Term Paper: Transforming Culture

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Transforming Culture

Sherwood Lingenfelter, the anthropolist and author of Transforming Culture, begins with his perspective on culture. He sees culture as "of the world," and therefore basically sinful. His view is in contrast to other scholars who see culture as a neutral tool for spreading God's word. Culture, according to Lingenfelter, is a prison which keeps people from seeing and understanding diversity and blinds them to other ways of thinking and doing things. Culture, in his view, tends to limit the richness of experience. Because we are blinded by the "rightness" of our own cultures, we tend to impose our cultural ideas, attitudes, and customs on other cultures when we bring the gospel to them. Furthermore, we are often unconscious of our cultural assumptions. The author points out that Christ is the only way out of this prison. My own reaction to this is that Christ in consciousness renews and invigorates ideas, values, and attitudes by causing us to question our cultural assumptions.

This reminds me, for example, of an incident that happened to me a few years ago when I moved to an area where there was considerable racism being expressed in the culture. I felt very superior because I was "tolerant" of other races and treated people as individuals, not as stereotypes. One evening there came an unexpected knock at my door. When I opened, it was a black woman with her toddler who was obviously choking on something and unable to breathe. I turned the baby upside down and struck her back sharply and a penny flew out of her mouth! The baby gasped and then cried. But what surprised me was the reaction of the mother. She had been so frightened, that she cried with relief when the baby breathed. When I probed myself as to why I felt surprised by this, I realized that I had been believing (without ever thinking about it consciously) that black people did not love their children as much as white people did. I probably got this idea from my own mother who didn't believe in big families and was quite judgmental about people who had "too many children." Black mothers had bigger families, I thought, and somehow that translated itself into an assumption that they couldn't love them as much because they had so many more.

I was quite humbled by this awakening experience which wrought a small transformation in myself. I saw that I was not immune to racism, for one thing, and I made an effort to stop being so judgmental.

Lingenfelter says God has penned us up in self-created prison cells of culture. I agree that we are in cultural cells whose "windows on reality" keep us from seeing the broader picture, but I don't see the logic that God has imprisoned us in something basically sinful that we have created ourselves. God liberates us from all self-imposed limitations. Other people -- the people around us, the community, and the media create the prison cells through discourse. We don't do it alone. We talk about events, we interpret history among ourselves, share meaning with each other, and pretty soon we believe what we heard and said. Once cultural ideas and myths become embedded in consciousness, they are difficult, if not impossible, to dislodge except through the wholesome influence of Christ. Once this has happened in the individual consciousness, and the individual has been released from some imprisoning idea, then the individual becomes an agent for change in the culture. Agitation for change and reform is usually met with hostility, yes, but the individual awakened by Christ is not able to stop telling the truth. The sin in culture becomes more and more obnoxious.

For example, in popular culture today we have violent video games which are targeted at boys. Video game culture presents a model of manhood that is based on an ugly, hard-edged masculinity where manhood is associated with aggression, violence, and killing. Themes are far more aggressive than on TV. The boys who play these games want desperately to find out what it is to be a man and to feel like "real men." The companies that make the games are peddling (for profit) a distorted message about what it means to be a man. The game itself keeps the players from thinking critically about anything, as they participate in action designed to be visceral and to provide pleasure and fun in violence. Magazines about video games make this clear. Take this ad, for example, describing the graphics in the new edition of Cosmic Carnage: "The effect is similar to watching a movie where the camera zooms in for a close-up catching an R-rated view of that head being ripped from its shoulders." This deliberate corruption of youth is a striking example of what the author describes as "culture inextricably infected by sin" (p. 19).

One way to understand a culture is to look at how it is organized. Social institutions organize themselves in one of four structures (the author refers to them as prototype social games), either individual/individualist, authoritarian/bureaucratic, hierarchical/corporate, or collective/egalitarian. A fifth structure is an intersecting Christian life in which the "pilgrim" participates in one or more of these basic social structures (home, school, work, and church may each be structured differently) but the pilgrim is not controlled by it. As people work and interact within these organizational structures, they develop a cultural bias; that is, they internalize the assumptions and values of that particular structure and develop preferences. One's own culture becomes the only one that does things "right." Christians must guard against this kind of thinking in order to maintain their stance as pilgrims and servants.

A few years back a Congregational church I know lost their minister. A survey was circulated in the congregation asking members to tell what they would like in a new minister. One of the things that came out was that the small congregation, mostly older people, wanted their church to grow. The Board eventually found a minister who promised he could bring in new people. He made good on his promise. In the first eighteen months of his ministry, he increased the church membership from 56 to over 500! But the original members were not happy at all. Their new minister found the new members on the streets and in gangs. The young people he brought into the church brought their street culture with them, at least to some extent, in their manners, dress, and ways of communicating. The 500 new members were much more egalitarian, too, whereas the older members were organized along hierarchical lines. Eventually, the church split. The old members left and formed another church along the old structural lines. Their cultural bias prevented them from adapting to the youth who had been evangelized. And to be fair, the cultural bias of the new younger members, if they were even aware of the conflict, prevented them from making concessions to age.

I know of a Methodist church where growth happened suddenly -- also as a result of getting a new minister. The congregation swelled so much they had to erect a new building, but in that church it worked. The minister established two services, an early service for older members and a later service for younger. There is some cross-over, but not much. At both services the minister gives the same sermon. But at the early service, the congregation sings traditional hymns accompanied by organ music. They dress up in their good clothes. The service itself is conducted in a formal and predictable format (the way it always has been since the church's inception). The minister talks. The congregation listens. The minister gives instructions to stand up, sit down, bow heads, etc. And the congregation obeys. Afterwards, individual members shake hands with the minister and speak a word or two as they go out the door. At the later service, people wear casual clothing. Children are often present, and it's noisier. The congregation sings contemporary worship music accompanied by instruments such as guitar and electric piano. Rock style singers with microphones render contemporary praise songs. Members of the congregation sometimes raise their arms and sway with the music. The minister gives his sermon, perhaps slightly adapted for the younger crowd, and the congregation listens, but members of the congregation also get up and talk as the Spirit moves them. Prayers are frequently led by members of the congregation who also make comments and share spiritual insights of their own. Afterwards, small groups of people gather around the minister to talk. Perhaps the reason this church has survived, while the other one didn't, is because people are not being asked to give up their cultural biases. In neither church, however, was the issue of cultural bias addressed from a Christian pilgrim standpoint which would help the members see what cultural constraints are controlling them and, thus, help them to grow spiritually.

Lingenfelter points out that Christians are supposed to live as… [END OF PREVIEW]

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