Question Your Reality

from Guangzhou, southern China

It’s amazing how much of culture is transparent. We can’t see it because we see through it. What seems perfectly normal to us only seems that way because it’s woven into our cultural fabric. Stepping out of our culture causes us to look through a different set of lenses and reveals how much we take for granted.

In America, beautiful women are always tan. White Midwestern girls spend good money to fake-bake under UV lights in order to secure some semblance of sun-drenched skin. But in China, the streets swim with umbrellas even on the clearest day as Asian women try to shield their skin from the sun. Because the Chinese ideal of feminine beauty is a woman with a milky-white complexion.

Imagine the challenge this creates for advertising. Marketers always want beautiful people representing their products. But beauty is different in China than it is in America. The same darkly tanned woman who suggests beauty to an American audience would conjure up images of a humble peasant farmer to the Chinese. The ideal – beauty – exists in both cultures. But the cultural images that represent that ideal are widely divergent.

The same thing is true in our view of the gospel. Much of what we think is essential to Christianity, the gospel, and church planting is actually based on our culture, not the Bible. Just ask this question: what do I consider “normal?” Then deconstruct your view of normal by asking whether it applies in cultural contexts other than America.

For example: is gathered, corporate singing about the glory and goodness of God an essential aspect of worship? Try telling that to our brothers and sisters in China, who cannot sing aloud together in their underground house-churches for fear of awakening government scrutiny. Is reading the Bible an essential component of spiritual growth? If so, are we saying that Christian growth is not possible in places with massive illiteracy rates?

I don’t ask these questions to start arguments about hypotheticals. My goal is rather to spur critical reflection on how culturally bound our view of reality often is. Is that tanned cover girl on the grocery-store magazine rack really beautiful? Or did your culture just condition you to think so?


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  1. Bob the examples you mention are about ecclesiology, what about Theology proper? (oops—that’s getting dangerously close to the hypothetical/theoretical we’re trying to avoid) This summer my pastors have been preaching through 2 Peter which has some pretty strong words to say about judgment. It’s has prompted me to ask how culture has shaded my view of God. Why does God’s wrath seem less beautiful than God’s love? Really, now—isn’t it flying off the handle just a little to wipe out all humanity with a flood? And going so far as to burn up the earth itself certainly seems like an overreaction. I get the uneasy feeling that the entitlement ethos of my generation pervades my thinking more than I’d like to admit.

    To go back a few chapters in Romans, how do we allow the word of God to transform and renew our mind where it already has been conformed to this world? Since our culture is continually whispering lies, it makes it that much more important that we’re part of a gathering where the word of God is loudly proclaimed. Is one of the ministries of redemptive community to provide a context where reality, as it’s outlined in the Word of God and the person of Christ, is normative? Peter describes us as aliens and strangers but our spiritual culture shock dissipates all too quickly. Whether it’s Coram Deo in Omaha, Holy Trinity Church in Chicago or one of the house churches in China, one of the functions of the local assemblies of God’s people is to remind of the vision and values of our heavenly home lest we believe we are citizens of this world rather than emissaries to it. This world isn’t our home. Properly understood, that shouldn’t result in an escapist mentality (“God’s going to damn it all anyway—and I’m out of here”) but fuel mission (All who are not in Christ will be damned; I have been spared from the judgment to come and must use my freedom to join Christ in his ministry of rescue and reconciliation). The hope of the gospel is that it is a countercultural message that outfits us with a mission to those in our culture.

  2. Bob,

    I think the answer to your last question(s) is/are Yes. Yes, she’s beautiful (hypothetically of course) and yes, I”m conditioned to think so from my culture. It doesn’t mean that an Asian woman is any less beautiful, but if I’m judging, I might be more apt to prefer the American image because that’s where I live. So, to say that either woman is objectively more beautiful is dubious, hence, your point, . .

