Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Losing Our Cultural Baggage

At first, my anthropology professor danced gingerly around the issue.

She had been discussing the cross-cultural encounters Christian missionaries were creating in the late 19th Century: white Anglos "discovering" native tribes in Africa, South America, and the Far East.

Back when whites called these people groups "savages," and the "savages" had no idea white folk even existed. In addition to their religious message, early missionaries introduced Western clothing, rudimentary healthcare and technology, and other society-altering concepts to the natives.

From a purely post-modern, 20th Century perspective, this college professor had been trained to hold those white missionaries in disdain, not only for claiming religious superiority, but for trying to foist Western culture on illiterate tribespeople. Why didn't these so-called Christians have any respect for the world's primitive yet sustainable foreign cultures? Even if you took religion and faith out the picture, should they have deliberately asserted their values onto another culture?

Yet my professor also knew the direction our class discussion might head when she was finished with her lecture. What about the malnutrition, lack of medical care, and the oppressive treatment of women which characterized many of these "uncivilized" tribes? Isn't it worth disrupting a culture when the changes you can bring to it will actually benefit its society in the long run?

As the class discussion progressed, our professor tried to indoctrinate us with what has become a widespread belief: that all cultures are equal, that they all have intrinsic value, and that to make judgments or infer a hierarchy of qualities between them represents arrogance and a Western ethnocentricity that belies a lack of education, respect, and understanding.

Are All Cultures Equal?

Coming from the typically liberal mouthpiece of scholastic universalism, such a tolerance and celebration of culture automatically sounds sinister to evangelicals, doesn't it?  But what is the degree to which we people of faith have bought into the same mindset?  Although we agree that ours is the one true faith, and all other religions of the world teach falsehoods, everything else about culture - both our own, and foreign - is largely good.

Isn't that a bit dangerous?

For the most part, the styles and normalcies of anybody's culture should enjoy the right to be free of suspicion or any other negative light.  We hear this from politicians who want all of Islam - except its fanatics - to be respected alongside Judaism, Christianity, and other non-totalitarian faiths.  We hear this from urbanists, who tried to convince New Yorkers that illegal graffiti was a legitimate art form, and who say that gangsta rap gets a bad rap from uptight bigots who don't appreciate urban angst.  We hear this from amnesty advocates who malign English language proponents as being anti-pluralistic.

We even hear this in our own churches, from parishioners who are trying to marry their love of our North American pop culture with personal lifestyles, evangelical mandates, and corporate worship programs.  If we don't understand the culture around us, if we don't emulate it, and if we don't make church relevant to it, then we're going to become impotent and incapable of impacting our world for Christ.

At least, that's what we're told.

The longer I participate in organized religion in the United States, however, the more convinced I become that we are drinking the pop-culture Kool-Aid when we subscribe to notions that the Gospel's relevancy depends on our culture.  Isn't that a completely backwards approach to doing church?

Part of the problem is that since we live and breathe the culture we're in, it's hard to fight the conviction that our lifestyle is a good sort of normal.  It's easy to think that our comparatively exceptional North American society is worthy of emulation. That it isn't as bad as the fire-and-brimstone preachers of old claimed it to be. The Jesus People, seeker-sensitive, church growth, and even Contemporary Christian Music movements have all been built on the idea that pop culture can contribute to faith in God.  And judging by the numbers, the success of these movements in keeping churches relatively full appears to give them - and their idolization of pop culture - validity.

Anthropology's Little Secrets

Nevertheless, if any culture can be proven to be less than ideal, then how does that fact impact the whole model of cultural tolerance for tolerance's sake?

The current June issue of National Geographic featuring, ironically enough, an article entitled "The Birth of Religion," also discusses the surprisingly common practice of child marriage. Even if you're already familiar with this despicable cultural phenomenon, listen to this explanation of it from as anthropologically-sympathetic a source as can be found:

"Forced early marriage thrives to this day in many regions of the world - arranged by parents for their own children, often in defiance of national laws, and understood by whole communities as an appropriate way for a young woman to grow up...

"Child marriage spans continents, language, religion, cast. In India the girls will typically be attached to boys four or five years older; in Yemen, Afghanistan, and other countries with high early marriage rates, the husbands may be young men or middle-aged widowers or abductors who rape first and claim their victims as wives afterward, as is the practice in certain regions of Ethiopia." (page 87)

Pretty grim, huh?

