CHRISTIANITY AND CULTURE

by Metropolitan Makarios (Tillyrides) of Kenya

 

Wherever missionaries have penetrated, they have had an impact on the cultures of the peoples among whom they have sought to evangelize. On rare and isolated occasions the impact has been negative. But this has been wholly exceptional. Whenever Christianity has been introduced to an area where it did not exist before, it has never failed to bring justice and civilization in its train. Through missionary activity, whole ethnic groups in widely separated areas of the world have been raised up from barbarism.

One hears a great deal these days about "church planting," often in the missionary context. In a country such as the former Soviet Union, which is predominantly Orthodox, the rationale of church planting is obvious. In pursuance of its policy of state sponsored atheism, the communist government built whole new cities without a single church. In such communities, new churches need to be planted as a matter of high priority to cater to the spiritual needs of the people. The believers are there; clergy are available (to a greater or lesser degree); a church must be built and equipped and a new parish made functional. When this happens, a church has been "planted."

On the mission field, at least in the earlier stages, "church planting" inevitably takes a different form. There is no body of existing believers crying out for a church to meet their spiritual needs. Indeed, it is often the case that there are no believers at all. Such faithful as do exist will probably be scattered and may well be poorly instructed and poorly nurtured. Yet even believers such as these need churches. In emergency or exceptional circumstances, the Divine Liturgy can be celebrated out of doors but this is neither usual nor generally desirable. Without church buildings there can be no Divine Liturgy; and without the Liturgy regularly available to him, the convert out of heathendom can have no hope of standing and maturing in his faith.

 

MISSIONS AND CULTURE

Each nation and people has its respective culture. Culture is a word that is not particularly easy to define. According to one dictionary definition, culture is "the sum total of a nation's aesthetic and intellectual achievements." One of my students in Kenya has coined another definition: "the patterned way in  which people do things together." For a number of reasons, the question of missions and culture is of prime importance.

When cultures, particularly widely differing ones, impact upon one another, both are bound to be affected. In some instances, the consequences have been traumatic and even devastating. One thinks, for example, of the impact of "white civilization" over wide areas of Africa. Christianity is itself a culture. Unlike other cultures, Christianity (in its authentic form) is totally devoid of negative features. There have been secularist anthropologists who have protested that missionary activity is "harmful to the culture of unsophisticated peoples." In some instances, these anthropologists are right. Missionaries, however, need not be intimidated by pseudo-science. Certain "cultures" are vile and it is no loss if they perish. When the Spanish conquistadores (who were by no means a gentle people themselves) entered Mexico, they were aghast at what they found. The inhabitants — Aztec Amerindians — had a "culture" based on human sacrifice. The number of victims ran into thousands every year. The world can do without this kind of culture.

Nothing is more deeply entwined with a peoples' culture than their religious beliefs to which they have adhered from time immemorial. The indigenous religion of millions of Africans is fear-inspiring spiritism. The average African lives out his life under the continuous scrutiny (so he believes) of ancestral spirits. These spirits, moreover, have the power to deal out severe punishments upon those who might incur their displeasure. Throughout the length and breadth of tropical Africa, the dread of spirits is very real and all-pervasive. No one among them would not be blessed by finding emancipation from the cult of spirits by conversion to the faith of the One who gave the gracious invitation, "Come unto Me all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest." And it is only deep and earnest conversion to Christ that will give freedom from the tormenting bondage of the fear of ancestral spirits.

One obviously accepts that there are aspects of many cultures that are good and should by all means be preserved. The pioneer Protestant missionary to New Guinea, James Chalmers, was martyred and cannibalized in April 1901. Known as "the Livingston of New Guinea" he was endowed with a rich fund of missionary wisdom. "The shortest way to a New Guinean's heart," Chalmers wrote, "is through his tobacco pipe." By modern standards, the observation is startling. All that can be said is that in Chalmers's day, it was not known that tobacco was harmful to health. Chalmers also held the sane and sensible belief that primitive tribal people should not be required to adopt western clothing. "To swathe their limbs in European clothing," he wrote, … spoils them, deteriorates them and I fear, hurries them to a premature death … Retain native customs as much as possible — only those which are very objectionable should be forbidden." It is noteworthy that Chalmers did not forbid to his converts things he found "objectionable" but forbade only those things which were very objectionable. It is an interesting commentary on the evolution of social habits that with the exception of proudly traditionalist Greeks and Scots, there is now probably no community of men on earth who' would not want "to swathe their limbs in European clothing."

