Food Preferences Showcase Cultural Differences
I did not realize it at the time, but that was one of my earliest encounters with culture. His family had a different culture from ours in a number of ways, of which familiar foods were only one. At the time, it did not occur to me that our family’s regular menu might seem strange to him. After all, it’s what normal people ate, wasn’t it?
At boarding school, the menu differed significantly from anything I had previously experienced, and when one cook moved away and another took over, it changed again. I won’t comment on the quality of food offered except to say that ketchup became a valued item.
Years later, I met the family of the girl who would become my wife. Their typical menu differed from both my family’s menu and that of my (now) brother-in-law. But by this time I realized that every family had their own set of preferred meals. Although I would not have used the word, I recognized in some way that every family had their own culture.
When we moved our church membership, I discovered each congregation had a different subset of frequently sung hymns. During my lengthy tenure as director of a Lutheran choir, I discovered quite a different set of hymns, many of which were completely new to me.
During one meeting of that church’s worship committee, on which I served, the pastor lamented that there were very few hymns in their hymnal concerning end times. So I said, “That’s what I’m here for: Adventists have lots of them!” This highlighted a significant difference between the Lutheran and Adventist cultures.
Previously, we saw that Israel and the Caananites shared many aspects of culture. We also know that God meets people where they are. So when God spoke through the prophets to Israel, He did so in terms that made sense to them, and to do that, He had to use aspects of their culture. But, having said that, what is culture, anyway? In order to learn from the mistakes Israel made concerning culture, we need to know what we’re talking about.
Culture Includes both Material and Nonmaterial Aspects
Culture manifests itself in both Material and Nonmaterial ways. Material culture includes all kinds of physical objects: Buildings, monuments, sculpture, paintings, devices and machines of all kinds, roadways, canals—the list is almost endless. Each general category includes a great variety of objects. Monuments include such varied objects for example, as Mt. Rushmore, the Eiffel Tower, Stonehenge, and Pyramids in various places. Machines and devices such as Venetian Gondolas or a London Double-decker bus also convey distinctive cultural information.
Nonmaterial culture includes such things as symbols, language, values, holidays, and norms. Sometimes, a cultural artifact can be both material and nonmaterial. For example a material object, say, a sculpture like the Golden Calf (a male calf, or youg bull), might also serve as a symbol of a god, and a symbol is nonmaterial.
Sometimes people get fixated on an ancient symbol as though it retains—in today’s time and place—the meaning and function it possessed in another time and place. For example, someone might point to the sculpture of a bull and bear near the New York Stock Exchange, as an example of Ba’al worship. But in fact, the bull in that sculpture symbolizes something entirely distinct from ancient bull and calf images.
Culture, then, represents a mixture of all those things, material and nonmaterial, common to a group of people. And as I discovered with families and menus, culture is generally invisible to those within, but quite obvious—and often seemingly odd or strange—to those on the outside. In simple terms, we often think “My culture is just what I do. Your culture is weird.”
Navigating Three Cultures
But if we hope to understand the Bible, we must learn something of the culture of the people to which it was originally addressed. And if we hope to reach those around us, we need to find ways to translate the principles of the Bible into contemporary culture where we find ourselves.
So we have the daunting task of recognizing and navigating at least three cultures: the culture of those who first received the inspired word, our own (disctinctively Christian and Adventist culture), and the increasingly secular culture of those we seek to share these thruths with.