Adjusting our Vision
When my grandparents were in their eighties, their television developed a fault that made the screen permanently bright green. It was good for viewing garden shows or nature programs, but it was pretty disconcerting the rest of the time. Being a thrifty Scotsman, my grandfather never got it fixed!
Although it’s tempting to caricature culture’s influence on us in this way, its effects tend to be more subtle. Culture gradually adjusts our vision, rather than completely changing it. When you cover one eye, for instance, you still can see everything clearly, but your depth perception is compromised. Basically, you no longer see in 3-D.
Our cultural context works in a similar way. It is a lens through which we view life, shading and adjusting how we see things. And yet, because we tend to look through it rather than at it, we are often unaware that this cultural lens is affecting our vision at all. Modern culture has this sort of influence on our way of seeing life. If Christian vision involves seeing with two eyes—one divine and the other human—modern culture covers one eye so that we begin to see only from the human perspective.
Christian Culture Concerning Alcohol
In the excellent book, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes, Brandon J. O’Brien shares a helpful illustration of how different churches deal with alcohol very differently:
When I (Brandon) was growing up, pastors in our Christian tradition preached often on the evils of alcohol. We were frequently reminded—from Scripture—that “wine is a mocker and beer a brawler (Prov 20:1). Thus, we learn, “Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly! In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper” (Prov 23:31-32). It seemed clear enough to me.
So when I visited the house of a friend, a Christian of a different denomination who had recently moved to town from another state, I was shocked to discover that his parents had a wine chiller engraved with a different Bible reference: “Use a little wine for thy stomach’s sake” (1 Tim 5:23 KJV) I began to suspect that my tradition’s view of alcohol consumption was at least as cultural as it was biblical when I spent a semester in Edinburgh, Scotland, where I attended a church of my own denomination. My first week in town, I was invited to a deacon’s house for dinner. He offered me a drink when I arrived.
“What do you have?” I asked.
“Anything you want,” he answered. “We have lagers, ales, stouts, pilsners, sherry, whisky, port…”
Taken from Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien Copyright (c) 2012 by E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
“High” and “Low” Culture?
When gradations are placed on culture, we begin to put value judgments on which one is superior to another. For example, in All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, Kenneth Myers asserts that there are three types of culture: high culture, folk culture, and low culture. Myers categorizes “high” culture as culture arising from a European heritage. “High” culture is Bach, Rembrandt, classical music, European art, and the theater (ballet and opera, not Broadway musicals). “Low” culture is Bon Jovi, Michael Jackson’s Thriller, Andy Warhol’s soup cans, television that is not Masterpiece Theater, and other expressions of pop culture.
The “high” culture of Europe stood far above “low” popular culture. Myers created a third category that he labeled as “folk” culture. “Folk” was a step above “low” but a step below “high” culture. “Folk” culture was African drumming, Korean fan dancing, or Native American jewelry.
In this schema, culture that was of European origin was “high” (implied better) and closer to God, while folk culture (usually the culture of non-Western society) was a grade below European culture. The implication of these categories is that some cultures are superior to others. An additional implication in this gradation is the closeness of one culture over another to God’s will and plan for creation.
Jesus from a Strange, Foreign Country
For most of us, Jesus’s world is a strange, foreign country. I don’t mean just the Middle East, a major international trouble spot then as now. I mean that people in his day and in his country thought differently. They looked at the world differently. They told different stories to explain who they were and what they were up to. We do not habitually think, look, and tell stories in the way they did. We have to get inside that world if the sense Jesus made then is going to make sense to us now.
An example may help. In today’s Western world it’s common for young adults to ask their parents for financial help to get them started in life. If well-to-do parents refused such a request, we might think them mean. But when Jesus told a story about a younger son asking his father for his inheritance while the father was still alive, his hearers would have been shocked. They would have seen the son’s action as putting a curse on the father, saying, in effect, “I wish you were dead.” That gives the whole story a different flavor. You can’t assume that things worked in those days the way they work now.
Just as I Ain’t
I grew up attending churches designed for church people. No one said it, but the assumption was that church was for church people. The unspoken message to the outside world was, “Once you start believing and behaving like us, you are welcome to join us.” The corollary of being a church for churched people was that we had a tendency to be against everything unchurched people were for.
We were against just about everything at one time or another. We were against certain genres of music, alcohol, the lottery, the equal rights amendment, gay people, and Democrats. Seemed like we were always looking for something or someone to boycott. As strange as all that sounds now, it didn’t seem strange at all back then. Funny how time does that. But our dilemma then is a dilemma the church has struggled with throughout its history. Who is the church for? Who gets to be part of the Jesus gathering?
