Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Religion and Culture

Our Muslim friends, if we’re fortunate enough to have them, tell us that many things that we think are the trappings of and problems with Islam are actually the trappings of the surrounding culture; and the culture has influenced how Islam is practiced there. As a result, Asian Islam is very different from Middle Eastern Islam.

The same thing is true of Christianity. A lot of things that we think are part and parcel of Christianity, or even certain denominations, are actually facets of a particular American subculture that wrapped itself around a particular form of Christianity. For all the jokes we may make about Baptists and how they think that anything fun must be sinful, most people don’t know that there are many different varieties of Baptists, and that every congregation is autonomous; so that old worn Baptist stereotype may not be quite true.

In addition, in his book Religious Literacy, author Stephen Prothero tells how in the 18th or 19th century, religion in America went from teaching about theology to trying to “preserve morals.”

The question is, “Whose morals?”

And once again, we go to a few religious stereotypes. On the one hand, I’ve heard that wherever you find four Episcopalians, you’ll find a fifth. On the other, I’ve heard that the best way to prevent your Baptist friend from drinking your beer on a fishing trip is to invite another Baptist to keep an eye on him.

Some of us grew up in denominations that had a very tight rein on what they considered to be moral issues, and could find chapter and verse to cite to support their beliefs. Others of us grew up in (or escaped to) denominations that weren’t quite so controlling, and focused more on how we treated each other than whether we danced, drank (in moderation, of course), or swore.

In many cases, these moral issues were little more than social taboos and the proper behavior for fitting in with the “right sort of people”, and weren’t moral issues at all. Drinking, salty language, and dancing in and of themselves have no moral component to them theologically. They can, however, make some people think that you’re not “the right sort of person.”

If you look at Christianity, you can see that there’s a disagreement between Paul and Jesus on appearances. Paul exhorts the congregation at Thessalonika to avoid even the appearance of sin. Jesus, on the other hand, hung out with sinners on a regular basis. Why the disconnect? Well, I’m no Biblical scholar, but I suspect that Paul was concerned with this new Christian thing looking “respectable” in the eyes of the rest of the Roman empire, and didn’t want any weird rumors going out about them that would lead to them being persecuted any more than they already were.

And that whole avoiding the appearance of sin can cause some very uncharitable behavior as a result. I’m thinking of the story I was told about the couple that was booted out of a Christian college because they got stranded together during a snowstorm, and even though those in charge were pretty sure that there was no hanky-panky, there was the image of the school to protect.

Ah…this is why people think that they don’t like Christians.

But really…is being Christian all about presenting a “perfect image” to the rest of the world? Not in my book. And I’ll tell you, I’d rather be with the Christians who drink, dance, play cards, carouse, swear, talk about sex, and enjoy life, while loving God and their neighbor; than with the “brittle saints” who are afraid to enjoy life because they’re afraid of the impression they’ll give of not being the right kind of person. And yet, I feel sorry for those people who have been so victimized by religion used to enforce cultural taboos, that they can’t truly enjoy life.

With that in mind, there’s an old Jewish saying I love that says that in the world to come, we will be taken to task for all the things we could have enjoyed in this world but refused to.

And I’d like to end with a joke at the expense of some of my Baptist friends:

Q: Why don’t Baptists have sex standing up?

A: It might lead to dancing.

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