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The Meeting of Two Cultures

Written after a session of discussion on this matter at youth meeting on the 6th November, 2004

 

Culture denotes the shared values of a certain community of people. Indeed man is a cultural creature because he operates within a boundary guarded by those cherished communal values. In the Christian man, cultural issues may at times pose difficulties to his profession. For now, though still a member of his cultural community, he also is a member of the Church, a redeemed community of God’s people. Inevitably, conflicts will arise between his former culture, which still is his culture, and the new culture he had embraced as a Christian. The conflict of these cultures may eventually aggravate into the clash of cultures where the man has to decide which of the cultures will he adopt and the other that he must drop. But the question that comes to mind is this; whether we must altogether shed our former culture, i.e. the culture of our non-Christian community, and opt for a “Kingdom culture” or syncretize the two cultures, carefully weaving threads of compromise around conflicting values? Or perhaps the two alternatives were indeed a false dilemma posed. Maybe there is another more subtle and less extreme manner to respond to this meeting of the two cultures.

 

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. – Revelation 21:22-27

 

In his vision, John saw the entrance of the kings of different nations into the New City. The kings would probably represent the people of different tribes and tongues and of diverse nationalities coming to pay tributes to God. When entering through the gates, they brought along with them, the glory and the honor of the nation. One could almost imagine the colourful scenario of a crowd of a myriad presentation; the Chinese with their silks and red dresses, the Indians with their glorious sari and jippa lined with golden threads, the Europeans with their pastel costumes and flowing robes and probably dignified double-breasted suits, the Africans looking beautiful in their traditional outfits and accessories. And it is not difficult to imagine from thence the boisterous troops with accompany the kings, how the entourages may be making sumptuous music praising the greatness and the goodness of our Lord Redeemer, all playing their ancestral instruments and melodies. This exhibition of variety of cultural elements becomes clear to us that the redeemed indeed brought along with them their cultural background into the city, those which are redeemable for the glory of God. Of course, the picture presented here may be a little of an exaggeration, but the point is, the meeting of the two cultures will give rise to a more glorious experience. On earth, when a tribe sings God’s praises in their tribal tongues and tunes which hitherto were instruments of worshiping false gods, it became evident that the meeting of the culture of man and the Kingdom culture results in the purifying of the former by the latter. Also when the values of one community were met with the higher biblical morality, the former will be enriched by the latter. Thus, the meeting of the two cultures need not end with an usurpation of one or the syncretion of both. The Kingdom culture can and should purify and enrich human cultures. Our human cultures as far as it is redeemable should be redeemed for the glory of God.

 

We learnt in the doctrine of the verbal and plenary inspiration of the Scripture that God did not possess the holy writers to write something that supersede their own experiences and backgrounds. Nor did He dictate the Writ in such way as to causing it to be written thereafter in a new language or style more divine than human. It was through the whole person of the writer, his cultural experience and intellectual capability that God inspired the production of the Bible. While retaining the human elements, God did providentially influence these elements to produce the work that He wanted. Did not Luke, a scholar and a learned person write a better piece of literary work than that of John, the crude fisherman? Both of them wrote with whatever knowledge and skills they possessed, the same that was used when writing other documents. Nonetheless, while the writers may commit errors in the latter processes, God so supervised the process of producing the holy Writ that It was excluded of any doctrinal, factual and historical errors. Each biblical writer was equipped with his respective cultural, intellectual, occupational values and these were employed by God to cause His words to be written down, inerrably and infallibly. Again, the point is this; certain elements in our culture can be redeemed to serve the true God which formerly served falsehoods and human desires.

