Cultural Christianity: a Feature, Not a Bug

* in this post I will be conflating the terms “denomination” and “religion” with regards to Christianity. For cultural/anthropological reasons I think this is a more accurate way to describe the differences between, say, a Lutheran and a Pentecostal. They may both be Christian, and they may both be Protestant, but attending a service of either is a radically different experience.*

There are two mistakes with regards to religion that I see online and in real life, constantly.

The first is to erase all differences between Christian religious groups. “We all love Jesus so why make a big deal out of these artificial distinctions?” We’ve all heard this and maybe even said it. Liberal Protestants are the worst about this, because they see very few doctrines as specifically binding or important. Alternately, evangelicals attending a megachurch might say this, thinking that their non-denominational 2,000 member church isn’t really a religion, because it meets in a theater and doesn’t have stained glass, not realizing that “evangelical non-denominational megachurch” has its own religious traditions at this point. Both groups seem blind to the very real differences going on between Christian religions, or they think that if only everyone agreed with them that we could all get along.

The second mistake is one that you see most converts make, regardless of which group that they’ve converted to. We attempt to make religious identification all about doctrine and not about culture. (As a convert myself, I plead guilty).

Conversion is not an easy process, no matter what the altar call proponents may tell you. It’s messy, and often requires days of study and nights of emotional angst. Relationships are damaged, maybe destroyed. Protestant ministers lose their livelihoods to convert to Catholicism; Hasidic Jews are declared dead by their parents. The previously comforting cultural moments of religious holidays and family gatherings become fraught, even in loving families that try to understand why their son/ daughter lost their fool mind and joined this other thing. When you convert to another religion, especially if you’re leaving or joining a traditional one with high demands, you make a calculated decision to go where Truth leads, regardless of the sacrifice.

And all the while, the cradle members of the group you joined Just. Don’t. Get. It.

While you’re buying books and joining study groups in a fit of enthusiasm, they just live life, with religion tacked on somewhere in the background. Sure, they know when to kneel, when to stand, the words to say, what days are fast and which are feast, but do they know why the hell they’re doing it? When you ask what they think about the Eucharist, they offer some platitude about being in community with other Christians. They’re more concerned with the coffee hour rotation than they are about the effects of baptism. Maybe they’re Catholic but see no problem with birth control because come on already, it’s not 1950 anymore. Maybe they rarely attend Mass but think that should have zero bearing on whether their kid attends the Catholic school – because the parents and grandparents and great-grandparents “wore the plaid” and there’s absolutely no reason why their child shouldn’t either. Maybe they show more concern about the church’s capital campaign than they do about the poor members of the congregation. Whatever it is, you pull your hair with frustration, and sooner or later you say these words: “If you don’t really believe what the church teaches, you should leave.”

This was a new problem for me when I joined the Episcopal church. It’s not a problem you see much in small evangelical denominations, especially Calvinist ones. Folks that join Calvinist churches absolutely do not do so for cultural reasons. (Insert snide joke about a lack of culture). They do it because they read Augustine and Luther and Calvin, reread Romans and Galatians, and change their minds. People born in Calvinist churches that stay do so because they understand the doctrines and agree with them. Moreover, these denominations tend to be very recent break-away movements, so the folks who started them made their own significant sacrifices, and their children grew up hearing stories of the movement’s beginnings.

Older liturgical churches are… not like that.

A young Copt boy proudly shows his tattoo outside the church in Cairo
A young Copt boy proudly shows his tattoo outside the church in Cairo

I suspect that the older a group is, the more extreme the difference between cradle vs. converts, with the Eastern Orthodox being an extreme example due to ethnic divisions that reinforce cultural identity. Catholic converts and reverts complain about this constantly, and I’m sympathetic. I’ve spent plenty of time griping about country club cradle Episcopalians. One reason why I’m drawn to Anglo-Catholic parishes is that the members seek them out; we are a minority group in the Episcopal church, though one that’s quickly growing, and there are fewer members that seem to be there because it’s what they’ve always done. I suspect that the growth in Latin masses has the same impetus, because cradle Catholics now grow up going to Novus Ordo, and you have to consciously seek out churches with the Extraordinary Form.

I also think that this is a good problem to have, and that we proponents of doctrinal purity are missing the point in the same way that the “we all love Jesus” folks are. We are not brains in a jar, and our cultural differences are real. The “cultural Christians” born into a religion that stay there, that don’t seem all that enthused about doctrine or can’t explain exactly why ABC happens during the service, may still have a real faith and discipline, even if they can’t articulate it well.

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We act as if the church is falling apart, as if Christians in ages past had intellectual rigor and a high level of understanding about their faith. In actuality, most of the people who came before us could not read or write. They had never read the Bible for themselves, let alone delved into commentaries. They probably had never done Bible studies or small groups or Sunday school or any of the other things we consider necessary for growth; they were too busy eking out a living in a world without indoor plumbing or running water. Europeans of the Middle Ages took communion once a year but, according to some historians, never actually ate the bread, choosing instead to plant it in the fields as a good luck omen. Catholic missionaries to the New World were wise enough not to attempt to tear the people from their local mythology, not when it could be easily folded into the doctrine of the saints.

