Posted on November 1, 2015
Copyright © 2017 · All Rights Reserved · Liam Byrnes
Posted on November 1, 2015
All of us at some point or another heard the gospel, and then those of us that sought to live it out did so in particular contexts and surroundings. It is rare that someone goes through their early life in Christ in a place without a strong dominant culture. We learn to live out our Christianity in the midst of culture, and like spilling coffee into a car seat, we will never be able to fully separate them. Neither am I going to argue should we completely attempt to.
First, I should define what I mean in that controversial title by colour-blindness. I have come across this a few times, and it seems to have been a dominant theme somewhere in the 70’s and 80’s, that the way to deal with issues of race and different cultures is to, some how, pretend not to see them. I even vaguely remember a bad pop song seeking to promote this idea of colour-blindness by using the image of a melting pot.
Whilst the idea that we all have equal worth never mind where we were born, the colour of our skin, our gender, or which religion we believe in, is Godly, the denial of the existence of cultural differences and histories is deeply flawed. The narrative that props this up, gestures towards our common physiology and encourages us that somehow; take off the top layer and we are all the same and so we should treat each other as if the top layer (and its cultural implications) don’t exist.
We live in light of generational histories, we are not living in a vacuum, we are people in cultures with histories. These histories and cultures affect our lives and they should not be under appreciated. We can tell from the bible (predominantly a history book about the jewish people group) histories matter.
Cultures are important in the scripture but it should be said they are not the most meaningful thing about a person. They are though, the context in which we have to live out our faith, and living out our faith is something that God is deeply invested in. To deny our cultures removes the ‘landing place’ for heaven to come to earth and imprisons biblical commands to the place of theory.
Jesus himself had a culture. He is a 1st century palestinian jew, and despite attempts of both arianist western depictions to homogenise him into a blond haired, blue eyed image, and the reaction of black liberation theologies to cast him as the african american, he was neither. Someone once remarked that God made us in His image, and we turned around and returned the favour.
Something that may contribute to this sense of culture being a temporary cloak over our common humanity is our reading of the story of babel (found in Genesis 11). On the face of it, you could read it as people who became prideful and God judged them by giving them different languages (which essentially form the foundation of cultures). But in fact, if we read babel in light of God’s earlier word in Genesis then we realise babel was actually a rescue mission for God’s plan all along. In Genesis 9 we see God’s word to Noah and his family to be;
As for you, be fruitful and increase in number; multiply on the earth and increase upon it.” (Genesis 9:7 – NIV)
The Holman translation actually reads “be fruitful and multiply; spread out over the earth and multiply on it.” The tower of Babel was a work of unity to de-throne God and enthrone human ascent and pride. God’s grace was to disrupt this pride and send them out to fulfil his original mission, to extend boundaries of Eden across the earth.
In the new testament as God’s mission spread out rapidly from the jews after Jesus, and Paul’s mission to gentiles, we see the word which is often translated nations. Most people are aware that this word is actually the greek word ethnos, which we call ‘people group’, and people groups are people defined by their culture.
One of the most interesting pictures which include cultures in the bible is a beautiful picture of what is to come, in Revelation 7.
After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands. And they cried out in a loud voice:
‘Salvation belongs to our God,
who sits on the throne,
and to the Lamb.’
A few times when I have been speaking in Church services in different nations, I bring this picture up. The reason I bring it up is because one of the gifts of our modern ability to travel has been to worship alongside radically different cultures. A year or so ago I was in a church service in Scotland where a psalm was read out in traditional scots, more recently we were in taiwan where songs were written by the church community and sung in taiwanese. On top of this, most weeks we get to sing songs in our church community in several languages within South Africa, as well as from Zimbabwe and Malawi. I bring this picture up when I get to speak, because we both get to see a glimpse now, and we are working for the day when we will see and hear it in full.
This is a gift because God loves cultures. The thing to notice is at the end of history when God has gathered up the nations, or ‘ethnos’, He does not boil them down in his melting pot, He gathers them as the nations. I think you can go as far to say that part of the beauty and glory of this image is that it is the nations gathered. It is something about this diversity singing to the King in unity that is beautiful. God wants us all to gather and worship Him, and the beauty is that we are not made into nothing as we do it, but we keep our individual and group identities.
And so, this brings me to the second part of the title ‘Kingdom Culture’ or as follows the title of the band, ‘Jesus Culture’. Well, I hope I’ve shown so far that Jesus’ actual culture was 1st century jewish Palestinian, and I don’t think this is what anyone is meaning when they reference the idea of Jesus culture.
I want to charitable towards this language. I have used it in the past and I understand the impulse to bring Jesus’ life into the present and encourage our emulation of his life. But it trips us up in some important ways we need to pay attention to.
What I think people are reaching for when using this language is, what are the values that Jesus lived by and are coherent to the Kingdom he was announcing. So far, so good. But values are theoretical, take for example, generosity. What does generosity look like? You will find as many answers as you do people. There is not a Law in the scriptures about generosity, not at least in the new testament, but a great and high value for it.
We have been invited into a new way of living. A way forward that involves our attentiveness to the scriptures in the presence of Holy Spirit who leads our responses of spontaneous holiness. Not, even though we might prefer it, a single, ‘one-size-fits-all’ command and explanation for how to live that out. That was the pet-project of the pharisees and something we must be attentive not to re-produce.
We have both the benefit and the challenge of living in a community of many cultures; european, north american, black and white south african, and the many sub-sets of each of those broader categories. Often this ‘kingdom culture’ language comes out at a exacerbated moment of cultural tension. An attempt to appeal to a common centering point in the rough seas of inter-cultural communication. Interestingly the issue that the person claims to be ‘Kingdom Culture’ seems like their own culture, baptised with the name ‘Kingdom Culture’.
Northern Europeans (like me), tend to claim that timeliness and being true to your word is kingdom culture. North Americans claim that honest-talk, stating things ‘as they are’ is kingdom culture. Black African’s talk about open house generosity as Kingdom culture. In part, I think they are all right. But the problem is, we are identifying values and then claiming the way our cultures lives those values are more like Jesus than another culture. They are in essence complaining that there is A way rather than many ways to honour and witness to God’s Kingdom made more beautiful by the multitude of ways cultures can express Gods life made manifest on earth.
Here is my main point, Jesus shows us values, but the values get enfleshed, just as He was, in a culture, and the shape of the enflesh-ing will be different according to culture. This is not troublesome, this is the Glory of God manifest amongst the nations. Our cultures are not boiled down at the end of time, they are a feature of the foundational promise to our forefathers of faith that we would spread out and populate the earth, and God continues to allow them to act like the edges of diamond refracting his light in multitude and beauty.