Sunday, December 03, 2006

British Culture

Imagine two quite different people meeting. Maybe one of them is a bit taller than the other, and the other a little heavier. But their facial features look similar, although they use them differently. Maybe they were twins, separated at birth and brought up in very different families. One of them might be a public school university educated respectable middle class person (and there are plenty of them round here), and another person might be a dissillusioned state-school educated (but left at 16) working class person who has difficulty holding down a job. Neither of those people has necessarily consciously chosen to be the way they are, and they'd probably disagree on many things simply because of background. Both might well be able to give a partial critique of the other person's culture - whether pointing out one person's arrogance or the other's lack of aspirations, but both would find it hard to give a good critique of their own.

Most cultures have at least some good aspects in. Many of the aspects of most cultures are fairly neutral. Most cultures also have some bad aspects, and it's often difficult to point those out, either because we share them, or because we'd risk being accused of arrogant racism if we did. For example, some aspects of working class Afro-Caribbean culture in the UK are good and commendable. It also is notorious in educational circles for being frequently strongly anti-intellectual with boys, which leads to very poor grades for pupils in that group. This is widely recognised among educationalists, but they are afraid to say so openly because it goes against the idea of multiculturalism and so the problem sadly goes unaddressed.

What I'm going to try and do here is to criticise some aspects of my own (white, heavily educated, fairly traditional, middle class) culture which I think are bad, as measured against the Bible.

1. Intellectual Arrogance

We tend to place a high value on intellectual achievement and education, which is good. However, that sometimes spills over into valuing the intellectual achievers and the educated more than those who are not - those who conform to our stereotype of a successful person more than those who conform to a homeless Jewish manual labourer.

Of course, the Bible does tend to suggest that while God loves everyone, he especially values and cares about the poor and the weak, and that he uses those who seem foolish to humble the wise.

[God's] mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
Luke 1:50-53, NIV

2. Emotional Detachment

We tend to follow the Stoics in thinking that

self-control, fortitude and detachment from distracting emotions, sometimes interpreted as an indifference to pleasure or pain, allows one to become a clear thinker, level-headed and unbiased.
Wikipedia, Stoicism

Yes, self-control, fortitude and the ability to keep going however bad the situation is are important and valuable skills. But emotional detachment is not a price worth paying for it. Emotional detachability, quite possibly. In some ways we remind me of Michal daughter of Saul in 2 Samuel 6

So David went down and brought up the ark of God from the house of Obed-Edom to the City of David with rejoicing. When those who were carrying the ark of the LORD had taken six steps, he sacrificed a bull and a fattened calf. David, wearing a linen ephod, danced before the LORD with all his might, while he and the entire house of Israel brought up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets.

As the ark of the LORD was entering the City of David, Michal daughter of Saul watched from a window. And when she saw King David leaping and dancing before the LORD, she despised him in her heart.

2 Samuel 6:12-16, NIV

Not only do we detach ourselves from our emotions too much, we teach others to do so too. Those who are reading who are from similar backgrounds to me, how often do we look down on little children dancing in church? How often do we expect or require that when people grow up, they lose their exuberant enthusiasm for Christ (or indeed for anything else)?

In many African cultures, they don't seem to discourage dancing (as just one example) at all. Are those cultures less healthy for that? No.

Even Paul wrote

Never be lacking in zeal, but keep your spiritual fervour, serving the Lord.
Romans 12:11, NIV

Quick application to the whole question of musical styles. If our musical styles don't allow the kind of expression of passion that David showed, then they're probably being unhelpful. Are we keeping our spiritual fervour? Are we allowing and encouraging others to do the same?

3. Pharisaism

Closely linked to this is the whole area of Pharisaism, both in making and in keeping rules.

Here's a (heavily adapted) version of some of Matthew 23. In the original, it was Jesus speaking about the Pharisees. Here, I've made it more of a personal corporate confession.

So much of what we do is done for men to see: We make our Bibles large and our public prayers long; we love people to think that we are intelligent and know our Bibles well; we love to be greeted at church and on the street and to have people respect us.

When it comes down to it, we recognise that we only have one Master and are all brothers, we know that we all only have one spiritual Father - and he's in heaven. Likewise, there's only one who is really qualified to teach the truth about God. It's not us; it's Jesus. We know that the greatest among us is the one who is the servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. But we don't live like that.

We shut the kingdom of heaven in men's faces. We ourselves do not enter, nor will we let those enter who are trying to because we expect them to become like us before they become like God.

Even if we travel over land and sea to win a single convert, when he becomes one, we make him twice as much a son of hell as we are.

We elevate trivial issues like styles of music to top priority, while completely ignoring the whole purpose of music - to praise God with everything that we are.

We make sure not to fiddle our tax returns, yet we completely ignore the whole idea of giving ourselves completely over to God. We give to Caesar what is Caesar's, but we try holding onto what is God's. We should have done both, but we only bothered to do the less important one.

We make a huge effort to look respectable to other people on the outside, but inside we are sinful, compromised and failing. What hypocrites we are, what whitewashed tombs! We look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside we appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness, which we often don't even admit to ourselves.

We respect and honour great Christians who have gone before, without realising that if they were here today, they would slate us for our materialistic, arrogant, passionless, unloving, worldly pretence at faith. We fail to see that it was people just like us who opposed the great Christians of the past, who crucified and murdered Jesus. How on earth do we think we can escape?

And yet, we recognise that you still love us, that you still long to gather us together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but all too often we are not willing.

May God open our eyes and turn our hearts back to him!

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