Between Culture and Reality – A Thought Along Christian Lines.

The more I think about it… the more I realise that the distinction between ‘culture’ and ‘reality’ is not that easy a thing to see and grasp, unless you can view your culture in contrast with something Other, point for point and distinctive for distinctive. Of course, even then you often end up discounting the Other you’re comparing it with as ‘primitive’, ‘barbaric’, ‘bigoted’, ‘patriarchal’ or ‘undemocratic’ and disqualifying it from comparison before you’ve started. However, I’m not sure it’s impossible to be open-minded enough to try to escape that trap and closed-minded enough not to end up a muddle of multiple relativistic identities. It might be existentially dangerous, it might land you in therapy, or worse – but I’m not sure it’s impossible for certain souls to do and come out of unscathed.

I’m not even sure that disqualifying certain things from comparison would necessarily be unhelpful in all cases – there might be some cases where it was helpful that I haven’t thought of yet.  But I think one would have to know on what grounds one would disqualify something, and on what grounds one would not.  And to refrain from being so open-minded that your brains fall out, you would have to be settled on your non-negotiables, and have objective reasons for them being what they are – reasons beyond “because I think so” or “because it’s *insert generally accepted positive evaluative term here*”.  You’d have to know on what criteria you’d be willing to make compromises before you begin, and how and why those criteria objectively trump all. You need something to refer to – something transcultural – something that’s not going to change. Glancing past evaluative judgements is dangerous business – dangerous because it can leave you marooned between multiple modes of being and understanding and evaluating the world and yourself; between multiple modes of morality. It can lead you away from truth rather than into it, and it can lead you into deception and damnation. But such is the nature of heroic undertakings. Theology, Philosophy, Anthropology, Sociology – you need to see how people can lie, and how people can frame and bias and posture. You need to know what you are and why, and if you value your soul, you need a reason to hold to that even at the price of your life.

I thank the God of Jesus Christ that he has called every tribe, tongue and nation to participate in his Kingdom, and he has let them know who they are in him through his perfect Word, and by his Spirit, and through his sacraments. We can know what we ultimately and cosmically are; we can know what are non-negotiables are, we can give reasons for our criteria of ‘non-negotiableness’ right up to the threshold of the culturally transcendental, and we can give a reason for our hope that goes beyond “because it’s *insert generally accepted evaluative term here*”.   We have a God who has interacted with different cultures and civilizations for millennia, all of whom had their own moral and metaphysical standpoints of belief.  Our God set out to prove from the days of Noah why he ‘trumps’ everything else, polytheism, atheism, dictator-worship – it’s all in the Bible – and he has sovereignly seen to it that all this activity was kept on a written record so that we could have reason to believe in his all-transcendence, and that we could see it at work today. He never promised that we wouldn’t be touted as ‘intolerant’ or ‘extremist’ or ‘naive’ or ‘unsophisticated’ or ‘blinkered’ or ‘ignorant’ or ‘bigoted’ or ‘socially insensitive’. But then, these too are generally accepted evaluative terms – evaluative terms rooted in a school of theory and philosophy, albeit – but they remain culturally bound to the liberal West. Christ was born in Palestine and is still represented today in ever-more countries and communities across East and West by those who love him and choose to call him their God, and that,  in a multitude of cultural forms, practices and modalities of understanding. Our God is transcultural and always has been. As for ad hominem arguments about political power-games and enforcement and theocracy? Forget it. Christ is known in those who love him and trust him and he always was – even before he took on human flesh. Due to the general secularization of academia and the influence of humanism and liberal political sympathies, many of the cultural elites in our research institutions cannot account for things beyond the realm of the sociopolitical; after this point they reach a metaphysical ceiling that cannot be broken through, except to metatheorize their findings. A lot of them view Christianity and socialized spiritual phenomena in general in terms of ‘power abuses’ and ‘power imbalances’ and ‘orthodoxies’ and so forth; that is all their paradigms seem to allow them to see unless they move into a different discipline that focuses on, say, linguistics, or economics, or social narrative hermeneutics, and in my experience a lot of them seem bound to their political paradigms by a sense of moral and ethical responsibility. Unfortunately for the witness of Christ in the world, where the sociopolitical occurs and some of the more politically invested researchers are out looking for whipping boys (I’m thinking particularly of Critical Discourse Analysts), what wins the spotlight is often the unchecked sinfulness of some people within a certain widely-recognised sociopolitical institution called “the Church”. What they don’t appear to understand and can’t see with their own eyes is that Christ operates in a realm far beyond that. Sociopolitics is of the world. Christ’s Kingdom is not.  Christ’s Kingdom is what church is about for those who know it from the inside. As for the outsiders, if Pilate couldn’t understand what Jesus meant by “my Kingdom”, then the rest stands to reason.

