In Praise of Culture
Sometimes I want to be from somewhere else. The reason is, that the “somewhere else” people have a very solid grasp of their identity, and strive to maintain it in their new home.
I have had about thirty years to observe this up close, because my wife is from Nazareth Israel and her native culture, is Christian Arabic. I was more than a bit shocked when she came to Canada to discover that there is more of Nazareth here than there is in Nazareth, and yes, the culture is alive and well.
Culture is first mentioned in the Bible with the story of the tower of Babel. The entire ancient world it seems, was bent on a project to build a great tower to the heavens, forgetting their place and imagining themselves higher than their Creator. God became angry and separated them. He made them speak in different languages. They became confused (hence the term “babbling”) and dispersed to separate parts of the world. The oneness project was on hold, at least for the time being.
The book of Acts tells us of the many nations present at Pentecost in Jerusalem. The text mentions those gathered; Parthians, Medes, Persians, Judaeans, Cappadocians, Egyptians and Romans. The miracle of Pentecost was that each heard the gospel in his own tongue. In theological terms, it was the undoing of the Tower of Babel story, where God separated the world by way of language. At Pentecost, the human project is united again, under God’s promise.
The question in the early Christian Church was whether Christianity would be another sect of Judaism, or something else altogether. The breach was significant enough that Paul had to call out Peter for being a hypocrite who hung around privately with Gentiles but was an observant Jew in public. For Paul, Christ meant that there were no more distinctions between human beings that mattered. “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” Galatians 3:28. Distinctions of race faded away at the throne of Christ. In John’s vision of the end of the world races are mentioned again. “After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne…” Revelation 7:9.
And so we come back to culture. The impulses of Western civilization have been shaped by the assumptions of Christianity. It colours our judicial system, and our basic apprehensions of what is right and wrong. But, western culture is on the decline. In a pluralistic culture you are not allowed to say things like “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Easter” lest you offend. But you can defer to the holidays of those other religions.
The problem is, those religions are not my own. It is me who is feeling left out. I want to celebrate Easter. I want to go out and see evidence of it, and to feel it in the streets. It’s what my wife most misses about her own home. There, people unashamedly celebrate Easter in public. They salute each other in the streets with the greeting “Christ has risen!” to which the other responds, “He is risen indeed!”
My wife complains that there is no feeling in Canada that it is Easter time. You see chocolate bunnies on sale in the supermarkets, and that is it. We should be celebrating, and I am somehow sad. When I was a child, we had a Bible reading and the Lord’s prayer in public school at the beginning of the day. Assumptions about Christianity as part of our culture are no more. I really want go out in the street and say “Christ has risen” and have someone else offer back, “He is risen indeed!”
Growing up Protestant, we used to smirk at Catholics as “cultural” Christians. We were not so sure it stuck. Now I am no longer so critical, if culture makes faith a part of your life. How naive we were to imagine that western culture was unassailable. We forgot its roots and and failed to recognize that Christ was at the heart of it.
There are many ways to become a Christian, but to my mind, whatever lasts is best. Whether your belief comes via culture, or by teaching, or by religious conversion, it is good to celebrate Easter. I look forward most, to the true supper of the Lamb whereby all nations and tribes will be gathered around the throne of God crying Holy, Holy, Holy, and all mentions of culture will be a distant image of the past because it will no longer matter.