Culture, like the air we breathe, is a powerful force that cannot be seen but felt. In this short excerpt, the British writer George Orwell describes in The Road to Wigan Pier how his education included not just fields of study, but also biases against those of different social status:
When I was fourteen or fifteen I was an odious little snob, but no worse than other boys of my own age and class. I suppose there is no place in the world where snobbery is quite so ever-present or where it is cultivated in such refined and subtle forms as in an English public school.
Here at least one cannot say that English “education” fails to do its job. You forget your Latin and Greek within a few months of leaving school—I studied Greek for eight or ten years, and now, at thirty-three, I cannot even repeat the Greek alphabet—but your snobbishness, unless you persistently root it out like the bindweed it is, sticks by you till your grave.
The Mixed Bag of Human Culture
Regarding the average human’s awareness of their own culture, career anthropologist Darrell Whiteman has said that “it is scarcely a fish who would discover water.” This is a reliable statement. Humans, rather than recognizing the trappings of their own culture (and that their culture may in fact be very different from someone else’s), tend to assume that other societies are just like their own.
This is known as ethnocentrism and is a human perspective that is as old as the hills. As regards the Christian approach to the Old Testament, consider for example the standard depiction of Jesus in sacred Western art. Jesus is repeatedly portrayed as a pale, thin, white man with dirty blond hair and blue (sometimes green) eyes. His fingers are long and delicate, his body frail and unmuscled. Mary is usually presented as a blond. In medieval art, the disciples may be found in an array of attire that would have rendered them completely anomalous (and ridiculous) in their home towns.
I am reminded of the famous “sacred heart of Jesus” image in which Jesus is, again, frail, pale, light-haired and green-eyed, and Marsani’s Gethsemane in which the red highlights of Jesus’ hair glow in the light from above, while his piano-player hands are clasped in desperate prayer.
These portrayals are standard in spite of the fact that we are all fully aware that Jesus was a Semite and his occupation was manual labor. So shouldn’t we expect a dark-haired man with equally dark eyes? Certainly his skin would have been Mediterranean in tone and tanned by three years of constant exposure to the Galilean sun. His hands would have been rough, probably scarred, definitely calloused; his frame short, stocky and well-muscled. So why is he presented in Christian art as a pale, skinny, white guy? Because the people painting him were pale, skinny, white guys! We naturally see Jesus as “one of us” and portray him accordingly. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Rather, our close association with the characters of redemptive history allows us to see ourselves in their story. And this is as God would have it. But to truly understand their story, we need to step back and allow their voices to be heard in the timbre in which they first spoke. We need to do our best to see their world through their eyes.
The flip side of ethnocentrism is a second tendency I have come to speak of as “canonizing culture.” This is the unspoken (and usually unconscious) presupposition that the norms of my culture are somehow superior to the norms of someone else’s. Like ethnocentrism, this tendency is also as old as the human race. And in case you are tempted to think that the members of your culture have evolved past these sorts of presuppositions, let me counter for a moment. As an American, I spent most of my life simply assuming that democracy was somehow morally superior to monarchy, that bureaucratic cultures were more sophisticated than tribal cultures and that egalitarian relationships were more “advanced” than patriarchal. Why? Because these are the norms of my culture and I naturally saw them as “better than” the norms of others’.
In fact, until challenged, I would have been hard-pressed to even separate the norms of my culture from my values or beliefs. Consider, for example, the early European and American missionaries who wound up exporting not only the gospel but Western culture as they spread across the globe. The New England missionaries to Hawaii are an example made famous by James Michener’s novel Hawaii. Here, as the Hawaiians converted to Christianity, they were subsequently also converted to the high-collared, long-sleeved, long-skirted uniforms of the missionaries. Petticoats and suit jackets for a seagoing people living in an island paradise! … Human culture is always a mixed bag; some more mixed than others. And every culture must ultimately respond to the critique of the gospel.
Taken from The Epic of Eden: A Christian Entry into the Old Testament by Sandra L. Richter Copyright (c) 2008 by Sandra L. Richter. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
No Native Country
The Gospel as such has no native country. He who goes out humbly with Christ in the world of all races will perpetually discover the multiple, but constant, relevance of what he takes. It takes a whole world to understand a whole Christ. . . . Those who take are not vulgarly universalizing their own culture: they are conveying that by the apprehension of which both they and their hearers learn. If the claims of the Gospel are valid it could not be otherwise.
The Upside-Down, Strangely Beautiful Kingdom
The kingdom of God turns the Darwinist narrative of the survival of the fittest upside down (Acts 17:6–7). When the church honors and cares for the vulnerable among us, we are not showing charity. We are simply recognizing the way the world really works, at least in the long run.
