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Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Culture, Faith and Being Counter-Cultural

Today is the first day of the Chinese New Year of the Rooster, the Year 4702 or 4642 depending on whether you start to count from the first year of Emperor Hwang Di's reign or the sixty-first year (most people prefer to count from the first). But! Who is counting, really!

As someone who loves history and who would like to maintain my children's heritage for as long as possible for them, I also know that most of the time, I am fighting an uphill battle. This morning as I was reflecting on some of the things that I like to keep alive in the family and about some of the traditions that I keep or used to keep as a kid, my thoughts led me to ask whether some of the practices were "christian" actions, behavior or attitudes. I remember back when I was younger, a lot of those of us Asians who became Christians rejected many of our Asian customs and beliefs because we assume that these are all vestiges of our former religious and idolatrous lifestyle. Our Christian leaders were no help on this as they encouraged us to do the same.

I now think it is quite unfortunate. While I believe we may not have thrown out the baby with the bathwater, we probably disposed of the bathtub, leaving the baby naked and unattended. This reminds me that in the Church's history, the early Christians learned how to differentiate between elements in the culture that can be adopted by the new Christians, and the early missionaries probably knew the difference between the gospel and elements in culture that are not necessarily religious nor anti-Christian. However, later, Protestant missionaries, especially, went into different cultures and destroyed more than just the religious underpinnings of these cultures. They decided that everything of the local culture to be not only unchristian but anti-Christian.

Now, the celebration of Chinese New Year includes many motifs and decorative items that stems from Chinese mythology, traditions, customs, symbols and rituals. I remember as a younger Christian, nearly all of these traditions and customs were banished by Christians and Churches who label all these elements of the culture to be religious icons of our past. For instance, a pastor once came into our home during Chinese New Year celebrations and mentioned that the decorative dragons that my wife hung up in our living room were idolatrous and symbolized the dragon of Revelations 13. I believe this is an example of misapplying the Scriptures and I believe this is a mistake of conflating cultural elements with elements of religious practices and to summarily dismiss everything of a particular culture as non-Christian and therefore spiritually deleterious.

Sometimes, Christians get overzealous in being counter-cultural, and equate being glaringly opposed to the prevalent culture of the day is a mark of spirituality and discipleship. I seriously doubt that this is the essence of our calling. When in Acts, the early Christians were blamed to have turned their world upside down, it weren't the then cultural leaders and masses who were complaining that to be the case. The complaints came from the dominant religious leaders of the day, because the authentic followers of Christ rocked their religious sensibilities and the comforts of their religious orthordoxy.

Indeed the Lord Himself urges that we are to be in the world but not of it. Yet, some Christians today think that we are called to be not only not of the world, but also not in the world! If we believe them, we will not be able to do what the Lord says we need to do by being not of the world, and that is to draw the world to our heavenly Father.