I was attending a conference and having lunch with a group of acquaintances when the conversation turned to favorite comfort foods. The answers ranged from tater-tot casserole to roasted pork shoulder to sweet potato pie. Then someone happened to mention sushi in a passing remark. I was about to declare my own love for Japanese cuisine when a 20something woman named Jenny blurted out, “Oh, yuck! I think that’s disgusting!”
I glanced around the table to see if anyone else felt uncomfortable hearing these words and realized that I was once again in a context where I was the only Asian American, the only person of color.
For a moment, I was too embarrassed to admit my own culinary leanings, but I knew that I could not let it pass. “Actually, I really love sushi,” I admitted as the expression on Jenny’s face turned from disgust to disbelief. I could also see a hint of remorse at her outburst, a flare of recognition that she had unwittingly stumbled into the invisible realm of culture.
The Invisible World
Culture is a word that is challenging to define and is used in myriad ways, many of which are quite different from one another. There’s pop culture, corporate culture, multiculturalism, and the list goes on. Andy Crouch’s seminal book, Culture Making, describes culture as what human beings make of the world. I appreciate this definition for the way it encourages people to pursue acts of creation as a way to change culture.
But that conceptualization of culture addresses the more visible, outward form of culture that tells only a part of the whole story. There is another way to think about culture that is equally important: the often invisible way culture makes us. This includes a range of forces and factors such as our ethnic or racial heritage, the part of the world or country we grew up in, and the generation of which we are a part. Culture shapes us, molds us, and guides us in small and large ways, from our personal tastes and preferences in food to our social circles to our values and convictions to our lifestyle choices.
Unless we are aware of the ways in which culture exerts its invisible influence on our lives, we, too, can stumble into situations in which we say and do things that hamper the ministry of reconciliation to which all Christians have been called. To be agents of reconciliation, we must understand cultural forces and how they shape us on a daily basis, often in subtle ways.
Shaped by Culture
In some cases, the culture that has formed us has brought us closer to the kingdom of God. For example, for many years I attended an Asian-American church in which the children referred to all the adults with the titles Uncle and Auntie. It was a lovely way to reinforce the idea that we are all part of one spiritual family, born from a cultural context in which the concept of family is particularly significant.
The danger comes when we do not recognize the ways in which culture affects us, and that keeps us from building bridges with one another, especially with those who may be different from us.
The issue with my lunch companion Jenny was not that she didn’t like sushi. It was the manner in which she expressed her displeasure, without recognizing that her own cultural experiences had brought her to disparage others’ preferences. She had unknowingly developed a sense of what was normative, assuming that “normal” American taste does not include a love for sushi such as I have—along with millions of other Americans, including many who are not of Asian descent.
We Christians are bound together as one family of God; we have access to unity through the bond of Christ. Yet that doesn’t eradicate our cultural differences and biases. Our calling as reconcilers means that we must rely on that bond in Christ to help us better understand each other and our differences, to speak the truth in love when injustices and prejudice exists, and to extend grace when misunderstandings occur, as they inevitably will.
Making Culture Visible
A few days after the lunch incident, I ended up sharing another meal with the same group of women who had been discussing comfort foods. And, wouldn’t you know it, the topic of sushi came up again. I realized that while my previous response to the issue, though perfectly acceptable, did little to advance true cultural understanding and growth. For that to happen, I’d have to take a risk.
So I took a deep, invisible breath, then turned my attention to Jenny. “You know, I was thinking about our conversation about sushi earlier in the week. I totally understand that it might sound pretty nasty. But I’d be happy to explain more about it if you’re interested. There are options that don’t even involve raw fish at all.”
Would she repeat the disdain she had shown during our first conversation? Would she feel as though I were patronizing her in some way? Would she reject my invitation?
Jenny smiled and nodded. “Sure, that could be good,” she replied. “It’s true, I don’t really know much about it. Maybe I need to give it a chance.”
It was a small moment, one that wouldn’t undo centuries of cultural misunderstanding, but it was a moment nonetheless when the invisible realm of culture was made visible through our mutual effort at gaining understanding.
Sometimes when we make these kinds of overtures toward one another, things do not go so smoothly. That doesn’t mean we should ignore or brush aside the cultural realities around us. It means that we must continually offer a tremendous amount of grace to one another in this journey, especially since culture’s impact on us all is often invisible.
Consider Colossians 1:16: “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible . . . all things have been created through him and for him” (NIV).
Understanding the cultures that have had a part in shaping each of us may be seen as a mysterious and perplexing endeavor at times. Yet all these dynamics are perfectly clear to the God of the universe, who created all these cultural forces to begin with. As we journey to greater unity in the midst of our diverse identities and backgrounds, may we continue to rely on his light and love to guide us toward more and more grace-filled moments of cultural understanding.
Copyright © 2016 by the author and Today’s Christian Woman