different cultures, same Christ

to redeem the incoherence of the previous post…

GRACE@WORK MAIL 20/10
May 21, 2010 Edition.
(Grace@Work Mail is a ministry of Graceworks: http://www.graceworks.com.sg)

Commentary: I Say Po-tay-to You Say Po-tah-to

By Soo-Inn Tan

One of my favourite movies is Black Rain (1989) with Michael Douglas, Andy Garcia and a number of great Japanese actors. (A large part of the movie takes place in Japan.) The cinematography is beautiful, breathtaking at times. You expect that of a Ridley Scott movie. One of the things I really like about the movie is how the Michael Douglas character and his Japanese counterpart, played by Ken Takakura, learn from each other, and from each other’s cultures. Of course they had to clash first. Here is an early exchange in the movie:

Matsumoto Masahiro (Ken Takakura): “Perhaps you should think less of yourself and more of your group, try to work like in Japanese. I grew up with your soldiers; you were wise then. Now – music and movies are all America is good for. We make the machines, we build the future, we won the peace.

Nick Conklin (Michael Douglas): “And if there was ONE of you guys who had an original idea, you’d be so tight that you couldn’t even pull it out of your a__!”

By the end of the movie, the Ken Takakura character learns about personal initiative and taking risks (“sometimes you have to go for it”), and the Michael Douglas character learns about honour and ethics. Stereotypes I am sure but nicely done.

Last week I was part of a dialogue called “Ministering in a Bicultural Context.” Essentially it was a dialogue that looked at how leaders and ministries from Western culture and from Chinese culture can better understand each other and improve how they work together. My first thought was that the dialogue was framed in a way that didn’t take seriously the many cultures within “Western culture” (look at the differences between Boomers, Generation X and Generation Y for example) and the many cultures within “Chinese culture” (imagine a Chinese professional during the Cultural Revolution and a Chinese professional today). It seemed to me that instead of plunging into what was potentially an emotional and involved debate, we should have first worked at what should be a Christian approach to culture.

I believe a biblical approach to culture is to aim at the transformation or renewal of culture. Here is how Loren Wilkinson puts it:

[The pattern of salvation is not the rejection of creation — and the cultural worlds we make from it — but rather their restoration. God’s purposes in world-making men and women are restored, and through them, his purposes for the whole creation. It is not only individuals that are “made new.” That personal renewal in Christ makes changes in the culture as well . . . Isaiah speaks of personal righteousness reaching out into cultural healing, promising that God’s people would “rebuild the ancient ruins and will raise up the age-old foundations” and “be called repairer of Broken Walls, Restorer of Streets with Dwellings” (Is 58:12).
(Loren Wilkinson, “Culture,” The Complete Book of Everyday Christianity eds Robert Banks & R Paul Stevens, Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1997, 263.)]

This makes sense. Since human beings are created by God we would expect to see elements of God’s character in every culture. At the same time sin has marred all cultures and there are things in every culture that are not of God. It seems right that a biblical approach to culture, is not to deny it or destroy it or to accept it uncritically, but to let all cultures be leavened by the righteousness of God, letting God’s truth remove all that is not of Him and reinforcing what is of Him. In this way I do not have to leave my culture behind when I become a follower of Jesus. Instead I let the Lord purify my culture so that I can be enriched by what is good and God in my culture and make that treasure available to folks from other cultures, both folks from within the community of believers, and to society at large.

I may be wrong and I am open to correction but it seems to me that if one became a Muslim, to a large degree, one has to embrace Arabic culture and language. On the other hand I have seem much of what passes as Christian culture in Asia as essentially Western expressions of the faith. It seems we have a long way to go in understanding a biblical approach to culture and in working at redeeming our cultures so that we can let our different cultures be made available for the enrichment of all.

In an increasingly global world, peoples and their cultures are increasingly in a “in your face mode.” More than ever we need to think through how folks from different cultures should relate to each other, to minimise conflict and so that we can learn from each other for the benefit of all. If the church of Jesus Christ, with her commitment to unity with diversity, and a healthy approach to culture, can show the way, it will a powerful statement, both of the power and of the inclusiveness of the gospel. Can you imagine how crazy it was trying to bring together Jewish culture and Greek culture in the early church? It was only possible in Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22). Precisely.

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