We live in an age of information, where we have vast and easy access to data about other cultures. All it takes is a quickly-typed search term and a click of the mouse to become familiar with the practices and beliefs of any culture that piques our curiosity. And when we combine this curiosity with our love of individualism, the result is cultural appropriation.
We adopt Lent and think it’s for moral self-improvement. We eat sushi without wasabi and ginger because we have no idea that they serve a purpose: to keep bad fish from making you sick! We celebrate Seder and Passover with little understanding of their cultural context. We wear stoles over our blue collared shirts and change the liturgy every week. We listen to this music but obviously not that music; we sing Bernard of Clairvaux but not Matt Redman.
And yet with all these choices, with all these options, we still have no idea who we are. To steal from U2: “We still haven’t found what we’re looking for.” In part, that’s because when we appropriate a tradition without being a part of the community that created it, we lose the meaning behind it. And in our pursuit of self-discovery and identity, we also lose the commitment and the responsibility that tradition entails (thinking we are better off without it).
It is popular to say we are created to live in community, but much less popular to accept that living in community means others get to have a say in our lives. Others to encourage and rebuke, to critique and love, to push us away from self-love and poke us toward selfless love. A community that asks hard questions and requires commitment. A community that says you can’t take any job you want, if it means you will be without a Christian place of worship. But that would squash our dreams of self-discovery!
In the Christian ethic, it is not we who define ourselves, but others, or more precisely, one Other: “It is He who has made us.” He gets to say who we are. We do not find ourselves by navel-gazing, but by losing ourselves for others: “He who loses his life for my sake will find it.”
God’s command that we give our lives for others—sacrifice our self-interest for our families and communities—is completely antithetical to the message we absorb from our culture, directly and indirectly. How can we escape it? What is the solution? When everything around us entices us to consider ourselves first, how do we even begin to give ourselves for others?
I would suggest that one concrete place to begin is in our local churches: by allowing the church to impose restrictions on our freedoms, even in small ways, like being told when to the clean the church. We learn to think more of others when we courteously RSVP to our community group leaders, and when we speak our liturgical responses slowly to help our ESL friends, and when we show up on time to Sunday school. Just perhaps, we might suddenly discover that we have found what we’re looking for: friendship, commitment, love, and the purpose of wasabi and ginger.