Cultural Conundrum

Class starts at 7:00 a.m. and the Indonesian college students begin shuffling in just a little after. They make their way to their desks inside this dirty and crowded classroom, which is already a bit hot since there is no air conditioning in the room. There is one fan, and for that their lecturer is very thankful.

The lecturer, an American, begins by giving back homework that he has already graded and corrected. He calls their names out one by one, “Abdul, Much, Dyan, Agus…,” until most of the 50 or so students all have their homework back. He apologizes to the students who have “no credit” written across their papers. He explains to them again that if they copy from each other’s paper they will get no credit. They are not allowed to work together in this way on homework assignments.

One student protests. “But Mr. Mike,” she says. “You said we can work together.”

“Did I?” he answers. “I don’t think I said I wanted you to copy off each other. It’s okay if you help each other learn the material, but please don’t use each other’s sentences when you do the assignments.”

Several in the class seem unsatisfied with their lecturer’s explanation. In their culture, it’s okay to help each other along in the education process. They don’t look at it as an individual journey—more like a group field trip. So “cheating” is more like just helping each other out. But even with this cultural understanding, their teacher is still hard-nosed and won’t let them do it at all.

A few minutes later, now at about 7:15 AM, a few latecomers bashfully try to come into the room. But their lecturer stops them and asks to see their attendance cards, something he has to sign for each student to show that they attended class for that day. They feel very “malu” —ashamed—as they dig their attendance cards out of their backpacks while some of their classmates snicker at them. He then takes their cards and signs them with an “L” for late. He will use this information later when he calculates their class participation score. They go back to their seats as their classmates playfully punch them on their arms.

Inside this classroom there is a clash of cultures. The Westerner values individuality and punctuality. The Asians taking the class value community and relationships. They would be willing to be late to a class if relationship demanded more time. So now they have to hurry along a little bit more to be on time.

They have mixed feelings about have a having a “bule”—white person—for their teacher. It helps them with pronunciation and listening comprehension, and they like his creative class activities. But at eight weeks into the semester, the novelty has somewhat warn off and they don’t like all the added homework assignments and emphasis on timeliness.

So who was right, the students or the teacher?

It depends on your culture. If you are a Westerner, like me, you would say of course the teacher. And if you are an Easterner you would probably still say, of course, the teacher. But if you were one of those students in that particular Asian subculture you would probably have to think about it for a while. Maybe the bule was being too hard-nosed.

I’ve thought a lot about culture lately, that invisible force always bearing down on us, shaping our values and outlook on life. Specifically I’ve been thinking about the culture of the church.

Every fellowship is going to have its own style and flavor…you just can’t get away with from that. When I was in a college fellowship a lot of us picked up some of the phrases of the leader until the next leader came along and we started emulating his phrases and even mannerisms. We are products of our culture and we can’t get away from it.

I just read a Facebook post of a friend poking fun of “Christianese,” the insider language we use in our sub-culture of Christianity. He was aiming at one Christianese phrase, “hedge of protection,” which shows up a lot in our prayers for safety and protection. “Because apparently bushes are kryptonite to Satan,” he joked in his post.

Are all these cultural quirks benign? A friend recently let me borrow a book, Pagan Christianity? by Frank Viola and George Barna. It researches the pagan roots of our common church practices, from pews to church buildings to sermons and pastors. Their well-research thesis contends that what we experience as church has more to do with ancient pagan rituals than New Testament practice. Hand bell choirs will never be the same. It favors a more organic form of church life with everyone participating and tries to obliterate the wall between clergy and laity. Pretty challenging stuff, and as I read it, I’m left with an uncomfortable feeling about my own cultural trappings.

Yet, God still moves within our own cultural forms. I spoke at a youth group service last night and yes, maybe you could convince me that some elements of that service have ancient, evil roots. But God still showed up and touched some kids’ hearts. It was a beautiful thing.

Here’s my bottom line. As long as we are doing the meat and potatoes of Christianity, we can consider culture benign. I see the meat and potatoes, or in my case here in Southeast Asia, the chicken and rice, as evangelism and discipleship. Jesus made the church’s mandate pretty clear: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mathew 28:19).

So whatever your cultural quirks are, whether you are Organic Church or Contemporary Church or Give Me That Old Time Religion Church, are you reaching out to lost people and making them disciples? In other words, are you moving out from your sub-culture and invading other sub-cultures? Are you trying to relate to people outside the wall of the church in culturally relevant ways so that you can fulfill Jesus’ mandate for evangelism and discipleship?

If so, then hand bell choir to your heart’s content.

— Mike O

P.S.  Your thoughts?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.