Thursday, September 27, 2012

Color, Culture and Christianity (2 of 4)

Culture is Like Color

Culture is like colors. Most of history, there really have been only two options: Conquest and Pluralism. Most empires decided that they would impose their culture, or at least their government, on others. They are like blue panes of glass shattering every pane that would not or could not become blue. The blue panes tried to paint the world blue. The alternative is pluralism, rejecting the idea that any one color should be dominant. There is no Blue Plan or Green Plan; the colors don’t go anywhere in particular. The best we can hope is for them to stop smashing each other. We keep our own color, and, as best we can, practice tolerance for the others. And we can celebrate that red is a different color than blue. Maybe blue panes occasionally go visit the red corner; there are rare outliers who, for work or family, live amongst differently colored panes.

Through the ages, we strove to achieve the ethical goal: “Don’t smash each other.” As a species, we’ve gone from killing the guy next door, to tolerating him (and his goddamn music!). The next step is to love him; to invite him and his family over for dinner. The colored panes, now preserved from violence, can begin to come together. But why should they? Previous attempts have mixed the colors at random simply for the sake of diversity; but inevitably, the panes would retire to their corners. What can bring the green panes from the green corner?

Common Purpose Unites Cultures

A higher vision. A purpose. A picture that requires green and nothing but green right next to blue and nothing but blue. And so, the panes came together and formed a beautiful stained-glass window. And then something new happened. The sun rose, and illuminated the picture. The green glowed with a beauty it had not known in its corner. The red and blue, enemies of old, mingled the light that passed through them into a rich purple. The picture, made up of every color, became alive and dazzling, giving new meaning to each pane’s color, a meaning that was only a mystery and a dream while they were separated from each other and in the darkness.

Language: A Case Study of Culture

On a remote island of the Philippines a year ago, I was working on a healthcare project amongst the Palawano, a people-group of about 50,000. My companion was a tall white man wearing a Hawaiian shirt, big round glasses, and shorts; he had an enviable full beard, white with age and wisdom. As we travelled, he pointed to a Palawano road sign and casually remarked, “They spelled that wrong.” He, of all the people in the world, would know. He invented the Palawano written language.

While Christians pour out their hearts to translate the Bible, cultural Imperialism is on a death march, crushing culture after culture. When I was in Kenya, they had forgotten how to play their traditional music. They wore mitumba, second-hand shirts with all variety of American brands, and only rarely something that looked vaguely Kenyan. As a colony, the British attempted to crush tribal individuality by imposing Swahili on them (while depriving them of the economic benefits of English). Today, their economy mandates that they speak English or never leave the farm. Kikuria, the traditional language of the tribe I worked with, will be soon be forgotten. And so it is everywhere.

The Cruel Western Melting Pot

America has been compared to a melting pot, but it seems that the world has become one. But what seems to be melting away are the distinctive features of the different cultures, like the subtle flavor of saffron consumed into an over-salted homogeneous gruel. Everyone is listening to the same music, watching the same movies, and hearing the same opinions. A thousand teas, honey wines, and tropical fruit juice are being replaced by the very same Coca-Cola. The wonderful variety of roasted, fried, and stewed meat are being replaced by the very same Big Mac (with the occasional hat-tip to the host country). It is true that the offering plate on Sunday has trouble slowing the steamrolling powers of Coca-Cola and McDonalds. But at least we’re doing our best. Who else is even trying?

Christianity Redeems Human Culture

Christianity cares deeply about human culture, so much so it preserves it eternally. There are very few versions of the afterlife that preserve human culture. Atheistic oblivion tells that it will cease to exist when humans go extinct. Eastern versions tell that humans will lose their separateness when they enter Nirvana, when the drop joins the ocean, culture and all. But in Christian heaven, there will be people of every tribe, tongue, people and nation, recognizably themselves and different, but unified and at peace. It is a radical vision of human unity that is symbolically expressed and anticipated by Christian translation efforts. Christians spend a huge amount of blood, sweat and dollars on translating the Bible into languages because the vision of a diverse crowd in heaven is so exciting. This shows Christianity’s relationship with culture. It is not a melting pot averaging out all the flavors into the same gruel. It is the salt of the Earth, bringing out the flavors of the individual cultures, and preserving them from blandness and decay.

What other truth speaks every language? The Qur’an, according to Muslims, cannot be translated; once it enters English, it is not the Qur’an. Part of its holiness is its Arabic. Though few are as strict as this, most religious writings go un-translated. Even the Christian critic Robert Heinlein’s fictional Martian religion cannot be translated. But the Christian Bible remains holy in English or Urdu. Indeed, many of Christian heroes are translators who literally gave their lives fighting the cultural bigots of their day. William Tyndale was burned at the stake fighting those who would confine the Christian idea in the prison of Latin culture. In an irreversible act of defiance, the Bible broke loose into German and English and then every other language under the sun. Where are the Tyndales of pluralism?

<== Back to The Religion Color Experiment (1 of 4)
==> Onward to The Universal Church (3 of 4)

Thursday, September 20, 2012

The Religion Color Experiment (1 of 4)


Parents: you wouldn't do this...
Daughter: “I love green. Green is my favorite color.”
Father: “NO. Your favorite color is purple.”
Daughter: “But Dad, I don’t like purple. I like gree-”
...So don't do this you do this:
Daughter: “Dad, what happens to us after we die?”
Father: “I’m so glad you asked, sweetie! Allow me to now parrot what my parents told me as a child, thus perpetuating 2,000 years worth of bizarre, backwards, ridiculous beliefs that no one in their right mind would believe unless an authority figure taught it to them while they were young.”
Here is a popular view on religion, presented by perhaps the second funniest web comic on the whole interweb, TheOatmeal (<----the highlighted word "TheOatmeal" links to the original version of the above comic. Warning: TheOatmeal often uses hyperbole for comic effect). It basically says that religion is like a color, an arbitrary preference. Some cultures happened to all agree on favorite colors, maybe red, white and blue in the US of A. But it might just as easily have been black, yellow and red if you were born in Germany.


