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Culture, which culture?

7 January, 2009

At a recent Christmas lunch meeting I sat beside a young guy who lives and works in a large council estate (housing estate is the US term, I believe) here in this part of London.  He is articulate, thoughtful and immensely interesting.  His own family background and childhood was the stuff of  stories you’d expect when you “imagine” life on a council estate: single parent upbringing, crime, violence, sexual promiscuity, lots of drugs and gangs.  Intriguingly, however, the more he told me about his childhood and youth on the estate the more I realised what I “imagine” about estate culture isn’t entirely correct.  Life is rarely accurately reducible to generalisations and caricature.

Amidst the accounts of drug dealing, gang fights and, in his personal case, being stabbed there were evidences of family care, community concern and “belonging”.  Not for a second did this guy paint a picture in romantic colours; it was pretty gritty.  At the same time, what really struck me was how totally alien or ‘other’ his world on the estate is to my ‘world’. We’re talking different cultures.

This was all the more obvious (to me, at least) when I asked him how he became a Christian – a follower of the Lord Jesus Christ.  It wasn’t such a sensational story that you might imagine it would make a great film.  What impressed me was how this young guy started reading the Bible out of curiosity and, as it goes, his eyes were opened and his heart was softened.  But here’s the thing: the narrative in which he told me this account wasn’t contextually like my upper-middle class, university educated experience.  We share a profound commonality; but contextually or culturally we really do come from different worlds.  I mentioned this to him (and even as I said this I wondered if I was saying this out of a kind of white, upper-middle class self-conscious guilt).  His response was cool: “Yep, but don’t be too surprised: people in my world don’t know your world exists either.  The cultural isolation exists in both worlds.”

Later I started to wonder if I’m kidding myself (well, it wouldn’t be the first time).  I’m intrigued with culture – trying to ‘see’ it, ‘listen’ to it and ‘understand’ it.  This blog reflects some of my ‘awareness’.   So, as you’ll see, I write about films, music, art exhibitions and some current issues.

But there is something inherently limited (even wrong?) here – I mean beyond any incorrect takes I have and any posturing I reveal.  When I or we say “culture” which culture are we talking about? The guy I listened to during the Christmas lunch knew some of the names, artists and issues I mention in this blog.  But I essentially haven’t a clue about his culture.  Now bear with me: I don’t think what I am trying to express is just white, liberal, cliché-ridden, narcissistic self-reproach.

I truly don’t know much about the culture of musicians like Adele, Amy Whitehouse or Jamie T (and get this: each of these musicians grew up/lives only a few miles from the part of London where I now live!).  I could give other illustrations of the cultural gulf – but I don’t know other illustrations, which only proves my point!  Moreover, I wouldn’t even know where to begin to discuss Muslim cultures, Hindi cultures, Caribbean cultures and so on and so on.

So, maybe those of us who are interested in “culture” might want to contemplate the following:

1.    Even the best of us might be prone to a sort of cultural-imperialism.  There is no such thing (even in today’s global world) as a uniform or monolithic culture.  There are cultures.  To be sure, there may be similarities and overlap.  But, speaking personally, I need to be sensitive to my default setting: Euro-centric and rather bourgeois.
2.    We don’t need, however, to dismiss the connection between the cultures of the academy or chattering class with other cultures.  There is a kind of symbiosis. What the elite think, say and do does have a ‘trickle down’ effect.  But — and don’t we see it today — there is a ‘from the bottom up’ influence upon the elite as well.  It may only have a limited or restricted influence: namely, as long as it is cool and hip but it is there nonetheless.
3.    Maybe we might want to exercise a lot more caution when commenting – either positively or negatively – about what we see in culture(s).  I don’t think this is political correctness as much as it is a matter of humility.
4.    Of course, there are some overarching themes and unifying themes in relation to all cultures.  This is because we are talking about culture(s) as essentially (but not exclusively) human expressions from within human contexts.  Cultural particularity and individuality don’t nullify overall narratives about human beings and cultures.
5.    And this means, ultimately, that there is a huge sense of relief and sanity offered to us in the Bible.  On a human level it is culturally diverse; but as an overarching narrative it makes essential interpretative, diagnostic and corrective statements about all cultures.  This is because, supremely, the Bible is not a collection of culturally and religiously sensitive men and women reflecting on life; it is a unified, intentional word from the one true Triune God himself.  He stands outside all cultures and time (ontologically and positionally) but, as creator, sustainer and Lord, he providentially, relationally, Incarnationally and graciously engages with each and all cultures.

The guy I enjoyed meeting that day at lunch knew this and rejoiced in this.  He bases his life, ministry and eternity on this wonderful, life-giving, integrating and thrilling Truth (but he doesn’t use Truth in a reductionistic or impersonal way).  We may, I guess, appreciate here at this point of hope the converging of two cultures.  Thankfully, even I more or less understood what he was talking about!

  1. As someone who grew up on a council estate but who went to university and now pastors back in on an estate, I know what you mean and I often feel ill-equipped by my theology and church training to communicate the gospel into effectively a different culture. I think I do it in middle class ways and I’m not sure of its effectiveness. So much to think about. Thanks for the post.

