The other day my wife and I attended an interfaith forum at our church. The forum was held to discuss the racial tensions in our metropolitan area and to propose a way for the different segments of our society to stand united against expressions of hate. The event brought together members of a predominantly white Methodist church, a predominantly black Methodist church, and a Jewish synagogue, and although everyone in attendance had come with a unified purpose, cultural differences were evident everywhere.
A black musical trio performed a call to unity and, as they began, the largely white congregation sat and watched the performance with fascination, leaving a stillness in the room that clearly unnerved the trio who were accustomed to standing, clapping, and dancing as accompaniment.
Finally, the white congregation recognized the trio’s discomfort and began to clap in a slow, hollow, and awkwardly imprecise rhythm. Although the crowd’s engagement seemed to settle the trio's nerves a bit, it also clearly revealed the white congregation's lack of hand-ear coordination.
At the end of it the forum, the Jewish rabbi stood and led the crowd in prayer, speaking first in Hebrew and then translating for those in the room who could not understand. As the forum ended and my wife and I exited, we found ourselves asking how the rabbi was able to keep the yarmulke on his balding head.
This forum highlighted a few of the simple differences in expectations and values between cultures - even cultures that share commonalities in our social situations (we all lived in the Kansas City area), the heritage of our faith (Christianity stemmed from the Jewish faith), and even specific doctrines within our faith (the black church and the white church were both Methodist).
By allowing the people in the room to interact with different cultures, the forum challenged us all to understand our own cultural biases and, through that self-knowing, to understand more fully how we are all bound together in the Kingdom of God. Our particular cultural expressions are like a veneer overlaying our shared humanity.
What is Culture?
Culture, when viewed as the embedded values and assumed behaviors particular to a group, lies at the very heart of what it means to be human. Just as the mathematical principles of resonance exist within music - regardless of whether the musician understands those principles - so does humanity as a social institution exist within the reality of culture. Culture is the natural byproduct of human social existence. Wherever groups of people gather, culture is inevitably formed based on the shared values of that group, and that formation is influenced by the group’s basic behavioral tendencies as well as the environmental effects of their world.
This definition encompasses such aspects of culture as group traditions (like Christian celebrations of Christmas), behavioral norms (like dressing appropriately for church), shared standards of excellence (like preferred musical styles), and fundamental expressions of communication (like language and liturgy). Broad cultural groups can be divided almost indefinitely into sub-cultural groups of increasingly more nuanced definition - as long as a group remains, cultural assumptions can be extracted from it. A single person may be a member of many nested subcultures that each carry their own distinct markers, such as: Christian, Protestant, mainline, Wesleyan, Methodist, United Methodist, and so on.
What makes a "good" or "bad" culture?
Measuring the inherent “goodness” or “badness” of a culture is difficult or impossible. Because humanity is fundamentally cultural, any external measure a person attempts must carry cultural assumptions of its own, so any such measure cannot result in an objective conclusion about the positivity or negativity of a the examined culture, but can only deliver a relative status based upon stated comparisons.
For example, a patriarchal culture may be found to diminish the social status of women relative to the value afforded women in an egalitarian society, yet that same patriarchal culture may elevate the status of all people when compared to a slave-holding society. The culture of patriarchy cannot be said to be inherently “bad” because such a conclusion would have to rely on the assumption that the status of women is a primary value - an assumption which is itself based on cultural standards.
Perhaps the most helpful standard against which to measure a culture is that of its own reflective self-critique. To what extent does it meet or fall short of its own system of values? Because the values and behaviors of any given culture are never pre-established as a single, logical, self-contained system - rather, they evolve naturally over long periods of time with many moving and interrelated parts - the culture always has areas in which its values or behaviors contradict themselves. No matter how refined a culture may be, it always has areas of surprising inconsistency, even when measured by its own standards.
If a culture claims to perceive all of humanity as made equally in the image of God, does it dehumanize any segments of the global population, either by glorifying (deifying) or objectifying them? Does it respect all of humanity in the same capacity, or does it emphasize the values of some characteristics over others?
By such reflective evaluation, a culture can identify its failures and seek to change its assumptions to better align with its own values. If a culture’s primary value is to honor God as revealed in Christ through Scripture, it must see itself honestly enough to constantly challenge itself to better understand Scripture, better follow the teachings and example of Christ, and better know the priorities of God.
This perspective might lead us to conclude that the only way a culture may be considered inherently bad may be if it is unaware of its own existence. If a cultural group does not recognize that it adheres to assumed cultural norms, it cannot manage the trajectory of its evolution and, rather than improving its internal consistency, it devolves into an ever more inconsistent application of its own value system.
No culture is inherently Christian, but one that seeks to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ must be able to critically examine itself in light of other cultures, see where it fails to meet Christ's standard, and do the hard work of adapting. The interfaith forum my wife and I attended was important not as a demonstration of the inconsistencies of other groups, but because the interaction with other groups highlighted our own inconsistencies and challenged us to be better followers of Christ.