 

CONVERSION AND CULTURE

For an unbeliever, conversion to Christ involves the most radical change. The convert takes himself out from under the allegiance of one Master and places himself instead under the headship of a very different one. If, as the Apostle John tells us, the whole world is in the grip of the Evil One, conversion, to use a military analogy, is nothing less than desertion to the enemy. The convert's entire mental and spiritual frame of reference must be dismantled and replaced. The first of Christ's many gifts to the new convert is a sense of sin.

"If you love Me," our Lord declared, "You will keep My commandments" (John 14:15). The convert's whole way of life must be brought into obedience and submission to Christ. The converted and chrismated man has the Spirit within him and knows (or certainly should know) the difference between right and wrong. This knowledge will impact profoundly on his lifestyle. Conversion involves repentance for past sin; with this in mind, the convert should always have before him the exhortation of the Forerunner: "Therefore bear fruits worthy of repentance" (John 3:8).

Conversion implies a transfer from one community to another. All of us have modes of earning our livelihoods, places we frequent, friends with whom we consort and pastimes we enjoy. Each of these will come under the scrutiny of the conscience of the new convert. The young convert who is a slave to fornication or other immorality will turn from it; the convert employed in a questionable type of business will resign. There was for example, a croupier in a casino who was converted. For a short time he continued in this work, but became ever-more deeply convicted in his conscience that the work he was doing was displeasing to God. Finally, a day came when he told a group of startled gamblers at the roulette wheel, "God doesn't want me here." There and then he walked out of the casino and never returned. Another young man was addicted to watching pornographic videos. Upon conversion, this unsavory vice was immediately discontinued. No step in a man's life can be more radical than conversion. A newly-converted soldier termed it "right — about turn", or in motoring language, a U-turn. For the new convert, the world and its values will be replaced and superseded by Christ and the values of Christ, which are "not of this world." For the Christian, the unregenerate world is a source of contamination. This was acknowledged at the very birth of the Church when the Apostle Peter exhorted his congregation to "Save yourself from this crooked generation" (Acts 2:40).

Nothing is more radical than conversion. For most people, conversion implies a complete break with the past. When a person's previous religious affiliation was intermingled (as it often is) with his culture, the break is all the more traumatic. A breach with any lifelong commitment to a system of beliefs always involves pain. During the course of a lifetime the convert to Christianity has formed habits of thought and life and innumerable attachments arising from his former beliefs. The severing of these is accompanied with a pain akin to the physical pain of dislocation and the wrenching asunder of nerves and fibers. In addition to its private aspect, conversion will be attended to a greater or lesser degree with social consequences. These may range from something as comparatively innocuous as the disapproval of a spouse or other family member to a sudden knife thrust in the back at the hands of a Muslim fanatic.

The very radical nature of conversion is apostrophized in the New Testament in such terms as being born again (John 3:3) and resurrection from the dead (Eph 5:14). It was our Lord who warned the convert that turning to Him could involve the loss of family and possessions. A distressing example of the appalling persecution that can be meted out to a convert from Islam was reported in the London "Times" (July 6, 1996). A Kuwaiti citizen, Mr. Robert Hussein, converted to Christianity, which in Kuwait is a criminal offence. In an Islamic court appearance lasting less than a minute, Mr. Hussein was declared an official apostate from Islam. He was not allowed to speak, was declared automatically divorced from his wife, legally forbidden to see his children and stripped of his civil rights. He was deprived of his passport. From their pulpits, Muslim preachers issued death threats against Mr. Hussein. It is a matter for sadness rather than surprise that the unfortunate man cracked under this inhuman persecution and reverted to Islam.