    As far as church goes, I resonate with what Jenny said that, as the church, we should be defining reality for people in light of the gospel. There’s no doubt, though, that we should do this with our culture in mind, to some degree. I’m not sure it’s possible to do it any different, . . .since even as we read the word, we’re coming at it from our cultural perspective. To think that we could strip ALL of that away for a 100% objective reading of any text, would be impossible, I think.
    And, I think that’s the way God would have it (to a certain degree) since he put me here and not in China. So, I actually think I would be doing a poor job if I tried to operate a Chinese-type church in my culture.

    The theological moorings that Jenny mentioned are some things we could say should be “Universal” in regard to our understanding of ecclesiology.


  3. yo,
    i am in mali, west africa now. for those of you from the christ community days you might remember the hospital in koutiala. that’s where we are. i’ve been tracking you guys back home ever since we left. i especially liked the conversation on “safe” christian radio.
    anyway, i have a couple thoughts to add. the idea of culture goes deeper and deeper. spend any significant time in another one and you’ll understand. i agree with aaron, you can’t get rid of culture but you can adapt them. missionary kids for example have what is called “third culture.” they grow up in one, are raised by parents of antother and they see through a blend of both. so culture is always there but i don’t think we should settle for, “i have my american culture and if you don’t like it, leave.” that is basically how most americans are viewed around the globe. i have learned from malian culture and malians have learned from us as americans. i think that’s more the way it should be. living life completely in one way is never healthy. that’s why people try and gain another perspective on things…for learning and growing. we shouldn’t neglect that in our cultural growth.
    i also agree with aaron in the fact that he wouldn’t do a very good job in operating a “chinese-type” church. neither would i. but then i wonder why do we have chinese-type churches. in omaha we have chinese churches, black churches, white churches, sudanese churches, and the list goes on. i think we should adjust our thinking to more of a biblical perspective. universal church. why can’t we come together and worship with the people from china, sudan, and “north o”? i think it is because they are from a different culture and people from different cultures usually have a hard time understanding each other. i also think that when we have a hard time worshiping god in that context it shows that we are attaching cultural limits to what it means to live for and worship god. this probably isn’t the place for a discussion on all those things in detail but believers around the world would gain a ton from “joining hands” and learning from each other and worshiping god together. he’s the same god isn’t he? why don’t we worship him together?
    just like approaching any passage of scripture when we try and remove any biases or ideas beforehand we should try and remove our cultural lens as well. that can’t be done perfectly or to a complete extent, but we can try. i would also say that as americans we do a a really bad job of understanding our own culture. the best class i ever took in college was on american culture. we read this book by a foreigner saying, “ok, here is how americans think and act…foreigners beware.” awesome class. we also read a book on relating to people from other cultures. it actually changed the way i think. i can get you the names of the books if anyone wants…
    all that to say, culture is there. we should learn from other cultures and join them when we can to worship god together. here’s an idea. why doesn’t the group at coram deo join the “chineese-type” church for a sunday of worship. both parties would learn a lot from each other if they had an open mind and the ability to laugh at each other a little bit. i guarantee it would be a whole nother world. but i think it would be awesome. could be a small taste of heaven when all people from all cultures will be praising god together.
    just some thoughts, hope i don’t come across as thinking i’m an expert on culture cuz i’m not and you guys know that.
    greetings from everyone here from omaha. there are quite a few actually. 7 to be exact.

  4. Scott,
    I’ll pray for God’s work in Africa,. . thanks so much for the comments.
    I agree with you that some “universal” church worship would be an amazing thing. I just think that sometimes we get so down on our own culture and try to do other things. . . .when this is the place that God put us. We need to be good missionaries here. (which includes, by the way. . perhaps opening things up to some other ethnic groups. . . great idea) So,. . I guess I’m saying. . . use your cultural bias for the kingdom. And, as you say, be welcoming and open to other cultures informing your own.


  5. greetings from china. one thought on this: doesn’t seeing God in different cultural settings show us more of who God is? God created the whole world and is present in all, and so the discovery of God (in the church, in people, in nature, etc.) while in a different country and/or culture perhaps shows us a more complete picture of who God is: learning from oneanother, coming together as a body of Christ. also, say hello to mali for me. i miss it sometimes. and finally, thank you all for blogging. it is encouraging and challenging.

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