Spirit of Grace Ministries
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Spirit of Grace Ministries
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Culture within a Culture

Rock and Country Singers

by Dennis Pollock

Because I frequently travel internationally and because I have a wife who was born and raised in Nigeria, I am keenly aware of the power and effect of culture. Culture essentially represents the habits, ways, foods, dress, styles, values, and various unique features that distinguish one group of people from another. When I went to Nigeria to officially seal the engagement between me and my wife to be, I found myself in a negotiating session with her family representing one side, and several local ministers representing me and making sure the other side didn’t take advantage of me. After we were married I learned to eat okra soup with fufu, and took delight in my wife talking to her relatives over the phone in the peculiar language of the Igbo tribe. What a far cry from my own experiences growing up in Missouri, eating hamburgers and pizza, playing baseball, and watching Popeye and Mighty Mouse on television as a child, and Star Trek and The Man from Uncle as a teen!

Whether we realize it or not, culture plays a huge role in all of our lives. To a large extent, it determines our values and priorities, and gives us the tools to assess right or wrong, good or bad, beautiful or ugly, pleasant or distasteful. The problem with this is that our particular culture, whatever culture that may be, is not an infallible guide to matters of morality and wisdom. We had no say in the culture which enveloped us from our birth. In many cases we automatically assume that our culture is the only right culture; everyone else’s culture, to the degree that it differs from ours, is deficient and inferior. Americans like to think of themselves as super tolerant and respectful of any and all cultures, but in truth we are as committed to the mores and values we absorb from our culture as any African tribe or Asian people. We fail to recognize that we and our culture could be dead wrong in our values and beliefs.

When individuals receive Christ as Savior and are born again, they are immediately immersed into a great conflict of cultures. If they have any insight at all, they come to realize that the culture which has cradled and influenced them from childhood is in serious conflict with the Bible they have begun to read and what they are hearing from Christian friends and ministers. And if they press on to seriously follow Jesus Christ as Lord and Shepherd, changes of both attitudes and behavior are inevitable.

The result of all of this is that the church of Jesus Christ, the body comprised of believers throughout the world, becomes a culture within a culture in every part of the world where they reside. Japanese Christians can no more fully accept the current Japanese culture than American believers can embrace the American culture, or Africans their particular African culture. Many aspects of culture have no moral or spiritual dimension, and can be retained without problem. But those cultural aspects which seriously conflict with the truths we read in the Scriptures must yield to the words and ways of God.

Food

Hamburger and fries

One of the most clearly identifiable aspects of culture as you travel across the world is food. Although the foods we can grow and eat are limited in this world, it is amazing to see just how creative and how unique various peoples can be in preparing their daily meals. In America we have Italian restaurants, Chinese restaurants, Mexican restaurants, Greek restaurants, and Indian restaurants, to name a few. Much of what they prepare is made of similar ingredients like chicken, beef, and wheat, but how different they all are! Some of the foods, particularly the sugary desserts, are incredibly tasty, but are of almost no value nutritionally. Yet because they are linked with a particular culture and because they taste so amazing, people rarely question them or berate themselves for partaking of them.

In the kingdom of God, we, too, have our own unique foods – the word of God and Jesus Christ Himself who is our Bread of life. While the world feeds on the junk foods of trash TV, amoral movies, profanity-laden, sexually-suggestive music, dirty jokes, and risqué novels, born-again believers feed on Christ and the Bible. We attend Bible studies, read our Bibles at home, listen to sermons and Scriptural teachings, and attend men’s and women’s Christian retreats. The apostle Paul gave believers instructions about the spiritual foods they are to eat, writing:

Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy–meditate on these things. (Philippians 4:8)

In the view of evangelical Christians, the purest, noblest, and most lovely words and truths ever to be found in the history of our world may be discovered in the pages of the Bible. These words and truths shape our attitudes, determine our values, and conform our hearts and minds to the mind of God. The problem with this, as far as the world is concerned, is that we end up disapproving of certain behaviors which they have decided are perfectly fine. As we read the Scriptures we discover that God is just about as liberal with His “Thou shalt not’s” as He is with His “Thou shalt’s.” There are a great many behaviors which He condemns as immoral.

This is especially problematic in our American culture when it comes to sexuality. Americans, as a whole, have decided that sex is OK: any sex, all sex, as much sex, and as bizarre sex as possible, as long as it is between two consenting adults. As they spend time feeding on the Scriptures, Christians find that God doesn’t seem to feel this way. He is big on heterosexual sex within marriage – and that seems to be the only kind of sex He will in any way approve. And when we speak out on these matters, the world calls us haters, bigots, homophobes, and hopelessly primitive. But this has nothing to do with hating, or with fearing certain types of sexual expression - this is essentially a dietary matter. Our Biblical “meals” contain significant amounts of wholesome morality and purity, and we can hardly be blamed for feeling as we do. We are what we eat!

