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What is my culture, now?

November 19, 2009

I started pondering this question since the day I decided to follow Jesus Christ: What is my culture, now?

In my mind, culture is a combination of relationships, religious beliefs and practices, festivals, lifestyle, morals, social etiquettes and how we expect others to treat us. For me, it was not just restricted to the dictionary definition. I grew up with this understanding of culture. Often, when I refer to my culture, it is all this.

In relationships, the most important aspect that I learnt quickly and that became stronger as I grew was the notion of authority. It started in the house and extended into the social life. There was never any doubt in our house about who has the ultimate authority – it was my father. My mother was next.  I exercised some authority on my younger brother too. My mother also used to put a “bindi” – a red dot – on her forehead to signify that she was still married and that her life is under the authority of my father. Some of our relatives also had authority over us and at times some of my parent’s cousins even got involved in our family decisions. I clearly remember incidents when one of my uncles made some of the decisions for our family, because he was the eldest among the siblings and many relatives respected him. This kind of decision making was not often, but it was practiced when necessary.

I grew up in a Hindu home and celebrated the most common festivals. I also went to couple of temples on a semi-regular basis (once or twice a month), sometimes weekly. Since I was from a slightly backward caste (not too backward though) we were not supposed to perform any rituals (or pooja) on our own or enter the innermost parts of the temple, but had to use the services of a Brahman to do the right things and follow the right processes. And so we did.

We celebrated festivals all year round: Makar Sankrant (January), Maha Shivaratri (March), Holi (March), Gudi Padwa (April), Vat Pournima (June), Raksha Bandhan (August), Ganesh Chaturthi/Utsav (September), Diwali (October), and Bhaubeej (November). Some of them were only for women and some for entire families to enjoy. As you can see there was at least one festival per month – rich festivities! Festivals were also important opportunities for our family and relatives to come together and enjoy together. Ceremonies like marriage and naming a baby were no less than grand festivals!

With respect to lifestyle, I grew up in a financially modest environment, commonly referred to as middle-class. My father earned enough to pay the bills, house rent and save some. We saved some money to eventually buy a house, but not without a mortgage that ended up causing more problems in our family than the happiness we thought it will bring. Coming back to lifestyle, it was with good enough comforts. My parents worked hard to provide us the four necessities really well – food, shelter, clothing and education. We were a closely knit family too, that stuck through thick and thin, even though the relationships were strained at times. The overall lifestyle was that of “adjusting” on every front – not demanding too much and meeting the ends with what we had. My father was not an ambitious person, however my mother was. She always wanted us to have a better lifestyle, and so she saved more, tried to push my father into different businesses in addition to his day job and always tried to create additional sources of income through her own creativity as well. And I did not understand how hard they were working and the kind of compromised lifestyle they were maintaining until I started getting involved in our family matters after I started my first job. But they never complained. So, our lifestyle was that of “adjusting” and “not complaining” but fighting it out.

My mother and my teachers taught me all the morals. I also developed an understanding of what’s good and what’s bad by observation. My father was the primary disciplinarian, followed by my mother and then my teachers. I developed and understanding of right and wrong through life examples, experiences and while making mistakes and learning from them. The social structure of our community and neighborhood also indirectly taught some moral values. Somehow, without any scriptures to follow, I grew in my understanding of good and bad, and right and wrong. I attribute most of the moral teaching to my parents though.

Social etiquettes were a significant aspect of my day to day life. One of the first etiquette I learnt was respecting the elders. There was never any lack of understanding on what that meant. It started with respecting the parents. To be honest, I respected my parents for two reasons: because they were my parents, and I feared their discipline. It was never a good idea to spend the day with this warning from my mother, “You’ll see what will happen in the evening when Dad comes home. Just wait”. The second group of people who deserve respect were my teachers. Apart from “respect” I also learnt to put elderly people ahead of my needs. If I was traveling in a bus and an elderly lady or man was standing, I would often give my seat to them. Lastly, respect for any other person who was older than me was also a given. Whether it was someone’s brother or sister or complete stranger, I always addressed them in a respectful manner. Among the relatives, the thread of respect continued. In fact, in most cases I would bend down and touch my relative’s feet if I was visiting them or they were visiting us and I was seeing them the first time. That was how we showed respect.

The language of communication, inside and outside of the house, was another important area of social etiquettes. Unacceptable words and phrases were strictly prohibited and I was even disciplined at home when other friends and their parents would come home complaining if I used them. I knew them, but never dared to use them.

