Culture Clash: Taking Off The Blinkers

Elizabeth Jebaraj   |   April 1, 2017 

Over the years, I have been certified “culturally bankrupt” on more than one occasion.

As a Fine Arts student in college, I was totally clueless in several of the Indian art classes I took. I had the story of the Mahabharata totally muddled and was forever confusing the various avatars of the gods in the Hindu pantheon.

Later, working for an advertising agency, we often tried to find a cultural hook to kick off an ad campaign -- and here again, my cultural connect was dangerously low. I would be working on a bridal jewellery campaign, but didn’t know the significance of the three knots tied in the traditional ceremony. Trying to do a series of festive ads for Pongal was difficult when I had never celebrated the festival, and hated the taste of the dish. My classmates and colleagues found it very amusing that I had to research these things that they had known since childhood.

I also hate wearing mallipoo (jasmine flowers), have never seen a Rajnikanth film, and am hopeless at tying a sari. And most recently, Chennai’s recent protests against the ban on jallikattu (a traditional bull-taming sport) completely failed to stir any of my “Tamil pride”. I’m with the bulls all the way.

As you can see, my cultural score is dangerously low, but it never bothered me much. I always told myself that Indian culture was much too huge to know it all.

But there was one aspect of my culture that I always felt I was strong in -- after all, it’s been an important part of my life since early childhood -- church culture! While I am not a pastor’s kid, I considered myself the next best thing.

There was the sword drill at Sunday School, memory verse tests and church camp that gave me an early foundation in the Word of God. The hymns and songs that convicted and encouraged me as they have many others over the centuries. And the communion which was central to the church service and to my faith.

But then I got married and joined a new church. And suddenly had the shock realisation that I was not really as much of an expert as I thought on church culture, or even on Indian church culture. I was simply an expert on my own church’s culture, with its idiosyncrasies rooted in a particular region, a particular denomination, a particular history. My husband, I discovered, had no idea what a sword drill was (for the record, it’s a competition to see who is the fastest to find Bible references). We also had completely different experiences with church music. He knew more of the worship songs of this decade than the hoary old hymns written a couple of centuries ago. And communion was not even part of every Sunday service for him.

And so, when I first got married and moved to a new church, I felt I was in a new and almost foreign culture. This was not church as I knew it. But as I heard God speak week after week and as I got to feel the love and care of the people around me at that church, I learned some new things about church culture:

  1. A vibrant culture embraces diversity: I've come to appreciate the variety and differences across several churches and services. To understand that this is a reflection of the way God has created us – each so different and unique, and yet he has called each of us to be His children and a part of the body of Christ. This realisation of the sheer variety of people who make up Christ's body has opened up my own understanding, giving me new insights and new learnings from God's word. But it has also given me a peek into the dangers of teachings that skirt around God’s word – for a church which is not firmly rooted in the Bible is not really a church at all.

  2. Authenticity is key: The traditions of the church and orders in the service may change, but this in no way makes one church more or less authentic. It’s not about how things are done during a service, but what’s in my heart and mind while doing them. Pride in my church's tradition or culture is an empty pride, both hurtful and harmful. That kind of pride resents change and that in turn stifles growth. And a church where its members are not growing, is dying. A church that is being authentic is being true to God’s word – and not merely to any church traditions.

  3. Culture is about the people who make it: Any culture, just as a set of practices and traditions, is meaningless without the people who bring it to life. And church culture is the same. It’s about the richness of community; a community that is alive in Christ; a community that is walking the walk and not just talking the talk.


Photo Credit: Unsplash

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Elizabeth Jebaraj

Elizabeth Jebaraj works in an advertising agency and is taking a full time course in "How to raise a toddler without bringing down the house". She lives with her husband and son in Chennai.

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