Thursday, May 19, 2005

Culture Shock

Imagine having grown up in a poor nation, not speaking English and being unfamiliar with much outside of your own country. What would it be like to find yourself suddenly surrounded by the materialistic culture and traditions of the United States? In the current issue (May 23, 2005) of ESPN: The Magazine, Dan Le Batard writes about the tribulations of some Latin American ballplayers as they learned the culture:

When [Florida] Marlins second baseman Luis Castillo arrived in this country from the Dominican, he accidentally set off a hotel fire alarm becuase he thought it was a shampoo dispenser. When former minor league reliever Euclides Rojas arrived from Cuba, he considered buying dog food for his son to eat because he saw a smiling child romping with a dog on the can. (Rojas couldn't imagine Americans would buy special food for their dogs.) . . . You'd be amazed how many poor, uneducated minor leaguers get to America without an understanding of car alarms, cell phones, credit cards or even refrigerators that pour ice and water from their doors.

Le Batard's article reminds us that the things we take for granted are not universally known or accepted as the norm. Much is unique to our culture. And if we Americans were suddenly transplanted into Hong Kong or Nairobi, we'd suffer some severe culture shock.

Not only does America have it's own culture, but Christians -- especially American Christians -- tend to have our own culture as well. We have certain standards of behavior to which we expect conformity. "Don't rock the boat. Don't examine our reasoning too closely. Don't look at things as Jesus would. Just do it our way." How nice.

There are many customs which we elevate to a status equal with Scripture at times. Oh sure, we'd never admit outloud that our traditions were that important, but just try to break one of those unwritten (and occasionally written) rules. Some church boards come unglued if the pastor changes the order of service. Tongues start to wag if a person attends church in less than shirt and tie or a dress and heels. And heaven help the mother who doesn't sprint from the sanctuary when the baby starts to fuss during the sermon.

I remember when officials at the local Christian college would sit in the parking lot of the local theatre, watching for students coming out of a "questionable" (PG) movie in order to report those students to the Dean. I've read old letters to the editor of my own denomination's publications complaining about a scandalous picture which showed a young woman dressed in knee-length shorts. I've watched people decry brothers and sisters as unspiritual because they smoke cigarettes, yet ignore their own spare tire hanging over their belts. And don't even get me started on the whole issue of drinking a glass of wine.

Today a lady was telling me about the current controversy at her church. There are a few young men who attend the services wearing ball caps. And apparently there are some who equate a baseball cap with the gates of hell. Actually, many are complaining that the guys are not showing respect by refusing to remove their caps in the sanctuary. Such an act, they believe, is an offense toward God. I haven't spoken with the young men in question, but I'd bet it has more to do with them not wanting to fix their hair on a Sunday morning. But these guys don't consider it a lack or respect. To them a hat is just another item of apparel, not an instrument which causes disruption. Either way, some questions are raised. Is it more important to honor cultural norms like removing one's hat or simply to be in worship to begin with? Is covering one's head disrespectful in general or just disrespectful in our current culture? What standards of behavior do we expect to be a part of a worship service? Are we just being legalistic?

Somehow my mind keeps drifting back to Jesus' discussions with the Pharisees. Those guys had all that "rules stuff" nailed down. But as Jesus said, they neglected "the weightier matters of the law" like justice, mercy and faithfulness in exchange for ceremonial washings and man-made rules. The Pharisees missed the whole point. It wasn't that people needed to adapt to rules, traditions and culture, but to accept what God was giving them -- Jesus Christ. That's still the case today.

How often do we find ourselves trying to enforce cultural expectations on others instead of loving them? Do we try to force everyone to look and act the same without any regard of whether or not those standards are scriptural? More importantly, how many people have we driven away from Christ and from His Church by expecting a recent convert to have instantly rid herself of all habits and behaviors which traditionalists could find offensive?

What is it like to try to break into this Christian culture? I'd hate to have to learn the "language" of the church, like the immigrant trying to figure out how a cell phone works -- or why he even needs a cell phone in the first place. It seems to me that we get so bogged down with our own expectations that we often miss the beauty of the grace of God. Not that we should give up on obedience, but we must understand that our works don't make us more worthy for salvation. There should be no difference between the expectations of coming to Christ and coming to the Church. After all, isn't the Church the Bride of Christ?

I've asked a lot of questions because I think we need to be asking ourselves these things. We really need to question our motives; the reasons for our rules and our culture. If people are not living up to our expectations, we have to be honest enough to understand that our expectations may not be right. We cannot concentrate on what we find acceptable, but upon what God finds acceptable. We must not judge others by our own tradition and culture as the Pharisees did 2000 years ago. We must seek to please God by judging by godly, not cultural standards. We must love as Christ loves us. We must look to raise up Christ instead of pulling others down.

No comments: