Sunday, 14 February 2016

Cross Cultural Christianity

The changing face of Australian Culture

Australia has certainly changed since I was young. I remember that the country I grew up in was decisively European in character, with mostly Anglo-Saxons and a growing community of Italians and Greeks. In fact it has been said that Melbourne was the largest Greek city outside of Athens. Speaking to the older generation I have learnt that it was much different back in the 50s, with Australia being little more than a colonial extension of the British Empire.
During my life I have seen huge changes in the makeup of our society, first with waves of immigrants coming from South-East Asia, and in more recent times, arriving from the Middle-East. Back in my younger days, eateries would simply be your local fish and chip shop, with the occasional Indian and Austro-Chinese restaurant (though these days they are called Asian-Fusion), whereas now it is hard not to walk down your local shopping strip to see a whole range of restaurants from all parts of the world.

Shops in Reservoir
Here are a few shops that are above a five minute walk from my house
We are also seeing this multicultural shift within our own churches, and this is quite noticeable in my local church. When I first arrived in Melbourne most of the church was composed of Anglo-saxons, however over the two and a half years I have been going there I seen a shift in the congregation in that we now have people representing a multitude of different cultures from around the globe. Realising this shift, our pastor decided to run a series of sessions on how we should approach this move towards a more multi-cultural society.

Christianity in a Multi-cultural world

For much of its life Christianity has been viewed as 'white-man's religion'. While was not necessarily the reality on the ground (such as with the Copts in Egypt, the Nestorians in the Middle East, and groups going as far out as India and even China), this has been the perception in the modern era. Criticism has been levelled against Christianity as being the fore-runner of colonialism, with the missionaries going in first, followed by the merchants, and finally by the army who would then conquer the territory in the name of Queen and country. Images like this bring up a pictures of Dr Livingstone, a famous missionary and explorer into the interior of Africa. However, when he travelled deep into darkest Africa, did he really end up creating a colonial outpost where British values were imposed onto native populations, or did his message have a more substantial transformation on the culture at large? While I won't be going much further into this topic, I would suggest that it has come out as the later as opposed to the former.

Dr Livingstone I presume
Dr Livingstone I presume
Another idea that culture brings out that I wish to touch upon is the question as to whether all religions are the same? This question is undoubtedly tying religion to culture, in that by doing so one is suggesting that one's culture defines one's religion. Much ink has been spilled by Christian writers all over the Anglo-sphere regarding this question, however my position is that this is not the case. Using Hegel's dialectic, my argument is that all religions differ in many ways, and one cannot reconcile those differences without changing the core elements of the religion. One cannot simply say that Christianity and Buddhism are the two sides of the same coin because there are irreconcilable differences between the two. Instead of reconciling the two belief systems into one and the same, you are in fact creating a different religion all together, the synthesis in Hegel's argument. However, as I have mentioned, I simply wanted to touch upon this issue rather than delving too deeply into it.

Biblical View of Culture

And God blessed Noah and his sons and said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. Genesis 9:1
And the Lord said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. Come, let us go down and there confuse their language, so that they may not understand one another's speech.” So the Lord dispersed them from there over the face of all the earth, and they left off building the city. Therefore its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of all the Earth. And from there the Lord dispersed them over the face of all the earth. Genesis 11:6-9
An artist's depiction of the Tower of Babel
At this point I want to disassociate religion from culture and argue that differing cultures can exist even though the religion remains the same. If we look at continental Europe for instance we notice that despite Europe being Christian, as we wonder across the national boundaries we still see changes in culture. For instance the German culture differs from the French culture, which in turn differs from the Greek culture. Yet, despite these differences, they are still, in essence Christian cultures (though some would argue that this is not necessarily the case).
Traditional Chinese Wedding Dress
Chinese Wedding dress
One thing that I have discovered this year is the concept of the cultural mandate. We see is in Genesis 9:1, but we also see this in Genesis 1:28. While it is not explicitly stated, it is implied that humanity is to not just fill the Earth, but to develop their own culture and their own identity. Take marriage for instance: marriage seems to be common across all cultures, yet the ceremony, and even the dresses, differ widely. In fact the concept of formal wear differs vastly across cultures as well. This is something that is very evident when you wonder into my local church on a Christmas morning. The formal dress of the Indians is vastly different to that which us Anglo-Saxons wear.
Another aspect of culture is language, which is why I referred to the Tower of Babel above. The story behind this part of the Bible is that humanity refused to spread out across the Earth, and instead congregated in a single city and plotted to remove God from his throne. However, God being God was not easily swayed, and responded by creating language barriers and then scattering humanity across the Earth. How this happened in reality is something that I don't intend on speculating on (especially since the Bible is not a scientific text-book), though we still see the results of that today with the difficulties we have communicating with people that do not, or barely understand, our language.


