Less than 100 metres from our home lies the most diverse suburb in Australia, boasting representatives from 112 of the world’s 196 countries. While a dominant Australian culture structures public life, social etiquette and expectations, different cultures regularly interact in my neighborhood, at the shops, at work and at church. With each interaction, expectations can shift, even if slightly, and I need to regain my bearings as to what is normal.
For most of my life, my culture — American, Evangelical, East Coast, Reformed, White — was simply the camouflage of my life. Invisible, unnamed, and yet the very thing that made me me. Now living overseas, my reactions and opinions are suddenly reflective gear, shouting my presence as an outsider.
“Who are you?” I must answer, and while the easiest answer is, “American,” I cringe even as I say it. Guns, Trump, Hollywood. How does that even come close to identifying me? Or maybe it’s closer than I would like.
After all, I am American, and aside from the popular, hot-button topics, I recognize that culture in the way that I raise my eyebrows about customer service that doesn’t put the customer first, or widen my eyes when a student tells me of her anxiety after cooking a meal her husband didn’t like, or try in vain to greet a neighbor I pass on the street, or insist that my kids — or someone else’s — can handle difficult things.
“Who are you?” I must answer, and the next word on my lips is, “Christian.” Yet, as it turns out, this isn’t a simple answer, either. Before, “American Christian” was a compound word; now, I must tear it apart. What of my faith and practice was simply an American way of being, and not essentially Christian?
I was taught early on about the dangers of the culture, a culture external to myself. Whether it was opinions on how everything came into existence at the beginning, or sexual ethics, or attitudes toward authority, the culture that I needed to resist was clearly defined. I sat in high school classes, youth group meetings, youth retreats, and bible studies that marked out the way that “the culture” thought and acted, and I listened to the imploring and admonishment of leaders to stay far away.
In seminary, for the first time in my life, I encountered the idea that I had a culture, as well. In a beginning-level course on interpretation, my professor asked me to think through aspects of myself — my culture — that I had never considered before. How did my parents, my class, my neighborhood, my ethnicity, my nationality, my generation — and on and on — how did these things impact the way I read the Bible? What might I be trained to see more than anything else? And what might I be prone to miss?
Those questions confronted me head on, and yet, I moved forward in confidence. My culture may be a handicap, but it was not debilitating. Now that I knew, I reasoned, I could excise my cultural biases from my reading of Scripture, from my understanding of the world. I would not be an American Christian; I would simply be a Christian. My determination to do this increased when we moved overseas: I would not stick out like a sore thumb, I would not be an obnoxious American.
And yet, in the past year, my confidence in being able to succeed has diminished. Living outside of America has heightened my sense of being American — not to my comfort. In today’s social climate, and among the people I regularly find myself, responding “I’m American,” has not always been easy. It sticks in my throat when I introduce myself to my Afghan students. I like when others assume I’m Canadian, and, because they don’t ask, I don’t have to contradict them. It’s easier to pretend that I am a cosmopolitan Christian, an enlightened one who reads her Bible without American-spectacles. But what if they aren’t glasses — what if I can’t take them off?
In Silence and Beauty, Makoto Fujimura probes Japanese culture to find God’s presence in its expressions and interests. Reflecting on the longings of the Japanese culture for a feminine mother figure of God, rather than the masculine father figure that dominates Western Christianity, Fujimura argues, “The gospel told through feminine eyes does not have to abandon the masculine but can be a lens through which the Bible can be read as a creative, generative document rather than descriptive, analytical proof of God’s existence.” Fujimura understands the Japanese longing as a means to enrich theology. “Japanese culture, integrated with theology, can be a dynamic culture that combines both the feminine and the masculine.”
Fujimura’s insight offers a corrective to my negative view of culture and theology. Our cultures do blind us and mislead us — but that is not the full picture. In God’s first words to Adam and Eve that Scripture records, his command to “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” blesses their culture-making (Genesis 1:28). We cannot be, nor were we meant to be, a-cultural. As much as we may try, we cannot fully distance ourselves from the cultures that have formed us. We can do much to recognize the preferences, prejudices, and blind spots created by our cultures, but in the end, our cultures help us make sense of who we are — we can’t take them off like glasses. Instead, we ought to examine them with eyes of gratitude and wisdom. In God’s grace, our cultures, as Fujimura recognizes, can enrich our theology. Even as we look critically at them, we should also ask, “What desires and virtues and values of my culture point towards truths of the Gospel?” Asking this question not only of our culture, but of others as well, can transform our monochromatic vision.
There is much to mourn about my country right now, and I won’t install a flagpole in my front yard and hoist the American flag anytime soon. But perhaps the next time I respond, “I’m American,” my answer will sound less like an apology, and perhaps the next time I meet someone unlike me, I’ll look more closely for reflections of grace.