The Fishbowl Perspective
I often say to people: I was born in Australia, live in America, but Heaven is my home. In this statement I’m recognizing the two national cultures that have significantly formed my life. I’m most strongly identifying, however, with the culture and eternal state of Christianity. This is what I believe all Christians should seek to do and be. We should all hold somewhat loosely to our ethnic/national cultures, after all, it’s just clothing for a season! I believe many Christians in Australia and the U.S. are in danger of being overtly focused on the national culture in which they live now. We could benefit from heeding Jesus’ comments to the Pharisees when He said,Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men. (Mark 7:8) This criticism is hard for some to hear, but I’ve learnt from my own cross-cultural life-journey to question certain aspects of national tradition and culture. Not all of one’s national culture is good or helpful.
I’m not alone in my critique of ethnic/national pride. Prominent Pastor Tim Keller humorously asserts that “In the United States, Anglo-Americans’ public and private lives are lived in the same culture. As a result, they are often culturally clueless. They relate to their own culture in the same way a fish that, when asked about water, said, ‘What’s water?’ If you have never been out of water, you don’t know you are in it.”This is similar to when people tell me I have an accent. The clear implication is they don’t have an accent! It’s not that they don’t have an accent, it’s that they default into thinking that their way of pronouncing words is the way. This is not offensive to me but it does carry an unintentional air of arrogance and ignorance by the one who is asking the question. Just so you know, I would also put many of my patriotic Australian friends in this same situation with some of their own cultural fouls. The fact that if they were to read what I’m writing would make them defensive, serves as evidence that they also identify too much with their own cultural heritage and traditions.
There is much to be gained by experiencing a different culture from the dominant one you know firsthand. Many who have gone on the Stormer Lake mission trip can testify to this growing experience. The differences one experiences can trigger awareness of one’s own biases, including long-held traditions that may be good or bad. Having perspective that’s created by contrast helps you discern your own “fishbowl”, for you can now be aware that you are in water.
A good missionary is a third culture person, someone who creates a unique blended culture of their culture of origin and their culture of residence. This enables them to translate between the two. They can communicate to each culture about the other culture. This is what Dr. K. Black suggests as a goal for churches, namely that they … be a third culture for people of many cultures to be included and welcomed, through having culturally conscious worship that takes into consideration those cultures who are among us. However, we must take care because the pursuit of “diversity for diversity’s sake” can easily become an idol.
I say all this to encourage us all to be “translators” or “cultural guides” where we know the distinctions of our own culture, be it Anglo, South Philly, PA Dutch, Soccer Mom, Deer Hunter, or whatever. Such awareness allows us to communicate the gospel to a different culture or subculture without getting caught up in biases or traditions of men. Good translators who can discerningly reach out will always be needed, especially in these days where the world is coming to the United States and our local area is becoming more culturally diverse. Therefore, being a multi-cultural church and a third culture person are not only important for mission, but perhaps a necessity. May we be servants who, like Father Abraham, leave our first culture for the sake of God’s mission.
Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go forth from your country, And from your relatives And from your father’s house, To the land which I will show you. And I will make you a great nation, And I will bless you, And make your name great; And so you shall be a blessing. (Gen. 12:1-2)