A month and a half ago, I had the pleasure of seeing Dr. Frank Yamada, president of McCormick Theological Seminary, give a presentation at a conference on youth ministry. While he talked about many interesting and important topics around the issue of multiculturalism and the church, there was one exercise in particular that stuck with me. He spoke of an activity titled “The Culture Exercise.” It consisted of three questions:
What is your culture?
In what ways do you reflect or resist your culture?
How does your culture influence your reading of the Biblical text?
These three questions may seem fairly straightforward, but their answers open a world of discussion about who we are and how we relate to our faith. Whether we realize it or not, we all have a culture. Sometimes it is easy for us to identify what our culture is. It is something that we live with and think about every day. Other times, it is difficult to specify what culture(s) we belong to. Our lives move so seamlessly that we never really stop to think about how different elements of who we are impact our perspectives. Whatever the case, we all belong to at least one culture (many of us belong to more than one) based on things such as our skin color, our families, our sex, our communities, and our sexual orientations. How we relate to these cultures has an impact on how we live and how we worship. The kind of music we like to hear in church, whether we like traditional or contemporary worship, and even our favorite Bible stories are all results of our cultures meeting our faith. We do not all have the same culture or experiences, so talking about them can open us up to new levels of respect and understanding.
When it comes to LGBT issues and the church, the two main sides tend to get painted in a certain way. One side has a seemingly endless supply of personal stories that may move our hearts but appear to use little to no Bible or theology. The other can produce Bible verse after Bible verse to make their argument but appears to ignore the real life consequences of their theology. Both these characterizations are, for lack of a better word, insulting. As human beings, we all have experiences and cultural stories that have influenced us and made us who we are today. As Christians, we all have a relationship with God, the Bible, and theology that is significant to us. We do not live out our faith based just on individual experiences, for it is our shared love of Christ that brings us together as a Church. We also do not live out our faith based just on Scripture because that would require denying the real, transformative power the Holy Spirit has in our lives. Regardless of where you fall, chances are that your cultural experiences and Scripture combine to make up your faith.
During my first week in seminary, I met a young man who I did not like very much. We seemingly had nothing in common: he was a straight white man who came from an Evangelical church background and I was an LGBT African-American woman who came from a progressive background. At first, I could hardly stand to be in the same room as him. I thought he was entitled and arrogant. By the end of our first semester we had become friends. What changed? Although we wouldn’t have called it that at the time, our relationship improved when we started applying “The Cultural Exercise” to our interactions. Taking our backgrounds into consideration helped us view our differences not as lines in the sand but rather as different ways of viewing the same thing. Was he purposely trying to hurt me with his reading of Scripture or did his background lead him to understand the Bible differently than I do? Was my theology meant to nit-pick Scripture or to understand the text so that it was empowering to someone with so many minority cultures? He and I spent the better part of our school days disagreeing with one another, but in those disagreements we saw each other’s cultures and how church hurt and healed us based on those cultures. He wasn’t entitled or arrogant; he was just another person trying to follow Christ the best he could. Even when we didn’t see eye to eye, we acknowledged where each other was coming from instead of relying on stereotypes and preconceived notions. We didn’t see the world or Christianity in the same way but, by getting to know each other as people and as believers, we experienced a transformation from adversaries to friends.
How do we begin to find harmony? I think it helps to take time to consider Dr. Yamada’s three questions. When we explore our own cultures and how they affect our faith, we find new ways to understand ourselves and our relationship with Scripture and with God. When we discuss these questions with others, we open ourselves to other perspectives and experiences of God and Biblical interpretation. Rather than focus on whether or not someone agrees with you, you get to know this person as a fully fleshed out, wholly faithful believer. As the PC(USA) is a church called to unity in diversity, our cultures, these questions, and the discussions they bring can not only lead us to better understanding and acceptance of our neighbors, but also to a better practice of our own Christianity.
Ashley Birt is a graduate of Union Theological Seminary, a member of East Liberty Presbyterian Church and a Candidate Under Care of Pittsburgh Presbytery for Ordination.