Friday, March 10, 2006

Culture and the Gospel

After graduating from high school, Amanda was excited about leaving for college. She could hardly wait to meet the overseas students who were attending from various parts of the globe. First hand exposure to foreign cultures was something that Amanda had looked forward to as long as she could remember. As a child, few of her family members shared her excitement. Indeed they thought her strange, and thus stifled her desire for interaction with others (not of her culture). Amanda's first year at university went well enough, but there were still barriers to real cultural exchange at the school where she attended. Then came her sophomore year, and things got worse. It seemed that although Amanda was able to meet and interact with some individuals who were culturally quite different, the experience was not always quite pleasant. Frustrated, Amanda asked herself, "Why do I feel I have to leave America to meet others, when there are so many foreign students here?" "There are even many first and second generation kids here at school, who are culturally American and something else, and still I cannot seem to form friendships with them -- is something wrong with me?" "They seem friendly enough to me as long as they need me for my voice in the talent show, or for my speed in soccer, but in the cafeteria, or during study groups outside of the class, or just for fun, they either act like they don't know me, or they just seem to disappear."

Amanda soon found herself discouraged as she encountered another strange phenomenon; many students who shared her cultural history, often resorted to treating her as a traitor when they saw her talking with students from other cultures. Amanda wondered, "Will I ever be free to be myself, and still be accepted?" Slowly, she came to the realization that the university she was attending did not promote cultural interaction between its students. Oh, it promoted itself as place foreign students could attend and become degreed; it promoted itself as a place where students could learn side by side; it even encouraged students to put on cultural activities where others could go and be entertained; but genuine student interaction in the area of culture, genuine reciprocity between students was not encouraged, it was ignored.

Like Amanda, we may believe that being among persons of different cultures is exciting. As such, we are willing to taste -- even if reluctantly -- foods from foreign lands, while we listen to exotic music. We admire (some) foreigners' attire, and may even occasionally be enchanted by their accent as they attempt to speak English. What I've noticed however is that culture divides us. As the selfish human beings we are, we tend to believe that our culture is better than others. This being the case, we become inclusive of those who are similar to ourselves, and exclusive of those who are different. Not only is this the case, but also we exclude ourselves from entering into and experiencing the culture of others. By engaging in this kind of self-preservation, we not only reject the culture of others' as a whole, but we also reject the individuals themselves who practice that particular culture. You see, to outright reject the culture of a people, is to reject the people themselves, for it is the culture that forms the individual expression. Christ has said that this is contradictory to the focus of our mission, which is to "preach the gospel to all nations, tribes and languages" (Matthew 28:18-20).

Cultural pride is what separates us into the various religious assemblies or bodies. We, who are supposed to be one in Christ, separate ourselves racially, ethnically, and culturally. And when challenged on our divisions, we rationalize our thinking and subsequent decisions. Culture, it seems, is that ethereal thing that encamps our surroundings and not even God can penetrate it. Evangelicals for example, blame the culture of the West, for the problems that the world faces. Euphemistically, they substitute the word 'culture,' for Sin. Unfortunately, culture is given too much credit by those who really should know better.

Culture is the sum of attitudes, customs, and beliefs of a group of people. It is transmitted in various ways such as through language, the use of rituals, objects, institutions, and through artifacts from one generation to another. Culture is embedded in our way of life, and is hard to quantify because although pervasive, it frequently exists at a subconscious level and thus tends to escape everyday thought. Dynamically changing -- although gradually and imperceptibly, culture both embraces and resists change, so that what is unacceptable at present, may become passé in a generation or two. One thing is sure: we all contribute to the culture and are affected by it.

Replacing that which we consider inferior culture with a higher-level culture does not help us, because, culture is man made. And, like man and anything man makes, culture is frail and plagued with Sin. Just as no human being is in and of himself good in God's sight, so very little that originates with man is good, and that includes man's various cultures. Our earthly cultures will not even exist in Heaven, for they are the derivative of the fall of the tower of Babel. In fact, Christ Himself indirectly worked against cultural norms when He walked on this earth, by seeking to bring all men into Himself. He was and is 'the Saviour of all men.' Christ's sacrifice was such as to diminish cultural differences, by bringing down the cultural barriers, which divided us. Yet, Christ did not offer any social program, corporate scheme, or political agenda to accomplish His goal. Instead, He poured out upon His agape love, as demonstrated through
His cross then left us with His greatest gift, the indwelling Holy Spirit. Folks, Christ rebuked the Jews because they gave more weight to their cultural norms and traditions than they did to the Word of God. Sadly, our generation is guilty of the same Sin. We value our culture -- whether ethnic, racial or Seventh-day Adventist -- more than the Word of God. And we have allowed Sin – disguised as Culture -- to creep into our churches, thus perverting the simple truths of the

Abraham was instructed by God to leave all behind and move to a land that God would show him (Genesis 12:1). This was so that he would learn to trust God in all things. Moving away from a land and people that were familiar was painful to Abraham; moving to a land which he did not know, while trusting God to lead him was frightening. Yet he trusted God. It was the Lord's devising that Abraham and his offspring should become a peculiar people above all the earths' inhabitants, which the Messianic first advent should occur through his lineage. To have a people prepared to both birth and herald the coming Saviour, it was necessary that the bent to idolatry be stemmed, and the knowledge of the character of God be taught and practiced free of external cultural influences to the contrary. According to scripture, Christ is the Creator, Redeemer and lover of all men. As such He did not reject anyone because of his or her culture. While on earth, Christ participated in cultural activities, which did not conflict with the principles of His kingdom. Through the power of the Holy Spirit His character remained above reproach. As the disciples came to love Christ, and after His death, to see in Him the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophesies pointing to the suffering servant who was to die for the world, they too were kept from the taint of the surrounding corrupt culture of the Jews, and others. We will be kept too, by the same power and through the same means. And so will those who in the end receive the promised "latter rain." In allowing Christ, to hold onto them, the remnant will all be one in Him, untainted by any cultural or sinful traits this world has to offer. For the remnant, culture will not be a hindrance, but under the power of the Holy Spirit, will instead be an asset in reaching the hearts of others as they preach the Gospel.

Folks, it's not our job to either indulge exclusiveness, or to get rid of the culture that divides. Our only job and hopefully our delight, is to submit to the Holy Spirit's work in us. For only He can implant: the culture of oneness in Christ and exclusivity to Him - while ridding us of the sinful cultural exclusiveness toward others.

Raul Diaz & Maria Greaves-Barnes

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