Out of our social etiquettes emerged how I got treated. As I grew older, I started receiving respect from others and also had some authority. It changed for better after I started working. My social status changed from a consume r to a producer and that brought a whole another level of good recognition inside our family, our relatives, friend and even society in general.

Why am I telling you all this?

Because the day I seriously started thinking about Jesus Christ and following him by abandoning everything, I stated to question all these areas of my life and my culture.

  • Will I be leaving such a rich culture of festivals, morals, relationships, and community, and embrace a completely foreign system, which I do not even fully know yet?
  • What is the culture of Jesus Christ?
  • How will my relationship with my parents and relatives be affected by my decision?
  • Should I be celebrating the festivals after I decide to follow Jesus?
  • Should I try to learn the significance and background about the various festivals I celebrated and see if I can preserve their spirit, while not following the religious symbolism?
  • What becomes of my respect for my parents?
  • Should I allow others, not my parents, to have any kind of authority in my life?
  • Should I be touching elderly people’s feet by bowing down?
  • How do my social etiquettes change?
  • If I get married, should I ask my wife to put a “bindi” – red dot – on her forehead?
  • Should I be going to church every Sunday, instead of going to the temples I used to go to?

I did not seek answers for these question by talk to those who called themselves Christians. I wanted to seek the answers myself.

And so I started.

I started with deciding that I am not going to make an issue out of any of these questions while deciding to follow Jesus Christ. I started to just grow in my understanding of this person – Jesus Christ. I poured hours into studying how he lived in his time. What kind of culture was he living in when he was on the earth?

I soon discovered, as I studied the Old Testament, that there were many similarities between my culture and what I was reading about the Jewish culture. There were lots of festivals, respect for elders, laws, and social etiquettes and so on. There were significant religious differences, but there were still many aspects that were common to both. However, as I continued to switch back and forth between the Old and the New Testament, I started to notice some interesting differences. I discovered that the New Testament Jews could not practice the culture exactly as it was practiced in the Old Testament days and they had to either change some of the practices or replace them with additional practices that were relevant for their times. The culture also evolved from Old to New era as lifestyles changed. There were no different types of Jews in the Old Testament, but I started reading about new types (lower and higher) in the New Testament. I also learnt that the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, which was rebuilt by the time of Jesus, was the most important part of the Jewish culture. Even Jesus was taken as a child to the temple in Jerusalem. As he grew old, Jesus was also visiting the temple.

But as Jesus started becoming more and more public about his plans, I saw a sudden change in how he approached the Jewish culture. In fact, he replaced all of it with nothing!

Let me explain.

After Jesus started explaining to his disciples about why he has come, why he is doing all the miracles, how he will die, how he will rise and most importantly, how they are to remember him after he is back in heaven after his resurrection – he did not provide any guidance or principles on what they should do with their Jewish culture. In fact, he took one of their significant festivals, the Passover, and changed its meaning from sacrificing a lamb and eating it, to breaking a bread into pieces and drinking wine in remembrance of his death. He transformed the meaning of the Passover meal to a meal of His Remembrance. That was the only cultural change, if we want to call it that way, which Jesus made!

As far as the Jewish culture was concerned, it kind of became irrelevant. Jesus nullified it.

And that gave me my answer. I was to abandon my culture for Jesus – my relationships, my festivals, my social obligations, even the fear-based authority of my parents and relatives. I would still hold the same moral values I had before, of good and bad and right and wrong. I would still respect anyone who is older than me. I would still show kindness to elders and my friends. I would still love and respect my parents. But, I was to not have any culture!

As far as I am concerned, the culture that I grew up with ended with me. Neither my daughter nor her kids will inherit it.

It was very clear in my mind that I have not changed my religion from being a Hindu to being a Christian. In fact, I have abandoned my previous religion and have just followed the Jesus Christ. I have not become a Christian, but I have a relationship with Jesus Christ now! And this distinction was important for me because a Christian religion that was, and still is, present in my time that had a culture of its own.

And so I came to the so called Christian religion with this understanding of abandoning my culture. And what did I find?

The Christian religion I saw had tall church buildings that almost looked like temples and festivals like Christmas, Easter, and Good Friday were celebrated. There were Preachers and Priests that performed special duties in churches. Christians went to church every Sunday and even lighted candles in front of a cross and sometimes in front of a statue of Mary, Jesus’ mother. I had not witnessed, but heard that Christians regularly drink alcohol and eat meat.