There is a very strange power through which God works among those who love him. For me this power is one of the things that links the culturally-produced texts we know as the Bible and their transcendental claims, to a reality that actually is transcendent, and is seen in its cultural universality. It is an apolitical sort of power – a power that astonishes governments and elites rather than working either with or against them.  It is a power that some would sooner call ‘human spirit’, and yet in many cases it is more about humans failing and God working against the odds, and people trusting him.  Nonetheless, the same sociopolitical configurations keep recurring in the circumstances surrounding the displays of this kind of power. It’s the poor, the oppressed and the enslaved – and that, precisely because they are God’s chosen ones – who astonish their powerful oppressors. This is more clearly seen when God’s chosen ones constitute a literal nation or race with a role in international politics – the nation of Israel in the Old Testament both before and after the exile to Babylon – because they are ethnically and politically distinct from the nations around them, so that they and their relationship with those who are not God’s people can be visibly seen and discussed, up to a point, using the various political notions that have come out of our research institutions. However, God’s New Testament people understood that although they came from many different racial and religious backgrounds they too belonged to the same Old Testament race of Abraham as they were “grafted in” by faith in Jesus Christ, and that there was no advantage to being a Jew or a non-Jew in this respect, because it was only through Christ that any could be saved at all through the new covenant that God had established with his people that was sealed in Christ’s blood.  They knew that they were citizens of a non-geographical promised land and were waiting to return there like the post-exilic Jews to Jerusalem, that is, they were “citizens of heaven” living as “strangers and exiles on the earth” (Romans 11:17, Philippians 3:20, 1 Peter 2:11). In New Testament times and beyond, it was no longer of any advantage from a soteriological perspective for a Christian to be ethnically Jewish.  Because the church founded on Christ was multiethnic and multicultural from the start, herein lay the capacity of the Christian worldview to be sophisticated enough, when adhered to in an orthodox manner, to process many different cultural realities through its own lens.  Nonetheless, New Testament people of God are harder to identify and account for using social narratives and political notions due the language of ‘strangers and exiles’ being applied to a body of individuals whose identity transcends ethnicity and nation-politics. In the evangelical tradition in particular, at the heart of understanding of socio-metaphysical realities of where the Kingdom of God is truly found, is not the question of culture or social identity but that of faith’s authenticity – of whether any given individual’s Christian faith is authenticated as being really and truly being of Christ by its fruits. The following verse highlights the insufficiency of simply calling oneself a Christian by virtue of the label as a means of ‘being’ a Christian in a real sense: “Examine yourselves, to see whether you are in the faith. Test yourselves. Or do you not realize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you?—unless indeed you fail to meet the test!” (2 Corinthians 13:5). To be properly ‘in the faith’ by this definition means more than simply claiming the title ‘Christian’. This need for internal examination to determine authenticity of belonging makes Christians much harder to account for in external studies, and begs the question as to what extent any country, ethnicity or social group can properly be dubbed as ‘Christian’ as a whole by this definition.  So Old Testament examples of men and women of God are easier to identify and account for.

