In a conversation on a private forum, the topic of culture and evangelization came up. The discussion question was whether the concept of “Engaging the Culture” is relevant in a society as diverse as our own. Can we even say that there exists “a culture” to engage?
Excerpts from my response:
I spent a year of my undergrad work in International Studies sitting in a classroom on another continent with a 100 classmates from around the world, all expats using a second language for their coursework. Did my thesis on a question of “cultural exports” in international trade. Since that time I’ve been living immersed in one of the most diverse and misunderstood American subcultures on this continent (to which I am bi-cultural, or probably more accurately quad-cultural), at a time of tremendous demographic change in the region where I live . . .
Trust me: There is an American Culture, there is a “Western” Culture, and there are myriad national cultures, ethnic cultures, religious cultures, and social-sub-cultures within all the different lumped-up mega-cultures.
Knowing where someone is “coming from,” by which I mean knowing all the forces that form and shape them, is very helpful in being able to connect with them. It doesn’t shortcut the process of listening and learning from the individual, but to the extent that you are fluent in the culture of the person you are evangelizing or discipling, you have way more ability to recognize and address unspoken needs and concerns, and way more ability to understand what the person is trying to say.
Being aware of cultural gulfs — even if you’re only aware that there is a possibility of one, but don’t know where it lies — is a great help in avoiding disastrous misunderstandings.
All that was one train of thought. For a nice book recommendation (not mine) concerning culture and thus indirectly the question of evangelization, see my review of The Culture Map over at New Evanglizers.
Then I concluded with a remark in the other direction, because you can really trip yourself up by leaning too heavily on cultural assumptions:
. . . interestingly, every single inter-personal disaster I have seen in church work over the past decade or so stemmed from watching one person assume all sorts of crazy things about another person based on the fact that the second person came from or identified with this or that ethnic or social sub-culture.
Which reminded me there was a book I’ve been meaning to write. I hear so many times about how difficult is to get along with Traditionalists and other foreign-types. I’m sure someone else has the Getting Along With People From Other Countries That Speak Spanish segment sufficiently covered, but what about the much more pervasive and feared Radical Traditionalist? Not everything in a mantilla is a sweet little immigrant grandmother just doing her special immigrant customs, you know. So I had to write a new book.
I thought it would fit on an index card, but it’s a little bit longer. Here’s the galley of the first in the series, which is my free gift to you, my loyal readers:
Click the title-link to immediately download the PDF, no ads, no shopping cart, no mailing list. It’s yours for the clicking.
Be sure to the check the last page for more titles in the series, because rad-trads aren’t the only dangerous beasts in parish life.