I am in a class called “Christianity & Culture.” The name alone is constantly being redefined, edited, critiqued, and broken down. It’s gotten to the point where “culture” has become an untouchable, leprous word. No one can define culture. Everyone has culture. There is no such thing as a universal or abstract culture. Christianity is not a religion or institution…except in our American culture, it is both.
In the midst of trying to redefine these two incredibly complex words, our class dialogues about different aspects of culture. The main themes are taken from the book Culture Making: values/beliefs, norms, institutions, and artifacts.
Today we were discussing language as an artifact. Language is the tool with which we make ourselves known and learn to know others. We express ideas, thoughts, feelings, and beliefs/values through language. Norms are established through language, institutions are given authority, and even how we carry our body is known as “body language”.
We looked briefly at Genesis 11: the Tower of Babel. Humans were huddling together in a city molding bricks and building a tower that would reach the heavens–make a name for themselves–and ensure that nothing would be impossible for them. Then God came down and confused the tongues of the people-the creation of many languages-and they dispersed across the earth.
Our professor asked us how God was engaging with culture in this story. He seemed to be leading us to see this particular story as God condemning culture, because God confused the universal language (and thereby condemned the actions of the culture–building said tower).
Next, we jumped forward to Pentecost. Acts, as told by Luke, shows us the tongues of fire, the sending of the Holy Spirit, the apostles speaking new languages-and everyone hearing the gospel in their own language. Our professor moved us to see this as a positive “cultivation” of culture. He posed the question: How does the gospel analyze and participate in culture in these two stories?
But wait…correct me if I’m wrong [I’m serious–please do]. In Genesis, God created new languages. In this creation, cultures began to develop and diversity happened. Without the developments of different languages (leading to different cultures…), Israel would not have developed as a people “set apart”, they would not have been in a unique relationship with Yahweh. Can Babel be all negative?
Pentecost: Everyone heard the gospel in their Mother-language…their own language. This. Is. Huge. It was the apostles’ tongues that changed to speak the gospel in many languages. It was not the crowds who learned the “universal” language of the gospel. How would have Pentecost been different if God would have made one universal language, rather than pushing the gospel to be heard in all the languages?
Does Pentecost counteract Babel, or reaffirm it? Does the gospel always deconstruct culture, or does it further develop culture?
Take the example of language once again. Culture can exist without the gospel. Language can be used even without words such as “Christ” or “salvation”. But when the gospel enters a language, a culture, a person–there is deconstruction and development. The old way of ordering life, finding meaning and value is suddenly unstable and picked apart piece by piece. But a deeper language and character of expression is developed when grace enters.
Maybe we don’t have to see Pentecost and Babel as opposites. Maybe God has constantly deconstructed and developed cultures through language…
.:And God said, “Let there be light.”
And there was light.
.:In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…