Throughout the New and Old Testaments the particular power of Christ in his people does not usually consist of that people’s campaign to receive permanent rights or special status from their governments – rather, their power is in their capacity to astonish people, and particularly governments, through God’s visible work in them by their faith, and special status is something that they often passively receive afterwards as a divinely-ordained reward for this faith. This is the power, for instance, of a second-youngest Hebrew son sold as a slave to Egyptians by his brothers and thrown into prison for false charges of sexual harassment from his rich owner’s wife, who from prison won the respect and astonishment of Pharoah and was even rewarded with the position of prime minister of Egypt, after interpreting Pharoah’s prophetic dream with his gift of interpretation from God, and thereby saving the nation from famine. It is also the power of a shepherd boy who astonished a king, a giant and a nation with courage born of faith in his God, who enabled him to slay the giant without any armour or formal weaponry, but only a stone in a sling. It is the power of a Jewish woman and her father in Persia where the Jews were a persecuted ethnic minority, who risked her life to expose an ethnic cleansing plot against those whom she believed to be God’s people. The power of Christ is also seen in the life of a Hebrew slave in Babylon, centre of the cultural elite in the ancient world, who although a Hebrew slave was educated in the imperial Babylonian courts like a free-school-meals state-school-originated Oxford Modern Languages undergrad at the regal Christ Church college (“of the foundation of King Henry the Eighth”), in the (foreign to him) language and literatures of the Babylonian Empire.  This slave, although impeccably mannered and an exceptionally accomplished scholar, astonished the king not by any linguistic or cultural knowledge, but by the special ability given to him by his God to interpret a dream of the king’s without the dream being revealed to him first. When he eventually ended up being thrown into a lion’s den and a fiery furnace for his beliefs as a result of a blasphemy/gagging law pushed through parliament by Babylonian politicians jealous of this Hebrew slave’s high standing with the king, and by his own firm conscientious refusal to reverence the Babylonian god and relentless faith in facing the inevitable, the slave showed the astonished Babylonian king the power of the God of the Hebrews when, miraculously, the lions did not harm him and the fire did not burn him.
Finally, and most importantly, the express power of the Judeo-Christian God is the power of a carpenter’s son destined in the Jewish Scriptures to be born as an apparently human person yet called “God with us” and “God saves”, recognised by those who knew him as the king and author of the salvation of the Jewish and non-Jewish world, co-eternal with God the Father and co-creator of the cosmos before having taken on flesh to be born as a human man into a manifestly pre-ordained place and time in history.  This “God with us” was born in a cowshed out of wedlock in the remote town of Bethlehem and raised in the dodgy end of Galilee; was visited and worshipped as a baby by astrologers and esoterics who might not even have believed in the Jewish God; performed miraculous wonders and signs and displayed immaculate knowledge of the Jewish Scriptures without having received formal training; fulfilled over 300 prophecies from these Scriptures thereby authenticating his identity as the king, prophet and priest to come out of the Jewish people who would extend membership of God’s people beyond the Jews and into the wider world by atoning for their sins with his own sufferings.  He astonished Pontius Pilate at his death row trial on charges of sedition and blasphemy by being blatantly innocent, yet refusing to defend himself, and allowed himself to be scourged and nailed to a tree to suffocate to death in order to remain true to the mission and identity that he knew was his own.  This man rose from the dead, achieved forgiveness of sins for every tribe, tongue and nation by his atoning death as promised in the Scriptures, sat down at the right hand of God the Father to share in his glory and received a name above every name in heaven and on earth, accumulated support at an astonishing rate after his resurrection, even though his followers were being brutally persecuted and murdered under a fascist regime, and he humbled governments and peoples by his life, work, identity and legacy hundreds of years down the line. Today, in most countries of the world, this man Jesus Christ is known by some people, if only a few, and the Bible is translated into the official language of their state, and continues to be translated into languages with emerging literacy systems. A handful of women in Iran have had dreams about Christ and their entire villages have turned to worship him; inexplicable signs of Christ-worship have shown up on remote, formerly undiscovered islands on which no missionary has trodden; Christ’s followers are still growing in the West and the East, and followers in North Korea and states oppressed by Islamic extremism are still choosing to be killed rather than forsake him, where there is no church-state forcing their choice.

The worshippers of the God of Jesus Christ who live up to their title have their own particular power and a presence in the world characterized by it, and due to their diversity it is possible to perceive nearly every culture in the world through their vantage point.  However, it perhaps cannot be said that Christianity can be viewed adequately from other vantage points, unless in fact it is one’s aim to regard the religion of Christ without Christ, for all he is and is worth, at the centre of it.  Christianity when viewed from outside a worldview that hinges on the implications of Christ’s divinity will always look distorted, and this is where problems can occur for those interested in exploring other ideological vantage points who then look back on their faith from them. If the Christian worldview looks implausible or simply way-out from certain angles, know that it always did do when viewed according the perspective of outsiders who are fully-committed to non-Christian ontologies and belief systems: “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (1 Corinthians 1:18 NIV).  As it is in its most stark form, the message of the Cross of Christ at least does not appear completely reasonable when viewed through the lens of all forms and schools of human wisdom (including secular humanism), and it was not meant to.  Christ was supposed to “startle many nations”, and it was promised that “kings will shut their mouths because of him” (Isaiah 52:15 RSV).  Can Christ possibly look ‘normal’ or ‘plausible’ from all possible vantage points if it he destined to startle nations and shut the mouths of kings who view him as outsiders? Is it probable that the ontological categories built into their analytical tools will provide adequate scope for him to be described by them accurately? The ways of the God of Israel have startled other kings and their nations throughout the stories of the Bible – even kings of Israel who were not committed to God in faith. God’s ways cannot be viewed in their purity through a mindset that makes compromises with the wisdom of the surrounding world without seeming slightly crazy (1 Corinthians 3:19). And so there is a point somewhere along the line at which in our studying and our sociopolitical and cultural exploration, carried out according to the secular epistemological paradigms of the disciplines with their ontological limitations, we have to meet with a brick wall when it comes to analysing ourselves in light of them, and we have to be mindful of what it does to our faith when we voluntarily look at the Cross of Christ through an ontological prism that doesn’t allow for a Biblical hermeneutic accounting for the supernatural, for Lordship or for absolutes, and such that it makes the Cross look foolish to us in an enduring and habitual manner. It may be worth mentioning that far less might be at risk by not venturing too far down this path.

