Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Cultural Perspective

I watched a 1974 rerun of The Lawrence Welk Show last Saturday night on our PBS channel. When it started at 7:00 p.m., my wife said, “No, it’s dorky.” To her credit, however, she tolerated it well. I suggested to her that her reaction stemmed from her mindset as a high school senior in 1974. I also shared my opinion about the wholesome qualities of the program. Upon reflecting on the experience, I can understand the differing emotional reactions that each of us had to the program. When I was growing up in Memphis, watching the program on Saturday nights was a family ritual for me. Watching it again in 2007 brought back some of those pleasant feelings that I had in 1974. Ironically, watching The Lawrence Welk Show made me feel young again. My wife did not experience the same Saturday night ritual as she grew up in Florida and Alabama, and her initial reaction to the program in 2007 reflected the negative feelings she had about the program in 1974.

Many of our emotional reactions to events in our present cultural milieu can be traced to our cultural backgrounds. Understanding this phenomenon is important to our successful adaptation to a new culture. I experienced culture shock as an IMB missionary to South Korea, but I think it is also possible to experience culture shock in the United States. Our country includes a variety of very diverse cultures. Rather than being a melting pot, America is a stew pot or salad bowl. We must be careful to distinguish morally neutral cultural differences from things that are morally right or wrong.

Duane Elmer wrote a very helpful book entitled Cross-Cultural Connections (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2002). He drew a line with three areas of varying sizes, depending on one’s perspective: right—differences—wrong. Elmer made some useful comments about this line:

“Over time, it dawned on me that the things I put into the category of ‘right’ were the things that were like me and the things I pegged as ‘wrong’ were the things and people that were unlike me. . . . This kind of thinking will likely cause serious problems since we live in a world bursting with differences. . . . The Bible does speak of right and wrong. The modern tendency to categorize everything as a difference—‘your thing’ or ‘whatever’—leads us to very dangerous ground. A mindset where everything is ‘just different’—and nothing is judged by Scripture to be wrong or sinful—must be rejected. Contemporary culture has shifted from the rigid right-wrong categories of my childhood to the opposite extreme where virtually everything is different and nothing is declared wrong. Throwing out all absolutes doesn’t solve anything. Both extremes need to be avoided. . . . If we treat everything as right and wrong, we do a great disservice to the human diversity God has placed in his creation. If we treat everything as a cultural difference, we do a great disservice to the God who authored an uncompromising word of truth. I attempt to respect both God’s world and the Scripture.” (pages 24-25)

It wasn’t difficult for me to handle the cultural differences that I had with my wife in regard to The Lawrence Welk Show. The cultural and theological differences we have with other people in regard to more serious issues, however, are sometimes very difficult to handle. Our culturally different backgrounds may lead to different interpretations of Scripture passages. We should strive to exegete Scripture in a way that minimizes our own cultural biases. Sometimes it is very difficult to apply Scriptural principles to our own cultural context without doing so in a biased way. We must pray often for God's assistance in this very important activity.