles and then judged people of other races as being inferior."
In a similar way, I think Christians can fall into this quite easily.  We fall into the trap of becoming blind to our own culture.  We think: it is just the right way, or at least the better way.  Obviously, not everything is cultural -there is still objective right and wrong, but I think, more than we are aware of, much is from our own cultural bias.  Homeschool moms in denim overalls.  Homeschooling.  Anti-television.  The strong tie between Christian belief and certain political party affiliation.  Certain ways of dressing.  Music choice -don't even get me started there.  Honestly, I don't like Christian music.  It isn't because it is Christian.  But sometimes it is because it is too Christian -like it is out of touch with real life, something you might find on a nice card with a Thomas Kincaid picture on it.  But really, I just don't like the way most of the bands I have heard sound, and I think it is overcommercialized.  What can I say?  I'm a punk rocker at heart.  That is my bias.

The point is that if we can no longer distinguish between our biases and the objective morality, with our actions and attitudes, not our words, then we will become, effectively, "racists."  Or maybe, since it doesn't have to do with race, we will be culturalists?  Is that even a word?  I don't know.  You get the idea, I hope.  Maybe jerks is a good one, depending on the situation.

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