The child with Down syndrome on the fifth row from the back in your church, he’s not a “ministry project.” He’s a future king of the universe. The immigrant woman who scrubs toilets every day on hands and knees, and can barely speak enough English to sing along with your praise choruses, she’s not a problem to be solved. She’s a future queen of the cosmos, a joint-heir with Christ.… The first step to cultural influence is not to contextualize to the present, but to contextualize to the future, and the future is awfully strange, even to us.
What do We Mean by “Culture?”
Not very long ago, “culture” commonly referred to what is now meant by “high culture.” For instance, we might have said, “She has such a cultured voice.” If a person read Shakespeare, Goethe, Gore Vidal, Voltaire, and Flaubert, and listened to Bach and Mozart while reading a slender volume of poetry, all the while drinking a mild Chardonnay, he was cultured; if he read cheap whodunits, Asterix, and Eric Ambler — or, better yet, did not read at all — while drinking a beer or a Coke, all the while listening to ska or heavy metal and paying attention to the X-Box screen with the latest violent video game, he was uncultured.
But this understanding of “culture” must, sooner or later, be challenged by those who think of “high” culture as a species of elitism, as something intrinsically arrogant or condescending. For them, the opposite of “high culture” is not “low culture” but “popular culture,” with its distinct appeal to democratic values.
But even the appeal to “popular culture” is not very helpful for our purposes, because it appeals to only one part of “culture”: presumably there are various forms of “unpopular culture” out there too. Today, “culture” has become a fairly plastic concept that means something like “the set of values broadly shared by some subset of the human population.”
That’s not bad, but doubtless the definition could be improved by a bit of tightening. Probably the most important seminal definition, arising from the fields of intellectual history and cultural anthropology, is that of A. L. Kroeber and C. Kluckhohn:
Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behavior acquired and transmitted by symbols, constituting the distinctive achievement of human groups, including their embodiment in artifacts; the essential core of culture consists of traditional (i.e., historically derived and selected) ideas and especially their attached values; culture systems may, on the one hand, be considered as products of action, on the other hand as conditioning elements of further action.
What is Wrong with Us according to Traditional and Modern Cultures
Up until the twentieth century, traditional cultures (and this is still true of most cultures in the world) always believed that too high a view of yourself was the root cause of all the evil in the world. What is the reason for most of the crime and violence in the world? Why are people abused? Why are people cruel?
Why do people do the bad things they do? Traditionally, the answer was hubris – the Greek word meaning pride or too high a view of yourself. Traditionally, that was the reason given for why people misbehave. But, in our modern western culture, we have developed an utterly opposite cultural consensus.
The basis of contemporary education, the way we treat incarcerated prisoners, the foundation of most modern legislation and the starting point for modern counseling is exactly the opposite of the traditional consensus. Our belief today – and it is deeply rooted in everything – is that people misbehave for lack of self-esteem and because they have too low a view of themselves. For example, the reason husbands beat their wives and the reason people are criminals is because they have too low a view of themselves. People used to think it was because they had too high a view of themselves and had too much self-esteem. Now we say it because we have too little self-esteem.
It was a cold December weekend in Chicago, and I was excited. One of my best friends was getting married, and to top it off, he had asked me to officiate the wedding. I was honored by the invitation, though a bit intimidated. What if I botched it and ended up being the guy the editor tried to remove from all the film footage? I was a brand-new pastor and had been in vocational ministry for less than a year, and this was my first wedding. My friend, the groom, was of South Asian/Indian descent, and he was very proud of his cultural heritage. He had promised that the reception in particular would take guests on a deep dive into Indian culture and that we should prepare ourselves for a culturally unique experience.
The reception lived up to the hype, and I had a night to remember. My personal highlight was the dandiya dance, a group of people moving in two circles counterclockwise, holding two colorful sticks. I’m typically hesitant to get out on the dance floor, but the beauty of the dandiya was compelling. When the dance ended, I was still feeling festive from the amazing experience.
So I found my friend and shared with him how much I had enjoyed every bit of that wonderful night. Then I innocently added a comment: “I’m jealous of you. You have such an amazing culture! It must be such a privilege to be able to reflect that beautiful culture during your wedding weekend. I wish I had a culture too.” I had no idea how much was packed into that little statement, but it sure wasn’t lost on him.
He suddenly got serious, placed his hand on my shoulder, and looked me straight in the eye. “Daniel, you may be white, but don’t let that lull you into thinking you have no culture. White culture is very real. In fact, when white culture comes in contact with other cultures, it almost always wins. So it would be a really good idea for you to learn about your culture.”
Taken from White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White by Daniel Hill Copyright (c) 2017 by Daniel Hill. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
See also Illustrations on Cross-Cultural Experience
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Culture. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!