 

THE BIBLE AND CULTURE

Much, if not most, biblical teaching is given through the context of the cultures of the people. What our Lord had to say was always in the highest degree culturally intelligible to His hearers. In His parables He spoke of things they knew and understood: sheep and goats; wheat and tares; a lost coin; a lost sheep; a lost son. His imagery could be understood by a child: the appearance of the sky, a treasure hidden in a field, a king going to war, and much else of the same genre. Never was a man closer to the life and culture of his own people than our Lord. A careful reading of the New Testament enables the student to build up an authentic and remarkable picture of our Lord in His domestic and cultural setting. For example, the reaction of the average reader confronted with a list of questions such as those given below would probably be: "We are not told; how can anyone know?" Given the appropriate references to look up, however, it is surprising what can be found out. It is true that in parables Jesus was not necessarily referring to His own home and family, but it is safe to assume that he talked about the kind of people, the kind of home and the kind of work with which he was familiar. Here are some specimen questions with the references from which the answers can be found:

 

  1. Was the family of Jesus rich or poor? How do you know? (Mark 2:21; Matt 10:29); Lk 12:6).
  2. What work did Jesus watch His mother doing? (Mk 2:21; Matt 6:30; Lk 11:11,12; Lk 15:8; Lk 17:35.
  3. What work did Jesus Himself do? What items might He have made? (Mk 6:3; Matt 7:5; Matt 11:29,30).
  4. 4. What books did Jesus read? (Matt 12:3:7; 15:7-9; Mk 14:26: Lk 4:16,17).
  5. 5. What was probably the first word Mary taught Jesus to say? (Mk 14:36). (This list could be considerably extended).

 

While our Lord drew deeply from the culture into which He had been born and nurtured in His own recorded sayings and teachings, it is undoubtedly true to say that the entire New Testament is an essentially Hebraic document. From beginning to end it is permeated with the letter and spirit of the Hebrew Scriptures, from which there are approximately 2000 quotations and references.

Other influences have made their imprint on the New Testament and the Church. There is little doubt that the Beloved Disciple was inspired in the writing of his Gospel by the Alexandrian sage Philo. Moreover the Logos-mysticism of St John also has roots in Heraclitus and Plato. The logos as a personification of the power and wisdom Of God is a concept deeply rooted in Greek philosophy. Yet this did not inhibit the Apostle from identifying the logos with our Lord in both His pre?incarnate and incarnate natures. Both Saints Luke and Paul were familiar with Hellenic culture. Acts 17:28 comprises a conflation of quotes from Aratus and Cleanthes while other quotations from Greek authors are found in Titus 1:12( Epimenides) and 1 Cor 15:33 (Menander). It also seems probable that Pauline theology was influenced at least to some extent by Platonism. In other words, Christian philosophy owes a debt to Hellenism. The Anglican scholar Dr W.R.Inge rightly asserted that the Christian Church was the last great creative achievement of classical culture. A major personality of the early Church, Justin the Philosopher ("Justin Martyr") (who was martyred AD 166) declared, "We teach the same as the Greeks.  Justin also said, "The teachings of Plato are not alien to those of Christ; and the same is true of the Stoics. Heraclitus and Socrates lived in accordance with the divine Logos and should be reckoned as Christians." The Hellenistic combination of Platonic metaphysics with Stoic ethics is still the dominant type of Christian religious philosophy. In other words, Christian Philosophy (as opposed to theology) is indebted to the ancient Greek thinkers and philosophers. This is not to suggest, however, that anyone will ever save his soul through Greek or any other species of philosophy.

 

THE NATURE OF CONVERSION

The nature of conversion has been much discussed. As I have already noted, a convert is a person who, having formerly held one set of beliefs or values is persuaded to adopt other beliefs or values; these may be radically different from those he held formerly.

