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.

africa-orthodox-church-child-receives-holy-communion-at-st-nicholas-orthodox-church

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.

santa-muerte-mexico-tepito-religious-offering

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.

children-eastern-orthodox

Pray without ceasing.

 

 

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