The Arabs have a saying; “Even for the monkey, her own child is most beautiful”. Like many a truth in jest, this affirms that it is normal to love your own. You embrace those things you experience up close and personal. It is natural, to love your own culture.
In Canada, we have “Multiculturalism”, an unofficial take on immigration which allows every group to belong to the Canadian family, but remain separate enough to celebrate its own heritage. It’s the opposite to the melting pot in the USA where your own culture takes a back seat to the broader whole. I am not sure which is the better model. We Canadians like to thumb our noses at the USA, which seems to be in love with its own military and founding myths. We see ourselves as more virtuous because we do not force newcomers to take our culture and abandon theirs.
Most of us grew up with a concept of culture, mainly viewed through the lens of food. A trip to a Chinese restaurant was a cultural experience. When we were SO dominant, smiling fondly at the quaint habits of others made us feel benevolent. After all, our culture was best. It was cohesive enough to not feel threatened.
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 Nazareth in the GTA than there is in Nazareth, and yes, the culture is alive and well. We live a strange hybrid of culture within our home that springs from some Arabisms and some Canadian-isms.
Culture by nature feeds on other culture and adopts some words and some practises. There are some funny words in Arabic which spring from the English mandate period in Palestine. For example, they call an undershirt a “fanella” which I only much later realized was a bastardization of the English term for the same thing: your flannels. As these things go in a hybrid household, our kids had to realize that some things they thought normal, only existed inside the home. One daughter asked her friend on a cold day if she wore her fanella. The friend of course did not know what she was talking about. It was the kind of story everyone laughs about in the end. Yes, culture grows some funny things.
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 original brouhaha in the nascent 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 were important. “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 last few years have driven a wedge between people because of various cultures. Identity politics for example, separates groups and assumes they can no longer get along. The infighting takes a toll on culture. If your culture is white, Christian, and European in origin, you are told that you must now hang your head in shame over the sins of your colonial forefathers. You can no longer assume that your culture is best. In particular, western culture is on the decline. You are not allowed to celebrate your own culture.
We come to times like Easter where the idea prevails that all religious affiliations are private matters and separate from the secular state. If you are Christian, you celebrate Easter in your own home. People give equal time to other religions nonetheless. They may wish you a happy Easter or Passover, just like those people who will throw out the idea of Kwanzaa at Christmas time just in case they left anybody out.
But it’s 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 is the thing my wife most misses about her own home. There, people unashamedly celebrate Easter in public. Churches are a large part of this, and your own particular religious heritage takes the fore as part of your own identity. How else for example, are Christian Arabs to separate themselves from the habits of their Muslim neighbours? And so they celebrate in the streets, and everyone knows it is Easter and rejoices. They greet each other jubilantly with the greeting “Christ has risen!” to which you respond, “He is risen indeed!” Whether you are religious or not, it has become part of your culture and tradition.
I used to criticize this kind of thing. We were brought up to believe that the Catholics were “cultural”. Their belief was not a one-off that sprung from a religious conversion, they were cradle Catholics who absorbed their religion as part of their upbringing. We were of course superior because of the nominal nature of our own belief. We CHOSE after all to follow Christ. We did not absorb religious practises by way of tradition.
The philosopher Soren Kierkegaard made himself a pariah on these kind of assumptions. In Denmark they had the state church. To be a good citizen, you were part of the Church. It was part of being a Dane. Kierkegaard excoriated the church leaders in his writings, arguing for a deeply individual conversion as more true and lasting.
True and lasting… I look around me, and my wife complains that there is no feeling and no sign 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. There were assumptions that Christianity was part of our culture, that are no more. Rampant individualism and secularism has driven it out. And so I look at my wife’s culture, and see the beauty of Easter, celebrated by tradition in their culture. It is alive and well because the yearly reminder makes people glad, to grab onto the belief, to graft it onto themselves as the way things should be.
And so I have learned a few things. Cultural Christianity is not so bad, if it makes your faith a part of your life. How naive we were to imagine that our 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 the ways that last might be best after all. 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.