14 March 2013

Why the change?

The assignment for a recent symposium was to respond to a question about why the former "homelands" of Christianity are no longer marked by strong church life.  I propose that the answer to why Christian homelands are no longer the cultural centers they once were is rooted in the nature of culture itself.

Initially I resisted the phrasing of the question for a couple of reasons.  First, accompanying illustrations showed that there was no church in Europe.  Clearly this is not accurate.  God is doing amazing things across Europe through indigenous churches, within immigrant populations, and through - if not in spite of - the ministry of missionaries.  Second, the idea of "homelands" and a land-bound God should be anathema.  To quote from Scott Sunquist's book to be released later this year, the Dean of the School of Intercultural Studies at Fuller Seminary writes, "God is not ba'al," echoing the repeated warning of Dutch missiologist J.C. Hoekendijk.  The Triune God of Christianity, unlike the ba'als found in the Old Testament, is not bound to nor exclude-able from any land, people, or culture.

After coming to terms with the question, the relationship of religion to culture seems important.  Bishop Stephen Neill, quoted in an article by Andrew Kirk says, "throughout human history, religion and culture have been inextricably connected."  Sunquist asserts that "the core of a culture is found in its worship."  He goes on to write that when cultures meet, conquest or battles primacy follows - one culture trying to prove they they are distinct from and essentially better than the other.  When Christianity is no longer vibrant it indicates that there has been a cultural change that has taken place. As Christianity emerges in an area, it too has profound impact on culture.

To refer to a country or group's culture as being a discrete or homogeneous is inaccurate.  What is American culture?  For the past several months, I have been in southern California.  This is not the American culture I knew growing up in rural Arkansas.  To speak of "European" culture as homogeneous is naive.  What, then, is Christian culture?  Having worshiped in diverse Christian communities around the world, the meaning of what it means to be Christian is expressed differently depending on the culture.  In the Christian culture where I was raised, good Christian men shaved every morning; tattoos were rarely seen on the Heaven-bound; teetotalism was equated with holiness.  It's not sufficient to say the times have changed; the Christian culture where I was raised has changed. Now, the tattooed pastor meets with her goateed congregant as they enjoy a beer and discuss the lectionary!

Growing out of a study of how markets interact to change culture, Tyler Cowen reminds us that most cultures are hybrids and influenced by multiple global sources (pg 9).  Hybridity is a concept developed to describe what takes place when and where two different cultures meet (Wang/Yeh).  Cultures do not meet each other at their core - and it is not as if the core itself is pure and without influence from others - but at their margins.  It is at these margins where two or more cultures occupy the same place that a transcultural transformation naturally takes place.  Think of an open marketplace with products from different places hawking their goods.  The products available and the ways they are marketed are influenced by the other participants who occupy the same space.  This truth was brought home to me when I accompanied a reporter and camera man from Slovakia on a trip to the United States to do a documentary on poverty.  I intentionally took my guests to "different" places to eat so they could taste the variety of American foods.  Imagine my feelings of failure when Etela and Jaro lamented that in America, it doesn't matter what restaurant you go to, the basic menu is the same.  

Let's look at this in another way - how hybridity looks in a person.  My children are referred to as Third Culture Kids.  They are USAmericans - both born in the US to USAmerican parents.  This is their first culture.  But they grew up and learned to live in a second culture, Slovakia.  The space Taylor and Allie occupy is not purely USAmerican nor Slovak.  They have both had to create for themselves a hybrid mental and emotional framework which incorporates both the USAmerican and Slovak cultures.  This is exciting because, as I recently tried to convince my daughter, "You can fit in anywhere."  She quickly responded, "But I also don't fit in anywhere." Hybridity of cultures in a common space can undermine the less-dominant culture.  This undermining process in Third Culture Kids is what makes them question their identity and makes return to the United States difficult.  

Cowen goes on to state that cultural homogenization, or the desire to be the same, and heterogenization, or the desire for diversity, are related - "they come together." (16)  To put it in personal terms, I really like chocolate ice cream . . . a lot.  But after a long time of having only chocolate ice cream, I find that I really would like to have strawberry.  My homogeneous chocolate taste is itself the cause for my longing for something different - heterogeneous desire for something different.

Not only do these opposing desires come together, when we speak of the blossoming of a culture when all factors move in unison to create homogeneity, it contains the seeds for its own destruction (Cowen 2002, 56; and also Hanciles 2008, 376 on Christendom as homogenizing force and source of its own destruction).  Homogeneity accentuates awareness of alterity.  How we respond to otherness or diversity, by exclusion or embrace, determines whether a culture (and you can insert church, organization, or person) ossifies and slowly dies or is translated into new relationships and emerges as something new.

One last observation before I attempt to weave these threads together.  Judith Okely's essay "Constructing Culture through Shared Location, Bricolage and Exchange" in Multi-disciplinary approaches to Romany studies writes that the Romani people "inhabits and constructs its internal coherence alongside or in opposition to other dominating cultures; in the same space. ... (They) have created their own semi-autonomous cultural space.  ... Their case has long destablilised the classical notion of culture as a geographically bounded entity grounded in place as isolate" (40).   

Drawing from economics (Cowen), cultural studies (Wang/Yeh), Christian history (Hanciles), and Romani Studies (Okely) I contend that the answer to why Christian homelands are no longer the cultural centers they once were is rooted in the nature of culture itself.  Cultures change and the impetus for that change emerges from the same cultural desire for homogeneity.  These changes occur where two or more cultures meet and occupy the same space.  Resistance to change is, ultimately, futile.  Establishing rigid borders (fundamentalism, trade protectionism, or xenophobia/prejudice) in an attempt to "save" a culture cuts it off from the breath of change it needs to survive.  Embracing transcultural development at the margins, at the common space where two or more cultures interact, is more than a natural development of cultures.  It enables a people like the Romani, the ultimate "others," to maintain their existence for centuries in the breeding ground of hybrid cultures.  Further, life at the margins is also reflective of the relational embrace implicit in the Trinity as expressed in missio Dei.  

This, I believe, is an acceptable answer to the question of why cultures change.  A different question would, in the process of change described by the symposium's documents, be:  why does Christianity tend to move from the centripetal cultural force to irrelevance?  The symptoms and agent of this fade to irrelevance were widely discussed at the symposium, but no answer was discovered.  I think the answer will emerge someone along the margins - incurvatus in se has not been a virtue for the church and it should never be.