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)

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