One of the constant challenges with these talks is to write and speak simply. With over 25 nationalities represented, you can imagine the range of English-proficiency! It's no easy task to communicate the Gospel simply to so many.
However, being simple is not an excuse for being simplistic. Below is a transcript of a talk on Culture from last year's dinners - one that provoked some of the most heartfelt questions and searching discussions among the travellers last season. As you can see, it may be simple, but it isn't simplistic.
Transcript from Dinner #17, February 19th, 2015
What do I mean by “culture”?
Someone once said, “Culture is religion" - or belief - "externalised.”
Meaning that culture is the way we live out what we believe.
Meaning that culture is the way we live out what we believe.
Cultures matter because they show the fruit of what we believe. Cultures are where our beliefs affect the real world and the real people in it.
Tonight, we’re going to look at two problems that show up again and again in cultures, as the fruit of different beliefs.
Then, I’ll share with you the solution God gives to anyone who wants it.
Here’s the first problem: unity without diversity.
Some beliefs say one culture must totally dominate. There are so many examples in history:
- Imperialism, like in Ancient Rome.
- Communism, like under Mao’s Cultural Revolution in China.
- Islam, like under the Islamic State in the Middle East today.
These beliefs say that one culture should dominate everything: there should be only one culture. When we look at the fruit of these cultures, we see bad fruit.
Now, I need to be clear. I am discussing problems about cultures and beliefs right now, not individual people who are made in God’s image and whom we, as Christians, are called to love.
On the most basic level, beliefs that say one culture must dominate produce bad fruit by stomping out diversity, creating an ugly sameness; a dull cultural grey.
Think of the ugly architecture Communism left everywhere. Or the cultural effect of Islam, which one former Muslim (the African academic Lamin Sanneh) has said recreates 7th century Arabia everywhere it conquers.
So on a basic level, we see a dull cultural sameness. But the fruit gets much more rotten.
When one culture must completely dominate, we see things like:
- Racism = hatred between races
- Sexism = hatred between women and men
- Classism = hatred between haves / have nots
- Religious persecution
We see these leading to horrors like:
- Enforced poverty
We have seen it under Communism, in the hundreds of millions of lives killed and even more still destroyed. We see it right now in the daily horrors of ISIS, which we read about in Middle East.
So, we see in these cultures and others the fruit of what happens when a belief says: one culture must dominate all others.
At this point, it would be easy to say, “But my culture doesn’t do those things. And I don’t do those things.”
Don’t be so sure. It may not be obvious in our cultures. But in the First World, our popular culture values young independent adults. It says they should be dominant. This leads to an ugly cultural grey: people of all ages trying to look and act like young independent adults.
It also leads to much worse fruit:
- Assisted suicide of the aged and disabled, because they don’t fit the dominate culture. They just get in the way.
- Abortion of the unborn. In the US alone, over 56,000,000 humans have died from abortion since it became legal. These killings are often very gruesome indeed. And all because they didn’t fit the dominate culture, they just got in the way of it.
To sum up these views, beliefs like Communism, Islam and even Secular Popular Culture say one culture should dominate. They produce rotten fruit: an ugly, grey cultural sameness, and violent horrors, leading to death.
But there’s another view, that contrasts with this one. It’s the second problem: diversity without unity.
Some beliefs say all cultures must be absolutely equal. This is the opposite. It’s very common now, under names like
This view says that no culture, no group is better than any other. All cultures must be absolutely equal.
On the surface, this sounds loving. But looking deeper, the fruit is just as rotten. Here’s the big problem: it forces us, in the end, to pretend everything is OK.
When fully believed and practised, it robs us of the ability to say things like:
- “The caste system in India is harmful.”
- “Aborting baby girls because they are girls is wrong.”
- “Communism is wrong to kill millions of people.”
If every culture is equal, how can we say that? How can we judge?
If we’re being consistent, we cannot. We have to pretend it’s all ok.
But it most definitely is NOT loving when horrible beliefs that harm millions of people can’t be judged, but rather get a free pass.
That’s not loving. In fact, it is the opposite of love. It makes it impossible to fix those things which are broken in cultures. And it allows horrible things to continue happening.
To repeat - saying that all cultures are absolutely equal isn’t the loving answer it sounds like. It actually produces rotten fruit, forcing us to pretend everything is ok, making it impossible to fix things that go wrong, allowing horrible things to continue.
And, this isn’t just something that happens with big issues. In every day life, it comes up all the time, when in the name of tolerance and absolute equality we pretend everything is ok, and let friends do things that hurt themselves and others. This makes for more rotten fruit. It is not actually loving to our friends. True love wants to see the best for a friend. Which means, it doesn’t tolerate brokenness, but cares enough to seek to see it resolved.
To sum up this second problem, a belief that says all cultures must be absolutely equal sounds loving, but produces rotten fruit. It forces us to pretend everything is OK, making it impossible to fix things that go wrong, trapping real people in brokenness, preventing us from showing true love.
So now, I want to talk about the solution.
The solution can’t be either
- A belief that says one culture must dominate.
