Culture, which culture?
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!