On Objective Christianity, Part 1: Where You Live Shapes What You Think

Did you know lower-class Christians in Southern India think evil spirits are dead people?[1] They don’t believe demons are fallen angels; they think demons are (basically) ghosts. That’s pretty different from the European/American assumption that they are fallen angels. Do you know why they think that? Because the culture of South India thinks evil spirits are ghosts. Hindus in the area think evil spirits are ghosts. So Christianity has been shaped by the culture there, that’s my point. It has never occurred to most of these Christians that evil spirits might be anything else.Another story, this one more familiar: do you remember that most Christians and Churches in Germany supported the Nazi Party? To be fair to Germany, there were a number who stood against the Third Reich, and Germany since then has been very conscious of this mistake, very apologetic. That’s a side point, though; I’m just trying to keep from demonizing Germans. The real point is that, at the time German Christians supported a murderous, world-conquering regime. Why? For the same reasons that everyone else in Germany supported the Nazis at the time! There was a history of blaming Jews for the death of Christ, which was very strong in Germany, and German Christians thought it was a christianly thing to do to hate Jews. Weird, I know, but they were convinced of it. German Christians felt the settlement terms of World War I were unfair and were much of the cause of the depressed economy Germany struggled with. German Christians only wanted justice! These believers were scared of the same things other Germans were scared of, and, mostly, they didn’t realize this was even happening.

This brings me to my real point: culture shapes how Christians view Christianity, how they live their Christian lives. German Christians are not above this, Indian Christians are not above this, and thousands of examples from the global or historical church shows that nobody is above this. One’s understanding of what Christianity teaches and what Christianity is is shaped by arbitrary social forces around us. This is a huge problem.

The question then becomes: in what ways is my view of Christianity actually shaped more by culture than Christ? This is a question that bugs the hell out of me. I think about it all the time, because I want to serve Jesus, not (necessarily) 21st century American values. Since I know that other Christians,(like Germans or Indians) have these blind-spots, it stands to reason that I also have some blind spots. Sometimes it is just plain easier to see the plank in your brothers eye than in your own! The scariest part is to know that, whatever my blind spots are, I can’t see them! The second thing that freaks me out is the knowledge that, wherever our blind spots are, we are not going to be very open to acknowledging them, since we think they are actually part of basic Christianity.

Just to bring this point home, consider what would happen if you told a German in the 1930s that he hates Jews because Germans hate Jews, and that anti-Semitism is a sin? He would have either laughed, or gotten angry. Have no doubt about that! People don’t like to be corrected. He then would have shown you a number of verses that he reads as endorsing his anti-Semitism.

“How about John 5:16,” he might say, “which says ‘and therefore did the Jews persecute Jesus, and sought to slay Him.’ These people have always opposed Jesus, just like the Bible says. Or don’t you Americans believe the Bible?” He would have told you a reason or two that, logically, one should hate Jews.[2]

Have no doubt: this hypothetical brother of yours would have good responses to your counter-arguments. If you pointed out, “uhm…but Jesus was a Jew!” the German might say “but look at John 7:1—‘After these things, Jesus walked in Galilee, for He would not walk in Jewry, because the Jews sought to kill him.’ Jesus left Judaism.”

You see, ideas are usually reinforced by other ideas. Since they reinforce one another, if one idea is wrong, it begins to corrupt other ideas. These corrupted ideas reinforce the original, faulty idea. The result is that it becomes very, very difficult to see one’s error, because it makes so much sense, and fits so well into your intellectual framework. This is particularly true since all the good Christian people around you agree with this idea! “Everyone knows this is true!”

Be certain of this: we are no smarter and no more dedicated to Scripture than Christians in Germany were, or lower class believers in India. You and I have some parts of Christianity, important parts of Christianity, which are nothing more than sanctified culture. What are those spots? That’s another question; accepting that these spots exist, and that acceptance will be painful enough for one blog post.

It’s important that we find these blind spots in ourselves. They distort our understandings of what God wants from us, and make us less effective servants. I want to serve Jesus more thoroughly and more effectively, as I know many others do as well. As painful as it may be to examine openly important parts of our faith, we can do so safely, knowing that, in the end, we will have more authentic faiths, and we will be better stewards of the things God has given us.

[1] I use the word “class” technically. That is to say, I use it to mean what the man on the street thinks of as a “caste.” To be precise, in India there are 4+1 classes, and subgroups of the classes are castes. The larger category is a class, the smaller categories are castes. Back to Article

[2] Since anti-Semitism is still a real problem, I feel it is necessary to show how these verses mis-represent what I think the Bible teaches. I doubt most readers of this blog struggle with anti-Semitism, but one must take some responsibility if they find it necessary to reproduce anti-Semitic arguments.

Most importantly, the word translated “Jews” or “Jewry” in this passage can, and almost certainly does, refer to Judeans, or people from the Jerusalem area. Since obviously the citizens of Galilee were largely Jewish (and many Germans disputed this, but no credible scholar today would now), clearly Jesus didn’t abandon Jewry in John 7:1. He went to hang out with other Jews! Blaming problems on any specific group of people is wrong because a)it lacks love, and b)it is almost certainly a gross oversimplification, which lacks both wisdom and intelligence, two Christian virtues. Back to Article

  1. December 1st, 2010
  2. June 8th, 2011
  3. June 22nd, 2011
  4. February 2nd, 2012

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