    • gavinmcgrath permalink

      Well, brother, you are far more competent to respond to this question than I. One of the large questions to ask (and, again, I don’t think I have any voice in this) concerns how one takes the good things learnt from the university/city ministries and then, appropriately, “translates” them into other contexts. Years ago I heard Dick Lucas ask this question. I know there are folk trying to do this work — like you — and I do hope there are ways to encourage, promote and support.

  2. tomstan permalink

    Like the Simple Pastor lots to think about, and not sure I have thought in this way before. I am not a student of culture and not too sure what it is.
    Over recent months my concern has been the christian life I live is merely a convenient lifestyle choice.

    One thing I know beyond doubt, is that I know God and his call upon my life and want to serve his purposes in this world. I am a christian because I have met Jesus Christ. I have seen him in the words of the bible. And I know my life would be a horrible mess without him and continue to experience his undeserved acceptance.
    To what extent is my christian life cultural? Does it matter? It wouldn’t be unfair for an external observer to see church as like a social club and faith as a hobby of mine.
    By saying this I am not trying to rubbish church or my middle class culture.

    The musicians you mention are really listened to by the London middle class, none of them are particularly street/ghetto or housing estate. I don’t wish to slate them as they are young and talented. They have soulful voices (sounding and lyrically) but don’t have an awful lot to say about life. For me I don’t feel there is a gulf between them and me other than their talent!
    Jamie T- public schoolboy, went to Reeds in Cobham. Adele- product of Brit school in Selhurst. Amy Winehouse- aspirational north london family. This is my incredibly crude judgement on their background but growing up they didn’t come from council estates with crime and poverty. They came from homes with support and an ambition from their parents to succeed.

    In contrast now try Sway, Dizzie Rascal to get a flavour listen to a local pirate radio station, there will be one operating within a mile of any Londoner. They sing about a life that is not mine but I do get it or most of it. Take Jay Z the rapper, owner and founder of the Rock a Fella empire. I don’t think anyone else in music today has accomplished as much as him. For the youth vote he was by far the most important endorsement Obama got. These characters are far more influential, pervasive, dynamic and exciting than Adele singing about chasing pavements (another I’ve split up from my boyf song), their music isn’t going to change your life or the way you think about it.
    There is often a force and entrepreneurial drive from musician’s who are from council estates. How else do they sell their music? or get their name known? And much I find admirable. I would love to do a survey and ask London kids who do they take their cues from?

    None of the Christians in London I know could reference Jay-Z. I live in London yet none of my Christian friends are black. That is weird, the majority of Christians in London are black!
    I sometimes wonder if some of my Christian culture is impenetrable and for most londoners it is too hard to get to the God of the bible.

  3. gavinmcgrath permalink

    Thanks, Tom, for your thoughtful and enormously stimulating comments. Yeah, I sort of wondered if Adele and others are more “mainstream” now and, as a result, whatever edginess they once had has been smoothed over by acceptability. Mind you, there is still something significant about her work and what she sort of typifies. I read one review that described her as the whinging and vomiting of an overindulged youth (rather harsh but, then, there is something to this).

    It will come as no surprise that while I have indeed heard of Jay-Z I don’t know too much about Jay-Z. This sort of proves my point, I fear.

    Yes, it is worth asking hard questions about one’s own culture — even more so as a Christian. Speaking personally, I am way too squeezed by my own. There are things about the culture from which I come for which I am thankful — and it would sound stupid if I trashed everything (and rather ungrateful too!).

    My main point in the initial posting was to question the way(s) I and others can too easily look at “culture” and only see our own reflection in the mirror of our own particular culture. With this self-image I and others could start to make sweeping comments about all cultures. This is the error, at least as I think about lately.

  4. tomstan permalink

    That final paragraph sums up what you were saying superbly. In your initial post I was struck by the maturity of the man who recognised the cultural isolation. I also had to just sit and marvel at how God can bring two very different people to be followers of Jesus Christ.

    It is hard not to look at ‘culture and see our own reflection’. It is what I describe as the ‘Do you remember when?’
    As families we do it ‘ Do you remember the time we went to? Or wasn’t it funny when…’

    And then we do it with old school friends, ‘Do you remember when so and so?’ I think we do it with music, sporting events, all sorts of social occasions. And I guess there are all sorts of ‘Do you remember when’s’ that we don’t even know we have as part of us.

    Generally with my generation people in London find or are looking for people they can have the ‘Do you remember’s with?’

    So I don’t have the same ‘Do you remember when’s?’ as a person from a council estate but under God we can know the same God and understand the same God from his word. And God quite possibly has more to knock into shape with me than the christian on the council estate.

  5. Thanks for posting this – it’s very helpful to think about this and encourage other too.

    I think one of the important things to remember is that we need to be humble enough to admit that we lack experience of most of of the different cultures that exist in the UK – let alone elsewhere. We must also be willing to cross cultures, even when that is hard. Remember others speaking to us have probably crossed cultural boundaries.

    We must be careful that we don’t dismiss people who are different, because they may use different terminology. We ought to give people time to explain what they mean.

    Dealing with people from different cultures is a good corrective for us and forces us to question out own attitudes.

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