Cliff's Edge

The Color of Culture

Food, language, clothes, everything, is colored by culture.

Clifford Goldstein

Grandpa Sam died in the early 1970s. Grandma Florence remarried seven years later to Benny Beeman, who told great stories. One was about being a child on a ship sailing to America to escape European anti-Semitism. At sunrise, after a distress call had come and the ship had veered, they stared at the surface of the ocean, full of debris and bodies, leftovers from the Titanic.

But it was another story, not unrelated, that I mimic now. In Poland, Benny was walking along railroad tracks when Gentile lads his age beat up the little Jew boy. It was par for the course in the color of that culture. Two years later, having come with his family to America, Benny Beeman walked into his first day of school in Brooklyn. There, in a seat in the New World, was one of his assailants.

“We became,” Benny said, his words distorted by a sob, “best friends for 65 years, until he passed last May.”

Had they remained in the old culture, that kid might have grown into someone who would have fed Benny and his family to the Nazis, instead of someone who shared a table with Benny and his family for six decades.

It’s scary: the color of our culture bleeds out and taints us. You think that the great-great-grandchildren of antebellum slave owners are so much better people than their slave-owning great-great-grandparents? If not, why are they appalled and disgusted by the practices of their ancestors? Why would they, even the secular versions, never consider doing what their churchgoing, Jesus-loving predecessors did with such fervor that it took a war to stop them? Or, a little closer to home, why 75 years ago were many churchgoing Southern Christians (Adventists included) such evil racists that they acquiesced in, or even openly supported, practices that today only evil racists would acquiesce in or support? If they weren’t evil racists, why did they acquiesce in or support those practices? Again, the answer is culture.

Unless we leave our culture, we can never escape it. And even if we leave, its colors, though fading over time, remain, slanting our interpretations of everything, even the Word of God. Just as we read the Bible in the language of our culture, we interpret it, not just through that language (which carries its own subjective baggage), but through that culture as well. (What, it’s just a coincidence that in contemporary Western culture some claim to find scriptural support for “monogamous homosexual relationships”? Hardly.)

Food, language, clothes, everything, is colored by culture. Ideally our faith should help us transcend whatever awful hues our culture carries. But, unfortunately, culture shades faith more than faith colors culture.

Perhaps all we can do is individually recognize how much our minds are soaked through and through by our environment. Then we must surrender our culturally colored selves to the Word of God, which “is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to the dividing of soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (Heb. 4:12).

Corporately, forget it. It’s an individual choice only, the difference between beating someone up or sharing that person’s table.

Clifford Goldstein is editor of the Adult Sabbath School Bible Study Guide.

Clifford Goldstein