Conversion, and especially religious conversion, never occurs, as it were, in a vacuum. Protestant evangelism tends to lay stress on what has been called "crisis conversion". In other words, conversion is a crisis event in the life of the Person concerned. It can be, and often is, a very real and meaningful experience. "Crisis conversions" often occur within the context of "crusades" or other large evangelistic meetings. An "evangelist" who is skilled in this type of work delivers an impassioned address. Usually he is supported by a talented soloist who sings heart-rending "gospel songs". There will be a well-rehearsed choir. The whole purpose of the proceedings is to play upon the emotions of those present. The evangelist's address ends with an "appeal" to those who wish to make a decision for Christ to come to the front. They are then led off to be "counseled." Of course, the archetypal evangelist of our generation is Billy Graham, who is credibly reported to have addressed far more people than any other man in history.

When Billy Graham conducts his "crusades" in the United States, as he delivers his closing appeal to those who wish to "accept Christ" to come forward, the choir sing a hymn titled "Just as I am":

 

Just as I am without one plea

But that They blood was shed for me

And that Thou bid's me come to Thee,

O Lamb of God, I come, I come.

 

In recent years when Dr. Graham has preached in the United Kingdom, the singing of this hymn is omitted. This is because there were many complaints (surely well founded) that it is emotionally manipulative.

In the environment of great evangelistic meetings the appeal to the emotions is powerful and for many, irresistible. It is inevitable that the Orthodox Church views "mass evangelism" with disfavor. True conversion is something far more profound than an emotional response.

I would not wish to suggest that the Holy Spirit does not sometimes use Protestant evangelists. It is no doubt better to be a half-baked Christian than not to be one at all. A soul can be saved in the twinkling of an eye. God is merciful and a cry of broken repentance uttered in despair moments before death will be received, but it is far from ideal. Fear of imminent death is not a good basis for repentance. To make a decision for Christ when in an emotionally overwrought state of mind is also less than satisfactory. Dr. Graham and other evangelists have been obliged to admit with sadness that fully 90 percent of those who "come forward" at their meetings fall away; and often as not, it is sooner rather than later. Orthodoxy has never regarded salvation as being a crisis event. For us, it is a process, a process in which the Christian soul is progressively transformed into the likeness of Christ; and this we call deification.

While almost all Christians are agreed that baptism is the Christian initiatory rite, there are wide differences of opinion among them concerning the nature of baptism. Exactly who should be baptized? Babies, or only those old enough to understand the nature of the rite? What method should be used? Sprinkling? Pouring? Immersion? What (if any) is the effect of baptism?

No subject divides Protestantism more than baptism. To a great extent it is differences of opinion over baptism that dictate much Protestant missionary policy, On the mission field, different Protestant denominations usually enter into "comity agreements". In other words, they divide up a country with the Baptists agreeing to work exclusively in one area, the Presbyterians in another and the Anglicans in a third. One can understand the "logic" of this arrangement. Without it there would be a situation in which Presbyterians and Anglicans would assure their converts that babies must be "christened" while down the road Baptist missionaries would be telling their converts that they must be baptized as believers by total immersion. The "heathen", of course, would be utterly baffled; hence the "comity agreements." But there can be little doubt that many of the "believers" themselves suffer from no small degree of bafflement. Someone has even written a book (which I have never read) with the revealing title The Waters That Divide.

Baptists, the great majority of Pentecostals many other sects and most independent churches are adamant that baptism is only for believers. Since a baby is obviously not a believer, among the Baptists and those who think like them, babies are not baptized. In the denominations which hold to "believer's baptism", the "candidate" is immersed on his or her profession of faith. People joining Baptist or Pentecostal churches from out of "mainline" churches are always told that they must be baptized as believers by immersion. Quite often Baptists are highly scornful of infant baptism, deriding it as "infant sprinkling."

Calvin and the large family of Reformed or Presbyterian churches which derive their theology from him believe strongly in infant baptism. Baptism, Calvin taught, is the sign of the Christian covenant, just as circumcision was the sign of the Jewish covenant. And just as babies, no less than adults, were admitted to the old covenant by the covenant sign, so also should babies be admitted to the Christian covenant by the covenant sign of baptism. In addition to the Presbyterians, this doctrine has been accepted by many "low church" Anglicans.

