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Reveling in the Cultural Kaleidoscope: The Different, Beautiful, Broken Destiny of Every Culture
By Shane Bennett
The view out our kitchen window here in southern Colorado is so beautiful it could break your heart; a constantly changing variety of color, light, and brilliance. The residents of our fair valley, however, vary less. While handsome and strong like our mountain, we tend toward uniformity: white, agrarian, conservative, paunchy, and maybe a little suspicious of outsiders.
I love these people and I love living here, but sometimes I’m jealous of those whose lives blossom amid smells and sounds of people both foreign and familiar. I’m also a little concerned about what seems like growing xenophobia in my country, along with polarizing opinions that either our culture is the best and everyone should adopt it or our culture is the cause of all the world’s pain and we should abandon it.
Here’s a refreshing, hopeful way to think about you and whoever your people are, along with all the rest of the peoples of the world.
1. All Cultures Are Different
I bet you’ve heard a rookie short termer freshly back from ten days in a not-far-off land say with far more confidence than the time away would merit, “What I learned was that underneath our skin, we’re really all the same.”
Bless his heart. (And I mean that in the snarkiest way!) There are global commonalities. I get that. It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t go a little soft headed over a baby. And everyone everywhere works hard to ensure that this breath is not their last breath. Beyond that, the reality is that we’re exceedingly, exceptionally, excruciatingly different. Not only are we not “all the same,” but underneath our skin we’re so different it’s surprising we haven’t all wiped each other out. It’s a testimony to the power of the way of Jesus that his gospel has spread, for the most part non-violently, from that little band of Galileans in Palestine, from culture to culture to culture until it intersected your family some branches up the tree.
I once bonded with a Muslim guy in India around our mockery of a particular Hindu celebration. It was the fellowship of the minority monotheists in the shadow of the mystifying but huge Hindu majority. We were brothers as we laughed at the odd and incomprehensible practices unfolding around us.
To be clear, I don’t advise this, nor do I think Jesus endorses it. I’m not proud about it. But it does nicely illustrate my point: Cultural differences are huge! Some so much so that they can make an Indian Muslim and an American white boy feel like we could double date to the prom.
Even nearby cultures and common language can conceal deeply different approaches to life. One time when our small organization was preparing to move from Holland to England, a kind Londoner agreed to answer our questions about how to thrive in the UK. One of us piped up, “If I want to greet someone I don’t know on the street. What is the appropriate thing to say?” To which our English tutor replied, perhaps before he could catch his tongue, “Greet someone on the street? Are you mad?!”
Underneath our skin, even if that skin looks pretty similar, we are all quite different.
2. All Cultures Are Beautiful
I was born into a rather American part of America, right in the heartland: rural Indiana. I love America. Some parts of American culture are flat-out impressive. For instance, Americans have a deep conviction that we can fix stuff or make it better. We’re reluctant to roll over and accept things as they are. And we do fix things. Sometimes the fixing causes messes we didn’t see coming, but on the whole this is good, and maybe even a cultural gift from the Creator.
Every culture has its gifts. Have you ever prayed with South Korean or West African believers? There is beauty there running deeper than style; a passionate fervency connecting disciple to master.
Maybe you’ve been on the receiving end of the winsome hospitality that characterizes many Muslim cultures. Some years ago a friend and I were hanging outside a little mosque in Konya, Turkey, wondering how many had shown up for Friday prayers. As the service let out, a dear old man found us, exhausted our combined 18 words of Turkish, and invited us home for lunch. Before we knew it we were sitting on his living room floor under the kind and attentive gaze of his wife, polishing off a delicious lunch of fried eggs and bread. She cleared the dishes but left us with our forks (a good sign almost everywhere!) When she returned from the kitchen she brought a still warm-from-the oven pan of baklava! Beaming, she set it down and said, “Afiyet olsun,” which roughly translates, “Dig in. This is likely going to be the best thing you’ve ever eaten!” It was.
Like the author of Hebrews, I lack time and space to speak of curries in Bradford, kindnesses in Pune, and the staggeringly beautiful creations of Italian sculptors, Dutch Masters, and French Impressionists to which I’ve been introduced by traveling. Nor do these limits allow for suitable reflection on the peace and pleasant calm that pervades a Malay kampong lying just beyond ear shot of the fervent, smoggy bustle of Kuala Lumpur.
A wise and good God has built beauty into each and every culture. These beauties are gifts for them of course, but also for us and perhaps mostly for him. As cultures are redeemed, these presents are unwrapped and spill forth their unique honor to the Creator.
3. All Cultures Are Broken
Since it seems unkind to speak poorly of other cultures and because Jesus was pretty blunt about the whole “log in your eye” parable, let me mention a way in which my own culture is broken. You can extrapolate from there!
Americans have a crazy love affair with stuff. We want cool, shiny things. As we get older we fully expect to acquire more, better, and bigger stuff. According to NPR, the average American house size has more than doubled since the 1950s. But even that’s not big enough for our stuff: Josh Becker says, “Currently, there is 7.3 square feet of self-storage space for every man, woman, and child in the nation. Thus, it is physically possible that every American could stand—all at the same time—under the total canopy of self-storage roofing.”
I’m not immune to this. The computer I’m typing this on stays serviceable longer than almost any other. Even so, whenever the wizardly engineers in Cupertino come out with a new version… Well, lust is probably not too strong a word.
We’re not alone in our brokenness. Stare into the searching eyes of a Gambian girl sold away by her family. Hold the hand of a young mom dying of AIDS. Stroll through the slums of India, or hike the concrete canyons of Houston. Even if your discernment is as stunted as mine, the brokenness is palpable. I don’t often pause to let that weight of lost beauty settle on me. Brokenness brings immeasurable pain. But somewhere, maybe deep, deep down, a spark of hope remains.
4. All Cultures Are Destined
Early on in the story of the Bible, God has a most amazing conversation with Abraham and Sarah. He talks of wealth and real estate, honor and lots of kids. He invites them into a partnership with the audacious promise of divine blessing being pressed into every family on the planet. Do you get this? God’s promise means that every culture is destined to experience his goodness. This includes the nasty ones we don’t like every bit as much as it includes our own!
In Acts 17:26, Paul, reflecting on the sweeping promises of God says, “he made from one every nation of men to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their habitation, that they should seek God, in the hope that they might feel after him and find him. Yet he is not far from each one of us.” God decides when and where peoples will live, where cultures will be found. And he does this for his purposes, to keep his promise to Abraham, to press his blessing into all families.
In Colossians 1:19-20 Paul promises this will happen. In Revelation 7:9 John sees that it has. Bizarre, beautiful, broken cultures are destined for it: redemption. Let us delight, with great hope, in the diversity around us. Let us advocate for the beauty and inherent value of all peoples. And let us sow broadly this good news for which we have been made ambassadors.
The day is coming when, destiny reached, only beauty and fascinating variety will remain. With the Creator of this kaleidoscope of culture, we’ll have a good long time to explore, learn, and delight in this great work of God. Can you even imagine curry in the kingdom?