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In these times and places – some of which continue in various parts of the world – people fed their faith through cultural practices: from lighting a candle under the icon of Theotokos to baking king cakes. It’s human. It was a freeing moment when I realized that Jesus had particular religious and cultural experiences as a first century Jew. God limited Himself, in His incarnation, to a particular people and place and learned their practices, with all the local idiosyncrasies that might have been native to Galilee. Granted, we don’t want our faith to only be outward, but there’s something to be said for soaking in a cultural and religious environment.

Eventually, I stopped having profound emotional responses to every Eucharist. When I entered the church I automatically dipped my hand in holy water, crossed myself, genuflected at the pew, knelt on a kneeler. My thumb makes that tiny cross over my head, mouth, and heart at the Gospel reading in a flash, without having to overthink it. The responses come easily, like breathing.

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Pray without ceasing.

 

 

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What Can Moms Do About Racism?

Note: this is a response to Julie at These Walls. Last week she wrote a wonderful post entitled “The Post I’ve Been Waiting to Write on Race.” It’s also a response to comments wondering what individual people can do. I am not a mom, but I have many friends who are white Christian parents – many of them Episcopal priests or priest wives, because of my personal history. I know their struggles and have heard them wrestle with this question. The answers aren’t easy, but it’s too important to sweep under the rug.

 

To be more specific: what can middle class, white, suburban, Christian moms do?

You are in a rare position, possibly unprecedented in American life. On the one hand, you do not share the same racism that your ancestors likely did. You think that the Civil Rights Movement was good, that segregation is bad, that all humans were given rights by our Creator. You want to pass these beliefs on to your kids; you want them to judge a person on his or her “content of character” rather than skin color or national origin.

On the other hand, you are almost always in white only populations. Your church is mostly white, and many of the Latino congregants go to the Spanish language service. Your suburban neighborhood has one black family, a couple of Asian families… and lots of white families. If your kids went to public schools they would rub shoulders with people of other backgrounds, but they may be below school age, or home schooled, or attending a religious (and mostly white) school. You and your kids could easily go weeks at a time without interacting with anyone who isn’t white and middle-upper middle class.

Your exposure to anything regarding race or racism is Facebook posts which try to make you chose between protecting black Americans and protecting police. You begin to feel defensive, as if you are being blamed for something that your ancestors did. Above all, you feel helpless, because how can one person fight something that looks so entrenched?

The answer, or one of the answers, is in your children.

I’m not simply suggesting that you teach your kids that “racism is bad.” For one thing, they may not understand what racism is (maybe you struggle to answer that question as well?). For another, what I see advocated as the opposite of racism is color blindness, or an attempt to ignore race at all. I think this is a huge mistake, especially if your kids never actually interact with other ethnicities. As humans, we associate more readily with the familiar. If someone is brought up without any conversations about race, and only interacts with people who are white, it will be hard to understand American history, hard to understand current events, hard to empathize with the issues that still plague black communities.

The uncomfortable truth is that society as a whole does not treat black people as equals of white people. When someone brought up to be color blind observes quality of life differences between white and black communities, they conclude that black people must be at fault for these differences. It is a short walk from here to the conclusion that black people are dumber, lazier, more violent, etc, than white people.

Here is what I suggest instead: purposefully pursue relationships with people outside your race/ethnicity, for yourself and – especially – for your kids.

This is not an easy task if you live in suburbia, but it is crucial. Your kids need to spend time with people who don’t look like them. Charity work in the ghetto doesn’t cut it. They need to interact with black and Latino kids as peers. They need to have black adults who are authority figures: to be expected by their parents to obey and respect black adults just as they would white adults. This is one of the most important lessons you can teach your kids.

I’m going to be blunt: I don’t see this as something advocated by conservative Christians. If anything, I see the opposite: shelter your kids; monitor their friendships; protect them from the world. There is an element of truth there. Of course you must keep your kids from unnecessary dangers, and there are actual bad influences that need to be kept at bay. But it’s easy to take this too far. I’m dismayed to see homeschool moms deride the word “socialization,” to argue that their kids are better off without peer influences, that homeschool groups are plenty of socialization.

Take a hard look at your homeschool group, your church groups. Is there a single face there that isn’t white? Does it bother you to be in whites-only spaces?

If it does, that means that you were given a special gift: the gift of friendships and relationships with people of color. Your parents didn’t try to give it to you, it just happened because you lived in a more diverse neighborhood or went to public schools. However, your kids will not have that gift unless you make it happen.If being in a whites only space doesn’t bother you, it’s not cause to beat yourself up or feel defensive. It’s just an unfortunate fact that you probably grew up in segregated circles.

What matters is your response. You can make a generational change by bringing your children into integrated spaces as much as possible. You can make sure that they will be comfortable with black teachers, black coaches, black Bible study leaders. You can make sure that your children will have faces and names to think about when they hear about racially motivated killings.

You can make sure that they see the Imago Dei in people who don’t look like them.