Let’s run that experiment. What if Christianity was exactly like the color red? Let us imagine that there are people who believe that red is not just a good color, but the True color. We will call them Red Colorists.


The Red Colorists top minds begin to investigate red as a color, reasons for preferring red, and the essence of redness. This process consumes undeniably the best minds of most of European history, as the Red Colorists find the subject of Red-ology so deep its depths cannot be plumbed.

Red missionaries travel throughout the world, sacrificing their careers and their families to spread the good news about the color red, red being the only one by which men might be saved. They spend decades as anthropologists and linguists translating the Gospel of Red into the native tongues of those who like green and purple and yellow. They work so hard because they believe every person should be able to read about red in their own “heart language.” Those who convert exclaim, “I’ve loved blue my whole life, but now I see I’ve been living a lie! The arguments of the Red Colorists have persuaded me! Red is the one, true color!”

Those who prefer red are often persecuted, and even threatened with death. Others, who also take their color seriously make threats, “If you don’t say that yellow is your favorite color, we will kill you!” But the threats do nothing; the Red Colorists refuse to change their preference, or even pretend to change so that they don’t get killed. Some get killed. But it doesn’t stop them. Their love for the other colorists is so intense that they are willing to die so that others might prefer red.


What is the result of treating Christianity like the color red? It makes Christians seem nuttier than a jar of Skippy.  And for some, it may help communicate how crazy religion seems. For those on the fence, maybe it’s a silly enough story to be laughed at. But it doesn’t matter. I tell the story to raise the question: Why don’t we die for our favorite color?

As is always true, when your theory can’t explain something, it might be time to change it. If a guy has the theory, “She wants me sooooo bad,” it may not adequately explain her statement: “Get away from me, creeper!” A new theory is needed. And so it is with the color theory of religion. Even if it is true in part, it doesn’t explain important pieces (like the whole dying-for-a-color part).

The trouble with the word religion is that it’s hard to define. Like the coach section of an airplane, the word ‘religion,’ mashes together very different kinds of people into an identical seat size, some of whom definitely don’t fit. Consider the case of Confucianism and Christianity. Both are concerned about ethics. Also, you may astutely note that both begin with the letter ‘C.’ But that’s about where the similarities end. 

Confucianism focuses on the present world, barely commenting on metaphysics. Christianity is concerned with both, caring that God’s will be done “on earth, as in heaven.” Christianity does a lot of other things that Confucianism doesn’t, like congregational worship, and telling a common narrative. Confucianism seems well described by the color theory; it is closer to a culture or a civilization. It is a beautiful ethical code, and it seems like it works really well in China. But proselytization really doesn’t make much sense.

The color theory just doesn’t work when it comes to doctrine. And Christianity is really the only religion that has doctrine as a central part, the only religion where belief (orthodoxy) is more important and even separable from behaviors (orthopraxy), practices and culture [1]. Confucianism is a Chinese set of ideas and isn’t really trans-plantable. And even if it were, there’s not really much motivation to move it. “It works for us; whatever you’re doing probably works for you.” Judaism is similar but specific to a scattered race rather than a fixed country. But, like a fat man on a coach seat, Christianity’s doctrine spills out of the “religion is a color” coach seat.

When we enter into the realm of ideas, we have crossed an important threshold. When religion is something that exists only inside one brain, it cannot be shared. My preference for blue is irrational. There is no reason I can identify why blue is a great color, a color better than red and orange. I cannot make you empathize with my liking the color blue; you can sympathize with my words, “I like blue,” but even if your favorite color is also blue, you cannot understand my blue preference. But then let’s suppose I move into the common world that we both share when I say, “The color blue is made by photons of wavelengths 450-495nm.” Then you can agree with me or disagree with me. When I say “Blue is [something],” then I’m talking about something that exists in your world and mine.

And Christianity began to say, “God is Love” “God is Just.” When it crossed that threshold, its ideas entered the marketplace or arena of ideas. They must compete like all other ideas. Ideas can appeal to personal narrative (i.e. “I used Sham-Wow, and it was amazing!”), or they can appeal to testable facts (“Sham-Wow can hold 432 times its weight in water!!!”).

But if they are to survive, they need to make appeals in ways that purely subjective things do not. Like a marketplace, ideas must be persuasive to be passed on. Richard Dawkins, Atheist extraordinaire, says that ideas are like viruses. He calls them memes, and those that are able to transmit from one person to another succeed. And what idea has been more successful than Christianity?

[1] This was first pointed out to me by Christian de-convert, Stephen Prothero, in his book God is Not One. I had Christio-centrically assumed that everyone in every religion had doctrine as I had. In so doing, I was imposing my Christian view on religion on religions that didn’t have orthodoxy. It was like walking into the House of Representatives and asking to speak to the king; the Speaker might be the closest approximation, but I wrongly assumed that every government was like my own, and that he had ultimate power when he did not. Hinduism no more has Orthodoxy than a Democracy has a king. In the next section, I’ll give more examples and consequences of this difference.

==> Onward to Color, Culture and Christianity (2 of 4)