Treasuring and transcending culture

The imbedded values of those whom Euro-Americans presumed to instruct may have more to teach us than we surmise.

By Molly T. Marshall

“Where are you from?” is one of the most frequent questions posed when getting to know another. Recently, leaders of a local Korean congregation invited me to dinner, a lovely affair that did not require my awkward use of chopsticks! It was wonderful to learn about how my hosts had made their way to the United States. Perceptive hope and hardy faith undergirded their deliberate decisions to make their home in a new land. They still marvel at courage and creativity in this journey, and they readily give thanks to God.

When asked about my own heritage, I spoke about my Indian Territory/Oklahoma and Texas roots, maternal and paternal, respectively, but this hardly satisfied. One older gentleman kept probing by saying, “Where was your family before that?” I was stumped, and then I dredged up the Scottish-Irish forebears (although I could not name villages or counties), and this seemed to give enough information to be able to locate me ethnically and socially.

I realized that I needed a longer plotted familial trajectory to understand land and place as they understood it — maybe a Braveheart scenario to ensure my lineage. Thankfully, I have enough freckles to argue for the ancestry I mapped. As I reflected on this conversation, I became aware of the generational conservation of treasured culture, as well as its fragility when transplanted.

I also thought about the faith I inherited; it did not come to me with too many layers to deconstruct. Christianity, not Confucianism, was the theological orbit of my family. Our task was more to separate civil religion from authentic discipleship than to try to embed new paradigms of grace rather than merit.

Impressive was the linguistic facility of these Korean friends and lingering affection for their first language, remarkably intact after 40 or 50 years away from their homeland. At church and at home, this central cultural expression sustained identity and connection. This practice raises questions about how we manage the shifts that come with global and theological movement.

Most pastors and thoughtful laypersons have encountered Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture, at least indirectly. He constructed a time-honored taxonomy delineating how the gospel engages varied topographies of thought and practice. Written at the midpoint of the last century, this perceptive volume understands the nuanced ways that Christ encounters the regnant cultures: against, accommodation, above, in paradox, and as transformer. All are still in play.

One of the tropes of postmodernity is that Christian mission has been colonialist and proselytizing — destructive of cultural holdings and devoid of inclusive perspective. Barbara Kingsolver’s novel, The Poisonwood Bible, portrays the hegemony of Western Protestant missionaries and the cultural insensitivity displayed in their endeavors.

European and North American missionaries believed that what they had to offer was worthy of hearing and reception, and even with their cultural blunders, the outcomes may have more promise than peril. At least this is the conclusion of a persistent sociologist named Robert Woodberry who has begun researching the actual impact of missionary presence in “evangelized” countries.

His surprising conclusion is that the presence of missionaries is the single largest factor in ensuring the health of nations. This flies in the face of the wariness many of us carry about charges of cultural imperialism. Mission produced health care, education, growth of infrastructure, and linguistic expansion. It actually did more good than harm!

Yet, there is a shadow side to any engagement with culture. That which seems too “foreign” or not easily understood, is often consigned to the realm of “paganism” or “godlessness.” The encounter with “otherness” challenges one’s own cultural trappings and beckons the winnowing of what is essential to what might be adiaphora,“things indifferent,” in the language of Calvin.

We cannot abdicate, however, a clear-eyed prophetic denunciation of those expressions of harmful practice, for example, the misogynist patriarchy that continue to stalk many countries, including our own. Global news is filled with atrocities directed toward women and children, and we must not think that protesting this reality is imperialism.

Literary works — as well as theological tomes — are ripe for interrogation. As my esteemed editor Robert Dilday reminds me, the attitudes toward Jews in Shakespeare, privileged in an earlier era, will not pass muster in a world growing in its intercultural sensitivity. Hard won wisdom, which arose out of the chastening realization of the cruelties spawned by stereotyping, transcends this cultural boundary. More insight will follow, I trust. In the Christian worldview, the Risen Christ continues to transform and transcend cultural parameters.

Thankfully, we are learning that the imbedded values of those whom Euro-Americans presumed to instruct may have more to teach us than we surmise. The cultivation of community and a culture of shared goods declare that personal acquisition has it limits, as well as destructive outcomes. We need to learn this before it is too late.

The gospel always roots itself in the distinct soil of the culture. Through the pruning work of God’s Spirit, it will flourish in new forms that transcend the old.

OPINION: Views expressed in Baptist News Global columns and commentaries are solely those of the authors.