However, it can be safely said that almost all Protestants are united on one important point, regardless of whether the "subject" is infant or adult: baptism does not give new life and has no supernatural effect whatever. Among the Protestants (or any rate, the Evangelicals), the supernatural is not to be found in baptism but in "the new birth." The phrase "born again" is heard a great deal these days, not always in the sense that Evangelicals mean. If an Evangelical, or perhaps more specifically, an evangelist, persuades a person without previous belief in Christianity to become a Christian, the convert is usually said to be "saved." Often as not, he will be invited to say "a sinner's prayer," and will then be told by his mentor that he is "born again." The convert will also probably be told that his "new birth" has the effect of removing all his sins and giving him a complete new spiritual start in life by making him a child of God. He will also be given other advice and exhortations, including the need for baptism.

What is the purpose of baptism for such a convert? The two answers usually given are that it is "showing obedience" and it is "the answer of a good conscience." But "the new birth" is the supernatural event and it is never suggested that baptism adds anything further in the way of the supernatural to being "born again." It is not altogether surprising that two sizable Protestant denominations — the Quakers and the Salvation Army — have entirely rejected baptism in any form as being superfluous. The Founder of the Salvation Army, "General" Booth, excluded baptism from the polity of his movement for two reasons: 1) That he did not regard it as having any salvific effect; and 2) he wished to avoid wrangles among his followers concerning which of the different Protestant theories of baptism should be adopted. With baptism discarded.. he invented an initiation ceremony of his own: Salvationist babies are "dedicated" under the Salvation Army flag. Salvationists consequently live out their lives and die unbaptised. Ceremonies of "dedication" are also practiced by the Baptists, Pentecostals and others. There is of course no New Testament warrant at all for these man-made ceremonies. From an Orthodox standpoint, supposedly Christian sects that reject baptism cannot be regarded as anything other than sub-Christian cults.

 

MISSION, CULTURE AND THE SACRAMENTS

I have already pointed out that Christianity is itself a culture. However, Orthodoxy, by its very nature, is distinctively, a sacramental culture. For the Orthodox missionary, bringing the Holy Mysteries to the people he is seeking to reach is central to his work.

It is not my purpose to assail Protestant beliefs; but as an Orthodox I am only stating the obvious when I say that any form of conversion which has no room for the sacraments is lamentably defective and deformed. The authentic Christian life is sacramental. Throughout our lives, our Mother the Church is always available to minister to our spiritual needs. That ministry is sacramental. It goes without saying that the foundational sacrament is baptism. Orthodoxy (and it is only fair to add, also the Roman Catholics and Anglo-Catholics) has always held to baptismal regeneration. In other words, that spiritual life begins with baptism. Those who deny that this is so would do well to reflect that Orthodoxy, very definitely, has the Bible on its side. In the incisive words of that great nineteenth century Anglican theologian Dr. E.B. Pusey:

The plain letter of Scripture says, "We are saved by baptism, … and men say, "We are not saved by baptism." Our Lord says, "A man must be born of water and the spirit": man, that he need not, cannot be born of water. Scripture, that "we are saved by the washing of regeneration" man, that we are not, but by regeneration which is as a washing. Scripture, that "we are baptized for the remission of sins": man, that we are not, but to attest that remission. Scripture, that "whosoever has been baptized into Christ has put on Christ": man, that he has not. Scripture, that "they have been buried with Him by baptism into death": man, that they have not. Scripture, that "Christ cleansed the Church by the washing of water by the word": man, that he did not, for bare elements could have no such virtue. Scripture, "that we were baptized into one body": men, that we were not, but that we were in that body before. Surely they have entered into a most perilous path, which unless they are checked in pursuing it, must end in the rejection of all Scripture truth which does not square with their own previous opinions (Tract on Baptism).

That salvation is attained by baptism, ex opere operato, has been Christian dogma from the hour that the Apostle Peter told the Jews of Jerusalem "let ever one of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins" (Acts 2:38). We see then, that evangelism alone is not enough; the joy and riches of a life lived sacramentally  must be opened up to every convert. For the new Christian, baptism marks a point of departure out of chaos into the order and dignity of a forgiven life.

