Sunday, June 2, 2013

Culture . . . The Beautiful Straight Jacket Part I

You can no more divorce culture from humans than you can remove all traces of DNA where humans have been.  Even if a human was alone on the proverbial deserted island . . . culture would grow up around them. As an individual, it would simply be expressed as personal habits. That person would choose to wake up a certain time every morning, have a ritual about eating habits. For example they may eat coconuts for breakfast and fish or crabs later in the day.  It could be based on some superstition or maybe a previous cultural experience. On the other hand, if they were Scandinavian they might feel very comfortable eating fish for breakfast. But when humans are in families, tribes, villages, cities, countries and religions, the cultural rules, or what I would call mores, become much more profound, complex and inflexible.

So, besides saying that culture is unavoidable, even if we could avoid it . . . would we want to?  I don't think so. Because culture creates for us these "shortcut icons" which makes life simple and livable. For example, if you could completely erase your culture at the end of the day, (while we are using computer metaphors call it formatting your cultural hard drive),  then the next morning, EVERYTHING, would take a tremendous amount of thought.  What time should I get up?  How much should I sleep? What should I wear . . . but more than that . . . should I wear clothes at all?  Each decision would be like re-inventing the essentials of life and that would take a huge amount of energy.

The way it is, with culture in place, my choices of what to wear are quite limited. Maybe there is a bell-cure where I would raise no eyebrows if I stay within a standard deviation.  Only on the fringes (say warping myself in aluminum foil)  would I get a second look. Then in places that allow more cultural freedom, say West Hollywood, even my metallic attire would not garner even that second look.

Then, speaking of the fringes of culture . . . that's where most artists live. While they must face the restrains, culture is also the incubator of their creativity when you look at the big picture.  How many artists are inspired by the great Renaissance talents that went before them in our western culture. Maybe they borrow from the great Asian artist such as Gu Kaizhi.  So culture is essential and gives us the energy to create without the requirement to reinvent over and over.

But culture is also the great straight-jacket. Within it we are confined and embraced with a tough canvas cloak that suffocates at times. What we think we are doing is looking through our senses at reality, then using logic to decipher and finally using morality to respond.  But actually it is a robotic cultural response that is controlled by the personal emotions which are surrogates of the culture at large. What we think is the most intelligent way to look at something, as is determined by our reasons, becomes the "correct way" to look at it as is determined by culturally charged emotions.

Each layer of culture, like the onion's concentric spheres, has tighter and tighter restraints. So we live not in one culture but buried beneath layers of  the concentric globes of existence. Maybe the inner most is the culture of the self, the same self that resides on that deserted island. Then the family and tribal spheres.

So, in our setting (if I were still an evangelical) would be my family, my church, my evangelical world outside of which would be my geographical region, American, western and so on.

I started a journey a long time ago of trying to disrobe from cultural restraints, especially when it came to my Christianity. I don't mean to rebel against all that is considered Christian, but to try and live on a logical and deeply honest evaluation of life rather than simply memorizing the lines I suppose to say.  It has been hell.  I've gone from being surrounded by a huge group of friends to being friendless.  I've gone from being a "church leader" at every church I attended, to being on the outer most edge . . . with one more step and I wouldn't be in church at all.

I will make this more practical to see if I can make more sense.

I use to sit around with Christian friends.  I felt like we were all puppeteers,  standing high above the stage working the strings.  When each person spoke their lines, and you knew exactly what they were going to say before they said it, you would be rehearsing your lines inside your head to make sure you said them according to script.  If one of the other puppets said something off script the entire group would turn their heads and start to put intense social coercion (via looks and comments) to pressure them back to the script.

You knew that the narrative on the stage was of some pretend world where things made sense according to some "ideal" paradigm of Christian life.  But that deeply honest reality, what was really going on, was up in the dark curtains, shrouded from sight, even from yourself.

I began to speak off script and the heads would all turn to scorn me, even if on a subliminal level. I hated it because I'm a man-pleaser. I want people to like me.  It isn't long before you are no longer invited to, nor want to be invited to, these performances.

I think of one recent example was where I was asked to be a church elder by someone who I think follows the script quite well.  My predetermined response would be, even if I didn't want to be an elder, to say, "I feel humbled to be asked. Of course would want to serve God in this way."

Now imagine that if you really, really didn't want to be elder and you had to find a way out, the script (at total lie) goes like this, "I would love to and I feel so honored to be asked, but God is leading me into a different sort of ministry at this time."  Even that last response would be hard to muster but when you use the trump card of saying that God did it, they at least can't argue with you.

But what I felt was hell no.  I really enjoy church right now and every time I've been an elder it is like I'm being led down into the bowels of the church with a torch and and you see all the great leaders in their most hideous and dysfunctional forms.  I don't want to go there again.

So what did I say?  I have to go but I will be back.

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