I could go on about the vaginal checks for virginity that Egyptian army personnel conducted on women arrested during protests there this past March.  Or the inter-tribal slaughter going on in various corners of Africa.  But it doesn't take much evidence to convince most people that my anthropology professor was wrong.  All cultures are not equal.  All societies aren't good.  Some are better than others.

Which, while some may be better than others, doesn't mean that even the good ones are entirely good.

Pop Goes the Culture

Writer Stephen Johnson has tried to put a positive spin on North America's pop culture by writing a series of books explaining the industrialized world's obsession with technology.  In his 2005 bestseller Everything Bad is Good for You: How Today's Popular Culture is Actually Making Us Smarter, Johnson asserts that modern media like television, movies, and video games has actually improved our society.  However, his argument rests on the success of a tiny portion of what media experts consider to be good programming, such as the TV show Lost.  That's hardly a foolproof way of validating our entertainment-driven society, is it?

Few critics can lambaste all that makes up pop culture as universally horrible - not even me!  What people like Johnson who defend pop culture fail to see, however, is that they're taking what few attributes may exist - and most cultures have at least a couple redeeming qualities - and extrapolating them into an exoneration of the entire culture.  And in Johnson's case, raving about Lost completely ignores the fact that math and reading scores among United States schoolchildren continue to slide. 

So much for pop culture making us smarter.

Nicholas Carr, on the other hand, has posited a far more realistic perspective of what is perhaps the singlemost influential factor on North American culture today:  Internet technology.  In a surprisingly candid article on Brietbart.com, Carr admits that although the Internet has provided society with an unprecedented amount of easily-accessible information, it is, at the same time, corrupting our ability to extrapolate that information and glean pertinent conclusions from it.

"It encourages quick shifts in focus," Carr explains, "and discourages sustained attention and the ability to think deeply and creatively about one topic and to challenge conventional wisdom."

Not only might Internet technology be dulling our senses and intellectual reflexes, it may be costing our economy money.  Carr relates that he has "heard from several companies struggling with otherwise intelligent employees who were unable to focus and concentrate on problem-solving."  This after years of their employees being exposed to our Internet culture.

Now, obviously, the Internet itself is not evil.  Neither is television, or religion in general. Or even, for that matter, pop culture.  It's what you do with anything, the value you give anything, and your ability to corroborate anything with the benchmark of truth.  Not popular beliefs, not good-sounding theories, but utter, infallible truth.

Democracy isn't inherently truthful.  A majority of us may vote for something - or someone - that turns out to be a mistake.  Capitalism isn't inherently truthful, either.  Money is neither good nor evil, but loving money is a sin.

Let's see; what else makes up our North American society?  Rock music was born out of musical rebellion, extramarital sex and divorce out of sexual perversion, horror movies out of an unholy lack of respect for death... shall I go on, or have you already started to tune me out?

In, But Not Of

My point is simply this:  believers in Christ are to live our lives as actors in this world, but not adherents of it or slaves to it.  God warns His followers that the world is not our friend.  To the extent that His Creation exists for His purposes and our pleasure, we can enjoy the many graces God extends to us through His sovereign provisions.  But through it all, should our focus be on the created, or the Creator?

Maybe it would bring some comfort to my former anthropology professor if she realized that Christians who evangelized unreached people groups in the 1800's didn't bring nearly as much "civilized" culture with them as evangelicals try to stuff into our lives today.  Although the culture in which you and I now live is arguably less holistically genuine than theirs was then.

Still, God has specifically placed us in this day and age with the same expectations He had for His 19th Century servants.  To worship Him and enjoy Him forever.  The tools available to us today may be different and more sophisticated, but then again, so are the temptations and opportunities to stray from our mission.

Some believers may consider this an unnecessarily negative way of looking at culture.  I, on the other hand, consider it to be quite freeing. Picking and choosing from culture according to our Standard, Jesus Christ, helps us keep the strains and compulsions of the world around us in context.

Not just because North American society is so corrupt, carnal, selfish, temporary, and vapid.

But because our Eternal Hope isn't.

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