As I have indicated above there are aspects of culture that is separate from religion, but there was an event, Pentecost, which further redefined the relationship between religion and culture. While I would not necessarily state that religion and culture were intertwined (since the Greco-Roman religion was widespread and had adherents from people of various cultural backgrounds - in fact it was very much like what we have today), it was the case when it came to Judaism. Christianity has come out of Israel, but the events at Pentecost worked to demonstrate that this new faith was not going to be tied to one particular culture (that is Judaism). The breaking down of the language barriers at Pentecost was a statement indicating that Christianity was open to all, no matter what background, language, or culture, and that the religious texts were not restricted to a language that was spoken only by a few (the New Testament was written mostly in Greek, the lingua-franca of the Eastern Mediterranean).
Pentecost Painting
Pentecost - Medieval Style
This cultural shift that Christianity brought about is best seen when Paul rants against circumcision. Circumcision was a practice that was specifically Jewish, and there was a debate that arose as to whether non-Jews who become Christians should be circumcised. Granted, Herodotus does point out that the Jews weren't the only nation to practice circumcision, but at the time of Paul's writing it was very much the case. Paul's reaction against this was two fold: firstly it reeked of salvation by works (ie, unless you are circumcised you cannot consider yourself a Christian), however secondly what this was saying was that if one were to become a Christian one had to also culturally become a Jew. This, however, was not the case.
Paul was also aware that there were cultural practices that the non-Jews would practice that were offensive to the Jews. This was not so much the question of living a moral life, but rather things that were culturally insensitive. This further has an effect of indicating that Christianity does not necessarily seek to create a mono-culture where everybody is one and the same, but rather to seek diversity, and to be respectful when interacting within this diversity realising that some actions may be offensive.

Responding to the cultural shift

Greece and Anatolia
It is interesting that Paul wrote many of his letters from Greece and Anatolia in that this region of the world during the Roman Empire was almost as multi-cultural and pluralistic as our society is becoming. This is why Pastor Andrew focused on the book of 1 Corinthians when we looked at this topic. The thing about ancient Corinth was that it was a port city indicating that people from all over the Roman world would be passing through here. Also its location on the ithmus made it one of the major port cities of the time. As such Paul understood the nature of a multi-cultural society quite well.
Unfortunately Paul's experience of a multi-cultural society is much different from ours. Australia is still predominantly a white Anglo-Saxon country meaning that while mosques and temples may be appearing, they still do not dominate the country. A quick look at the census data from 2011 will show that the Christian religion is still the predominant religion in Australia (with only 22% indicating that they have no religion). If Presbyterian and Reformed churches round off the top five responses at 2.8% then that is a clear indication that practitioners of non-Christian religions fall way below that. Wikipedia indicates that 7% of the population practice a non-Christian religion. As such, Paul's experience is much different to ours in 21st Century Australia.
However, things are much different when you leave Australia for one of our neighbours (such as Bali). My experience was been mainly with Hong Kong (with a short stint in Thailand). Travelling 8 hours by plane across the South China Sea reveals a much different society than the one within I grew up.

Taoist Shrine
You see a lot of these shrines scattered about Hong Kong
The thing about Hong Kong, from my experience, is that it is much more multi-cultural than Australia. Walking through the streets it is not uncommon to see a church sitting next to a Taoist Shrine (and there are quite a lot of churches in Hong Kong). Now, Paul, when writing to the Corinthians, warns then against participating in their worship rituals. While we may not necessarily be tempted to wander into a mosque here in Australia and participate in morning prayer, the situation is much different in Hong Kong. On my first trip there a friend of my invited me into the Tin Hau Temple that was across the road from our hotel.We went inside and had a look around, however when he handed me some joss sticks to burn, I politely declined. When I went over to Hong Kong a second time, I found it difficult to actually walk into the temples. It is not because I do not think that they are beautiful structures, but rather that due to my Christian faith I cannot be seen worshipping elsewhere, as by doing so could compromise my own faith.
However, it goes further than that, Paul indicates that we can cause confusion, especially among young adherents, by what we do. As such we must always be mindful of our actions, and even voluntarily decide not to do something, so as not to give the wrong message to other people. Once again I bring back the example of the temple in Hong Kong. Some of us may simply see it as a building full of beautiful art and with a beautiful garden. However others may see that there is a spiritual reality that exists beyond that temple and that the spiritual forces involved actually have an influence upon people's lives. As such, if they see us, who only see it as a building, walking in there it may say to them that it is okay for Christians to go and worship in these temples because they are seeing their Christian friends doing so.
Aberdeen Tin Hau Temple
The Tin Hau temple in the district of Aberdeen
Does that mean that we should reject all of Chinese Culture because of their religion? No, I don't think so, and that is where the balancing act comes along. In Paul's day eating certain types of food would be a religious act because much of the food, especially meat, would be put through a ritual before being served up on the plate. However, this is not the case in Hong Kong. Over there food is food, therefore eat away. However, the use of joss sticks is a different story. You don't have to travel far to see joss sticks being used for ceremonial purposes, however here in Australia we use them to simply make our room smell nice. This is one thing that I feel that us Australian Christians need to be mindful of, especially with Asians, because while we have a secular use for joss sticks, in the mind of many Chinese there would no doubt be a spiritual connection.