 

There are some who protest that the cultures of man usually proceed from pagan philosophies and thoughts, and therefore unworthy to be brought into the Kingdom. The majority of the Chinese culture which hinged upon the teachings of Confucianism and Taoism was deemed unchristian and should be shed. But let us also remember that in the pagan world, God also by common grace, endowed wisdom and understanding of His truth to certain people. These truth may profit us much especially when viewed under the lenses of the Scripture. The preacher Stephen Tong once said that the Tao (i.e. the Truth) of Confucius is profound, but the Tao of Laozi is even more so. The Tao of Apostle Paul however, is the greatest. Saying this did not stop him from applying some of the ideas of these great Chinese philosophers. As we subject the Tao of our own cultures to the scrutiny of the Tao in the Scripture, we may arrive at a greater understanding of the one through the illumination of the other. Even Paul quoted the Phenomena of Aratus – Act 17:28 - when speaking to the Athenians, being aware that it was a dedication to Jove, to shed light on the concept of the Fatherhood of God. Formerly when the Greek poet contemplated on the relationship between the Creator God and humanity, he only recognized the relationship, one such as that of a father and son, but he did not recognize Who the Creator God truly Is, hence ascribing to Him the name of the chieftain of the Roman pantheon, Jove. Paul who possessed in him the true knowledge of God proclaimed to them that ‘twas not Jove but Jehovah. He, however, did not discount the truth of the Fatherhood of God as pronounced by the Greek poet. Instead, he purified the original belief, declaring Jehovah in place of the false Jove and he enriched the concept by now offering a true experience of being God’s children. There are other parts of the Scripture where Paul explicitly referred to non-Christian traditions to bring across a teaching – 1 Cor 15:33, Titus 1:12. Wherefore we may also be assured that the philosophies of our forefathers and the traditions of our pre-Christian community need not be thrown out altogether with the hot water of paganism. The fact is that there may be found brilliant truths in the teachings and thoughts of non-Christian thinkers, the key is to submit these teachings and thoughts to biblical inspection before applying it in life.

 

The Lord Jesus himself lived in a heavily cultured society. Instead of rebuking the traditions of his community in that sense, he had many times demonstrated that we can adhere to cultural practices. From his contemporary clothing to the traditional food and beverages that he partook, from the Jewish wedding feast and funerals that he had attended to his own burial method; all was in accordance to the Jewish culture, some inherited from antiquity, some which had evolved from the same. If a Christian would say he opt for a biblical funeral, it would be equivalent to saying that he is opting for a Jewish funeral. That in Jesus’ time these practical activities of life were conducted within a cultural context was no doubt. That the Scripture did not prescribe a specific culture for the Christian man in this sense probably implied that God had never meant us to abandon our cultural roots in toto. When It charged that there neither is Greek nor Jew, the Scripture did not mean the annihilation of culture and race, but rather that the mercy of God and the election to grace is unbiased and unconditional. God desires that every tongue shall utter allegiance to Him – Rom 14:11 - perhaps not in a heavenly language (perhaps in a new heavenly language), but as we see of it today, in every language of man, God is praised and worshiped and is beseeched and begged through prayers and supplications. We can and we should speak of Christ in one voice, in our own language. Here, the divisive factor of culture is even overcame by Christ. It is, therefore, possible that one of the greatest evil of culture – divisiveness – may be dealt with this way. If in Christ, the two irreconcilable natures, divine and human, may unite yet are without confusion, so in Christ too, cultures may unite yet remain unique. Our duty is to deploy those parts of our cultures that may be sanctified to serve YAHWEH our God and to deal with, through Christ, the other parts that are evil and irrevocable.

 

It must certainly be stressed that certain elements (the degree of majority differs from culture to culture) just cannot be redeemed at all. In the same way in the New City where all that are unclean will be left outside, the evil elements of our human culture are unacceptable in God’s Kingdom. Therefore, at the meeting of the two cultures, the superior culture, the Kingdom culture, will be like a filter, purging all the things that are against God and His law. The Christian man ought then to exercise discretion, thinking the mind of Christ and examining his conducts and culture against the Scripture in order that he may gain whatsoever that profits therein for Christ while rejecting whatsoever that are unholy and unrighteous. While the meeting of the two cultures is inevitable, it need not result in the confusion and dilution of the Truth.