The power of our God through faith – that uncanny, weak-seeming, profoundly unsophisticated, surreal, non-militant kind of power, unscripted by conventional social narratives – the kind of power that beggars belief –  is after all most known in those humblest, persecuted places, amongst the marginalized and the poor and the oppressed, according to our evaluations.  It is thus most known among those who do not have the time or resources to dispose of studying cultures and theologies and writing blogs and trying to stretch their heads around experimental ways of viewing the world through other cultural eyes. Many of these people simply practice their beliefs as they have been taught, vulnerable insomuch as they have no learning that could give them any kind of discernment of error beyond supernatural gifting, and they just cling to Christ and his Word as and when they have access to it, as a limpet to a rock. Not that study is necessarily unprofitable – but it is risky, and often doesn’t pay off well in proportion to the risk. The powers that be – the Pharoahs, the King Sauls, the King Nebuchadnezzars, the King Ahasuerus, the Pontius Pilates of this age – are just beginning to look on and behold these poor, simple persecuted Christians and their unsophisticated lives  and knowledges – and I dare imagine that those who can bear to look on long and hard enough will be astonished just like their Biblical forbears were. Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin made an unexpected statement of solidarity with the persecuted church last August in dialogues with the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Prince of Wales made an impassioned statement in the Daily Telegraph about persecuted Christians in the Middle East last December. Former Anglican Archbishop Lord Carey followed up a few days later. The UN lent an ear to the persecuted church in Syria at the Geneva II Peace Conference in January after public petitions and prayer campaigns led by the advocacy team of persecution watchdog, Open Doors.  Some of the powers that be are starting to take note. What has changed in the ways of God since the days when Joseph, David, Mordecai, Esther, Daniel and Jesus of Nazareth walked the earth?  Little. And as in ancient times, few things astonish the educated, the powerful and the elite whom God has chosen to astonish more than reports of the way God works to defend his poor, oppressed and persecuted followers. God’s ways are unchanging; he declared so in his Word, as revealed to the Jews, the first of his adopted people, and later to the rest of us. Are we discouraged while we sit in our comfortable, sheltered homes, standing on the human rights that protect us, getting grumpy and bullish about the latest instance of someone being fired from a job for their Christian scruples, that we don’t see any miracles or mass-conversions here? Maybe we’re not looking for them in the right places and situations. God seems to have a thing for the oppressed who trust him to fight for them, rather than fighting for themselves.

But we’ve travelled a little way off-topic.  My point is that under democracy, communism, monarchy, oligarchy, fascism – under any style of government or configuration of popular culture and ideology that the average Western educated person can name – Christ has been known and loved genuinely for what he is, even if only by a handful in a generation, in spite of either political enforcement or political persecution, or political distortion of his message and cause. Christ is nearly a cultural universal in the very broadest sense of the word. He is known in his Words, in bread and wine, in the forgiveness of sins he achieved by pouring out his blood, in all that he stood for, and in all of their reflections in life and nature and man. He is known in the people who believe in him as the Son of the only God of international sovereignty and influence throughout all ages whether recognised as such or not, whether backed by powerful governments or preached by powerless grass roots movements. He is known almost worldwide in those who love and believe in him and trust him; in those who live as he lived, who claim what he offered, who serve as he served, who love as he loved, who approve and reject what he approved and rejected. The work of God in the days of Joseph and David and Esther is still going on where there are Josephs and Davids and Daniels and Esthers and Mordecais in this world. There is a transcultural identity in that, a rock on which to stand when all other variables change.  There is a right and a wrong and eternal Words that expound them, and a human heart to believe in them, that cannot be coerced by political powers or threats and persecutions. When we see a plurality of beliefs, philosophies, political systems, truth-monopolisers, hegemonic consensuses and authorities, that’s what we can cling to.

Transcultural Christ in cross-cultural love: a church in Hamburg provides refuge for African asylum seekers in the wake of the Libyan crisis.


Photo credits
Top Photo: CassAnaya via photopin cc

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  1. Pingback: A Sight for Sore, Western Christian Eyes. | If clay had lips...

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