The fact that baptism confers salvation ex opere operato does not mean that a newly baptized and chrismated baby is exempt from making his personal response to follow Christ when he grows up. A relationship necessarily involves interaction between two parties. The baptized infant has not yet developed a relationship with God; but one party has already taken the initiative. Holy baptism is God's saving and sanctifying love reaching out to the newborn at the very outset of his life. Later in life the child becomes aware of faith in Jesus Christ. As he looks back, he realizes that something or someone led him to this act of faith. Eventually, he realizes that the spiritual life in which he is participating began with baptism. Innumerable cultures in many parts of the world are shamanistic. It must be made clear to converts that there is nothing quasi-dagical in baptism. It can never be divorced  from the convert's own response in faith.

While baptism has a profound effect upon the person being baptized, whether infant or adult, it also has an all-important social dimension: the total community of the baptized — in other words the Church — comprise one company. In the words of St Peter: "You are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people …" (1 Peter 2:9). By definition, baptism is the beginning of Christian life, not its end. But with baptism there begins the process of deification. As Christians are deified, so also are they transformed. At the same time the culture of which they are a part will also be transformed.

 

CONVERSION AND RENUNCIATION

It goes without saying that if there are aspects of a culture which are  sinful, they must be renounced. In the first century Graeco-Roman world, St Paul found much to appall and scandalize him. The upshot was that the Apostle commanded separation. In 2 Cor 6:14-16:

Do not be yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God.

Christians are people who should be free from the contamination of the world. For those from a heathen background, this means renunciation. The umbilical cord connecting the convert with the old life must be severed. William Carey, the father of Protestant missions, who labored for many years in India was adamant that there could be no compromise with this principle.

From the time of his first arrival in India Carey held that all non-Christian religions are false and evil. From this firm belief he never deviated. As well as affirming their faith in Christianity, his converts were expected to renounce their former beliefs in emphatic terms. Carey abominated the Hindu caste system. Earlier Roman Catholic missionaries in southern India had permitted Hindu converts to maintain caste distinctions. This was something Carey would not countenance. All converts were initially required to break caste by eating with the missionaries. Brahmin converts were required to remove their caste emblem, the "sacred thread" and trample it underfoot. Intermarriage between converts of different castes was encouraged. Carey's first Indian convert was a man named Krishna Pal, who was from the Shudra, or laboring caste. Two years after Krishna Pal's baptism, the first Bengali Christian wedding was solemnized: his daughter married a Brahmin convert. Ward wrote: "This was a glorious triumph over caste. A Brahmin married to a Shudra, and in a Christian form." I know of a young man who was converted out of Islam. Although no one suggested this to him, he felt a clear leading to destroy his copy of the Koran. Making almost a ritual of it, he consigned it to the flames. He felt this was, for him  a necessary gesture symbolizing his total renunciation of Islam and repudiation of its "holy book."

In an African context there must be total separation from, and renunciation of, the rituals and practices of heathendom. I shall conclude this paper by giving one example. In the Shona culture, a ceremony is performed at the grave approximately a year after a death and burial. The belief is that the spirit of the deceased roams at large for about a year, and then returns to its earthly home to take up its position as guardian of its surviving relatives. Part of the graveside ceremony involves the ritual drinking of specially brewed beer as an offering to ancestral spirits. Various animal sacrifices are carried out at the grave of the deceased. It may be an ox, a goat or a chicken. The sacrifice is offered to placate the spirits of the departed. Other parts of the ritual involves divination, sorcery and the ministry of a spirit medium. It is believed that without this ceremony the departed spirit cannot or will not take its place as guardian of the home.

The Word of God makes it clear that all such practices are totally unacceptable for Christians. Nothing is more specific about this than 1 Cor 10:20-22: The sacrifices of pagans are offered to demons, not to God ... You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons too; you cannot have a part in both the Lord's table and the table of demons. In this we have the authentic voice of Holy Scripture. The convert out of heathendom must separate himself resolutely and irrevocably from the world, the flesh and the devil.

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