I am sitting in the Den, looking out of the window at the trees in our orchard, and thinking about the way we are shaped by our particular culture. I am not just thinking of my own inherent ‘Englishness’ but of the way I have also changed in the two years I have been living in rural Dorset, resulting in me becoming far more relaxed and laid back about things. Spending a month living in Israel-Palestine during our recent sabbatical also proved to be something of a ‘culture shock’ with its varied, very different, and at times conflicting cultural identities. Pride in our ‘cultural roots’ is big at the moment. In some ways this is good, but in other ways it is perhaps not so good. On one hand it has fed the unhealthy rise in ‘nationalism’ we are plagued with today, and amongst Christians it has been used to justify all kinds of unhelpful views and behaviour patterns. One of the things that our sabbatical in the Holy Land indelibly impressed upon me is the conviction that, rather than allow ourselves as Christians to be shaped by the various cultural patterns and forces around us, we should discern, take on board, be shaped by that particular culture that is ‘Christian culture’!
The word culture has many different meanings. For some it refers to an appreciation of good literature, music, art, or food. For a biologist, it is probably a colony of bacteria or other microorganisms growing in a nutrient medium in a laboratory Petri dish. For anthropologists and other behavioral scientists, however, culture is the full range of learned human behaviour patterns. The term was first used in this way by the pioneer English Anthropologist Edward Tylor in his book, Primitive Culture (1871). Tylor suggested that culture is ‘that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.’ Culture, of course, it is not limited to men – women possess and create it as well. Culture is a powerful human tool for survival, but it is a fragile phenomenon. It is constantly changing, can be easily distorted or even lost altogether, and in most cases cannot be relied upon because it exists primarily only in our minds.
What struck me in a major way during our time in the Holy Land was the way in which – even as Christians – our beliefs, convictions, and behaviour patterns are shaped by our cultural identities … even if that culture is not necessarily Christian and, indeed may actually militate against Christian culture?! A comparison between the evangelical Arab Christians and the Messianic Jews serves as an example of the way in which we are shaped by our respective cultures. Thus, the evangelical Arab Christians we met, and enjoyed wonderful Christian fellowship with, displayed a number of the characteristics associated with Arab culture. They are very relational people (rather than institutional), family orientated – the family always comes first whatever the circumstances. They are very laid back – everything is done (and it does eventually always get done) in the ‘Arab way’ and according to ‘Arab time’. They are also governed by the ‘honour-shame’ concept that in Arab society is the primary device for gaining control over children and maintaining social order. In contrast, the Messianic Jews we also met, and enjoyed Christian fellowship with, displayed many of the characteristics associated with Jewish culture. The Jewish ‘chutzpah’ or ‘in your face-ness’ (which is seen as a virtue by many Jews) is there in bucket loads, which means that Messianic Jews are very confident people who really do believe that they are right (even when they are wrong). They are very activist and hard working, determined to get things done – another Jewish trait – and the Messianic Jewish Congregations we came across were a hive of activity with a lot of community based stuff going on. They are also more Zionist than the Zionists, strongly believing that ‘the Land’ belongs to the Jews by right – although interestingly they display here that, in addition to their inherent Jewish culture, they are very influenced by American culture (perhaps not that surprising since many of the first Messianic Jews came from the USA), particularly the ‘dispensationalist views’ held by many fundamentalist American Christians.
I am not seeking to be critical of either Arab Christians or Messianic Jews in highlighting the above cultural characteristics. There is a lot to be said for being relational and family orientated, relaxed and laid back rather than taking ourselves too seriously, concerned about doing the right thing, being confident and hard working, holding to what we perceive to be God’s promises to us. Nevertheless we still need to continually question how much who we are, what we believe, how we behave, both as individual Christians and as local congregations, is shaped by our cultural influences rather than by the grace of God? Do we simply accept our cultural shaping rather than question it? What is good about the effect our cultural influences have on us, and what is not so good? Is it possible to be too family orientated, too laid back, too concerned about being seen to do the ‘right thing’? Is it possible to be over-confident, too active and ‘works’ driven, too sure that we are right (especially when we are wrong)?
And, of course, we Brits are equally guilty of being shaped by our cultural influences rather than the grace of God? Take our approach to corporate worship for example. Some Christians adopt a ‘reserved’ approach to worship, which they justify on the grounds of showing respect for God – ‘worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness’ – when, in reality, it is probably has more to do with our ‘Britishness’ than anything else? Other Christians are all for ‘contemporary praise and worship’ claiming that this is more ‘Spirit led’ – ‘worship the Lord in Spirit and in truth’ – when in reality it probably owes its popularity as much to the cultural influence of the American music scene in recent decades as it does to the influence of God the Holy Spirit?
A ‘culture vulture’ is someone who steals traits, language and/or fashion from another ethnic or social group in order to create his or her own identity. The point I am trying to make here, is that we are all ‘culture vultures’ in one way or another – more than perhaps any of us are prepared to admit. We are all the products of our cultural influences and this affects what we believe, how we worship, what we teach, how we behave, and so on. Some of these cultural influences may accord with Christian culture, but others may not – indeed some may ‘ape’ Christian virtues in a way that results in warped Christian values that may be actually damaging to us and to our work and witness.
This problem is not new. Paul writes to the Philippian Church – a church, in a city deliberately built as a Roman Colony to mirror Roman culture in every way – and reminds them they are ‘a colony of heaven’ (Philippians 3:20). In other words they are to be aware of the danger of being ‘Roman Christians’ – allowing their faith and practice to be shaped by their Roman cultural identity – and rather be shaped by their Christian cultural identity. They are to become a man or a woman ‘in Christ’ (2 Corinthians 12:2)! Time for us all to stop being ‘culture vultures’ of one form or another, and learn to become the people and churches that God wants us to be in Christ!