But this was not the kind of religion or church I was associated with. To be honest, I did not find any new Christian culture and practices that I needed to adopt because I had joined a home based group of believers in Jesus Christ, that we called a Church. This group did not practice any Jewish or Christian festivals. There were no Preachers or Priests. The only activity that the church practiced regularly was this – meeting every Sunday from 9am-12pm in a house.

After spending almost 2 years in this home based Church (which was a Brethren Assembly), I came to the US. And a lot changed on me.

After spending almost 9 years in the US, I have concluded that there is a western Christian culture that is actively being practiced and is an integral part of the Church life. There’s the aspect of going to church every Sunday. Festivals like Christmas, Easter and Good Friday are celebrated. Social etiquettes are entirely different because of the western lifestyle. I have been in association with Protestant Evangelical churches only – so I have not regularly experienced candle burning, worshipping Mary or a cross, but I have visited churches where these practices were evident.  I even attended a gathering where there was a Priest who dipped a piece of bread in wine and put it in my mouth. We were at a national park and wanted to meet with other fellow believers in Jesus Christ and went to the nearest church and were fed by the Priest!

It is common for our friends from the churches we’ve been part of, to ask these questions – Do we setup a Christmas tree? Do you want to join us for Easter Egg Hunting?

Among other things I also observed that Easter and Good Friday were recognized as special days and although there were no festivities, these were considered special days and we are reminded so via announcements and messages.

For me, nothing of this has any value or special recognition. I remember and appreciate the birth of Jesus Christ every day, I feel the pain of his death every day, I rejoice every day in the fact that he did not stink in the grave and I do not have to wait for any special days of the year to celebrate his life. However, all this is my personal conviction. I have nothing against the western Christian culture.

However, this is what I am pondering next: What becomes of a culture where a church is planted by a missionary?

I am not a missionary, in the traditional Christian sense. In a traditional Christian sense, a missionary is a person or a family that leaves their home town or home country and goes to another land to share the good news of Jesus Christ and plants a church. Sometimes missionaries go and work in existing churches in a distant land. Sometimes, they take up administrative jobs in churches and church related organizations in distant lands and still are called missionaries. Sometimes they are teachers in Christian schools in a distant land and are called missionaries. The mission work is always considered something that is done outside of the church’s geographical area – mostly international.  And I have met many sincere believers who have a heart to see the Kingdom of Jesus Christ expand and labor in hardships, making sacrifices in lifestyles, straining family relationships and even risking lives. I honestly accept that I have not dared to step in their shoes.

However, here are some additional questions I am pondering:

  • Should the missionary work in establishing church buildings?
  • Should special days like Christmas, Easter and Good Friday be introduced to the foreign culture?
  • Is it necessary to introduce these festivals as something that is necessary as part of being a Christian and living a Christina life?
  • What happens to the existing festivals of the foreign land for the people that are responding to the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is now the mission field for the missionary?
  • Should a missionary, especially if he or she is from a western Christian culture, replace the culture of the place where the mission field is, with the western Christian culture?
  • Should the missionary try to re-purpose some of the cultural aspects and bring new meaning to them that point them to Jesus Christ rather than continuing in their old cultural ways?
  • If we imagine that the whole world one day becomes a follower of Jesus Christ, will that result in complete annihilation of all types of cultures that have existed until that time?

Here’s why I am pondering these questions: My fear is that the western Christian culture has become a necessity to live a life as a follower of Jesus Christ. And this has spread all over the world. If we are not willing to abandon whatever culture we have, for Jesus Christ, then we are essentially making the culture more important than Jesus Christ. I might even fool myself by thinking that I am repurposing my older culture (say, some festivals) to give them a new meaning and bring forth the message of Jesus Christ through that. What I am actually doing is still trying to preserve the festival. Or maybe I think I need that bridge to my family, relatives and friends who still follow my old culture and by repurposing the festivals I am maintaining that bridge. Whatever the reasons may be, I am not willing to abandon my culture for Jesus Christ.

I wonder what a culture of Jesus Christ looks like that has only this at its core: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and most important command. And the second command is like it: Love your neighbor as you love yourself.’ This is what the Law and the Prophets really mean.

My culture is Jesus Christ. What about yours?

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