- A belief that says all cultures must be absolutely equal.
Or, put another way,
- Unity without diversity.
- Diversity without unity.
Why? Because both of these lead to rotten fruit, and we’ve seen it over and over again in history and in our own lives.
We need a way to value both diversity and unity. The good news is, God gives us that way.
For one, God shows us that cultures matter; our diversity matters.
You see, when God became a human being to save us, He came into a specific human culture. The only God in the universe, who made us all - He valued us so much that He came to us, to our level. In this way, he valued our human cultures because of His love for us.
Ever since, when Christians have told people about God’s love, just like God, they’ve cared about culture. They’ve said cultural diversity matters.
Not that Christians have been perfect in doing this. We have failed many times in history. We have needed to be called back to God’s way. But when Christians go out to share God’s love, living God’s way, they have cared about local cultures.
Let me give you an example from history. Did you know that the Bible is the first book written down in almost every language? It has formed the beginning of thousands of local literatures that have kept cultures strong which would otherwise have vanished with hardly a trace.
Why is that?
Christians have translated the Bible into thousands languages because they care about local cultures. When Christianity enters a new area, it develops local ways to worship God, with local music, art, story, architecture; all encouraging local culture.
This doesn’t have to be. It’s the opposite of a religion like Islam, which doesn’t like the idea of translation.
Did you know that the Qu’ran is never meant to be translated? All good Muslims learn 7th century Arabic in order to recite it. And, there aren’t meant to be localised forms of worship; only one form of worship for everyone, globally. All good Muslims are supposed to worship this same way. And, there isn’t a value on local cultures; all good Muslims are meant to imitate Mohammed, even in his 7th century dress and behaviour.
This means that everywhere Islam goes, 7th century Arabia goes. You can see the difference in Africa. In Northern Africa, where Islam dominates, we see a cultural grey, a dull sameness. The more seriously Islamic, the more same it is.
In Southern Africa, which is traditionally Christian, we see vibrant diversity. The more seriously Christian, the more diverse.
The Bible talks about it this way. Speaking of Jesus, it says:
“You redeemed people for God by Your blood from every tribe and language and people and nation.”
The God of the Bible takes cultural diversity seriously and calls us to do the same. As Christians, we look forward to a day when people from every culture will worship Him.
But God also cares about unity. Remember, the fruit of saying all cultures must be equal ends up being love without truth - which isn’t love because it leaves people broken. In the end, it’s as bad as saying one culture must dominate.
God cares about unity. He cares about truth and love. As Creator of everything, He’s the source of all truth. As He tells us and history shows, He is also the source of love.
So, the God of Bible does two things tolerance can’t:
1. He shows love to people who are broken.
2. He gives them a way out, healing people and calling people to repent and turn away from brokenness to truth.
Tolerance cannot do those things.
Ever since, Christians have done the same: putting truth and love together. Christians have called brokenness, what it is: something bad. They have sought to help broken people, and to give them a new life.
Which is why, as a Christian, I can say a belief system like Islam or Communism has very bad fruit, but the people behind these beliefs, even very ‘bad’ people, are made in God’s image and need our love.
Again, Christians haven’t been perfect doing this.
But did you know that Christians living God’s way invented:
But did you know that Christians living God’s way invented:
All of these, to care for people rejected by ancient cultures. In Ancient Rome for example, the father (“pater familias”) had absolute power over the lives of any babies born in his house, including his servants' kids. The ancient Roman father could order any baby in his house left out to die. Christians saved those babies and started the first orphanages.
Did you know also, that Christians were responsible for our modern system of Human Rights? The rights of women, babies, elderly, poor, blind, disabled, prisoners, slaves, and factory workers come from long centuries of Christian reform.
This system of equal Human Rights didn’t develop out of
- The Ancient empires
- Atheistic Communism
Why? They didn’t because they couldn’t. Those beliefs can’t produce that fruit.
For example, in 1948, the UN put forward their Declaration of Human Rights. Islamic countries stood against it and refused to sign it because they knew it was Christian.
Human Rights and hospitals are cultural fruit of a belief that:
- Tolerance isn’t enough. We need both truth and love.
- All human lives matter. What is wrong can be called broken and changed
There are many other examples I could share of good fruit, like
- The scientific method
- Most national literatures
- Polyphonic music (like Bach)
God’s love of unity and diversity made these possible.
Christians are responsible for the existence of all of these things, because God cares about unity and diversity. These things did not and could not exist as the fruit of beliefs that said either
- Only unity matters
- Only diversity matters
To conclude, culture matters. It shows us the fruit of our beliefs.
For a belief like Islam or Communism, which says one culture must dominate, the ultimate fruit is not unity but death.
For a belief like modern secular tolerance, which says all cultures must be equal, the fruit is not love, but brokenness, ultimately also leading to death.
To have a life-giving culture, you need a way to value both unity and diversity.
The good news is, God gives us the way. You don’t need to choose EITHER unity OR diversity. That false dichotomy leads to death. You can follow the God of this universe, who brings both together and gives us life.