Meeting our Cross-Cultural Family

In the final session Pastor Andrew introduced us to a number of people from different cultures, including China, India, Africa, the Middle East, and traditional Anglo-Saxon Australia. While our friends were able to give us an understanding of some of the aspects of their culture, we must remember what our African friend told us - even in one country there are many, many different cultures and one should not blind themselves to this fact based upon the opinion of a single person. However, here are a few things that I learnt.
  • Chinese people do not have the same perception of privacy as we do;
  • Chinese people tend to be very reserved and shy, to the point that there is not much touching within their culture;
  • Indians work on India time;
  • Middle Eastern men kiss each other on the cheek as a form of greeting;
  • Meat and three vegetables are the traditional diet of the white Anglo-saxon;
  • An African will be baffled if you arrive on time;
  • Africans have a strong respect for their elders.

When do you arrive at a party?

I guess that is one of the very big questions that we are faced with as a multi-cultural society. People do not necessarily have the same concept of time as we Anglo-saxons do. Okay, when we throw a party we generally do not expect everybody to turn up on the dot. In fact, in my experience, I have found people who arrive early to be quite frustrating. We all know about being fashionably late, and when it comes to a party then this is generally accepted.
It is also generally accepted that when we have a business meeting we all turn up on time. This goes without saying, and it does not matter which culture you are in, this is what is expected - business is business.
Domestic Workers Party
Now this is one big party
However, how about church? We Europeans generally arrive at church early, or at least on time (or maybe a couple of minutes late). However our cross cultural families do not see it in the same light. One church that I visited (a Coptic Church) had the service run for four hours and people would wonder in when they felt like it. We are seeing the same thing now with our local church - people generally don't arrive on time (unless you are white Anglo-saxon), but rather they drift in up to about half-an-hour after the service has started. This is something we need to understand as we move into a more cross cultural society as not everybody views 'arriving on time' the same way we do.

Can our culture be offensive to others?

This was a question that was posed to us at the beginning, and the problem is that it can be really difficult being able to critically analyse our culture while being immersed in it, however I feel that there are some aspects of our European society that we do need to address, and I will touch upon two here.

Privacy: like it or not we are a very private culture. We have our public face and we have our private face. In fact one thing we do not like are people turning up at our house uninvited, or people questioning us as to what we do in our private life. This has led to a very isolated society were we are quite closed in, something that people from other cultures do no experience. While our desire for privacy is a part of our culture I feel that we need to address that to an extent if we are going to be able to relate to those from other backgrounds.

Profanity: this may be surprising, but we Anglo-Saxons are a very profane culture - we like swearing and cursing. While many of us Christians generally don't use such language regularly, we still use it. Just turn on a movie and it will be rare that you will not encounter any profanity. In fact, the pervasiveness of profanity in our culture goes to the extent that we cannot understand a culture that doesn't swear, and in reality, a lot of them don't, not in the same way that we do.


I have touched on a lot of things in this post but the one thing that I wished to bring out is that culture and religion are not necessarily the same thing, and we should be aware that when people come into Christianity from other cultures they do not necessarily do things the same as we do. This goes beyond language, in that language is really only a tool for communication, however we should not expect that Christians all speak the same language (beyond the need to be able to communicate). It also comes down to the food we eat, and the various social mores of which we need to be aware. However, if there is one thing that I love about other cultures (other than language, art, and literature) is the different ways they cook meals (and eat them).

Food with Chopsticks
I love eating with chopsticks
Chinese Wedding Dress source: Kelidimari use permitted under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 unported
Chinese Red Pork source: Free Food Photos use permitted under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 unported


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