Language

Another feature which distinguishes one culture from another is language. In many cases separate cultures speak entirely different languages; in other cases they speak the same language but use widely different expressions, idioms, and accents. A friend of mine had an English visitor comment on how “homely” his wife was. The British fellow meant this as a compliment; the word homely in his country referred to a woman who was friendly, cooked well, and kept the house clean. But of course in American English homely simply means ugly. Luckily my friend knew the word’s British meaning and took no offense.

Among Bible-believing Christians there is an unusual dialect never to be found in any other culture. The differences have to do both with what is missing from our speech that may be found in the outer culture, and what is present which is conspicuously absent from the world at large. The Biblical culture in which we find ourselves has much to say about our words. In the Psalms, David prays, “Set a guard, O LORD, over my mouth; keep watch over the door of my lips” (Psalm 141:3). Jesus tells us, “By your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned” (Matthew 12:37).

Christians speak a language which the world finds puzzling. They speak of things like justification, repentance, the new birth, salvation, redemption, and atonement. These are words describing Biblical and spiritual concepts, things that mean everything to us, but virtually nothing to those without Jesus Christ in their lives. It is true that when people without any Biblical background or knowledge enter our churches they may have a hard time at first with such words and concepts. But this is why Christ has anointed and given teachers to the church. Any pastor or Bible teacher with even a moderate degree of skill and knowledge can explain redemption or justification or repentance in a few minutes. This is the business of the church. We are to teach and proclaim spiritual truths in plain and simple terms and use frequent illustrations, even as our Lord Jesus did. If the sinners are hungry for the truth they will soon get it!

Behavior

African womenBehavior plays a huge role in the Christian experience. Christianity is not merely a set of doctrines and beliefs to which we must hold. It also involves a lifestyle which we must embrace. The Bible tells us: “Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from iniquity” (2 Timothy 2:19). Jesus says: “You are My friends if you do whatever I command you” (John 15:14). Just as the lifestyle of a farmer differs entirely from that of a stock broker, and the daily routine of an African shopkeeper could hardly be more different than that of an American bank president, so the lifestyle, behavior, habits, ways, and routines of born-again Christians should be radically different from that of those who have no use for God in their lives. Non-Christians watch television programs we would not dare to watch. They indulge freely, cheerfully, and shamelessly in sexual experiences that would fill us with guilt.

At least that is how it should be. Sadly, too often the church has come to resemble the world so closely, it is hard to imagine that they are supposed to represent two radically disparate cultures. Imagine taking a thousand people from the Massai tribe in East Africa, and planting them in my home city of McKinney, TX. They are provided with homes, jobs, and all that they need to live the American dream. These people, living in what they would consider a strange and foreign culture, would cling to one another, and would no doubt maintain many of the trademarks of their culture. They would continue to speak the same language to one another, they would dress in their traditional clothing, at least when they weren’t at work. They would find special stores selling African foods, and cook their old favorites again and again. Eventually, perhaps, they might become absorbed into the American culture and ways, but it certainly wouldn’t happen any time soon. They would, for quite some time, be truly a culture within a culture.

This is precisely what our Lord Jesus would have His followers to be. God’s word tells us: “You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9). We are called to dress more modestly, speak more reverently, interact with people more kindly, conduct our business more honestly, relate to our spouses more respectfully, respond to the poor and weak more compassionately, and take our faith far more seriously than one sees among those who do not follow Jesus Christ.

It is a little humorous to hear how young men these days call one another brother or “bro.” They got that from us, you know. Calling one another brother or sister goes all the way back to the New Testament days. When Ananias was called by Jesus to go and pray for Saul, who had just had his conversion experience, he greeted Saul (who would later become Paul the apostle) with these words: “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you came, has sent me…” (Acts 9:17). Of all the people in the world, we who are in Jesus Christ are the only true brothers and sisters. We have been born again through the same Holy Spirit, we serve the same Lord Jesus, and we have God the Father as our divine parent.

There is another difference between the Christian culture and so many other cultures you see in the world. In many cultures, outsiders are looked upon coldly and are not welcome in the various gatherings and events of that culture. In the church of Jesus Christ it is not to be so. When we see the thief or the homosexual or the drug dealer come to our gathering we rejoice – not because every lifestyle is considered valid in God’s eyes – far from it. Rather, we rejoice because we know the power of the gospel, and that even the most ungodly and wretched sinner may be one gospel presentation away from a total transformation and immersion into Christ’s culture of faith, obedience, and everlasting life.

 

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