Christian Responses to History, Language, and Culture

Already this semester, we have been studying how various authors wrote out of worldviews that hold to certain claims about the self, truth, and poetry.  We saw with Romanticism how the individual's subjective experience became the test of truth and the source of meaning.  In part, this "turn inward" was the result of attempts to make sense of the relationship between the subjective and objective world.  As the nineteenth and twentieth centuries progressed, concerns about the fundamental relationship widened to include concerns with how anything human can be related to the objective world, and many began to argue that it couldn't, essentially that human factors like our understanding of history, our language, even our very cultural makeup were constantly evolving phenomena with no connection to any timeless or eternal realm of truth, goodness, and beauty.  As we begin to explore the literature of modernism and post-colonialism more closely, it will help to keep some of the following in mind:

Questions of History: For many of the writers we will be reading, "history" is more than just what happened in the past, it is also the human attempt to recount that past.  Consider, for example, that one could write several different histories of one figure such as Winston Churchill. Each book would choose to stress slightly different points in order to offer different ideas about the man and his significance.  Because history is, in part, a human product, some cultural critics have argued that every retelling of history has a certain bias and that it has a certain investment in the knowledge it claims to hold.  For such thinkers, a history is a means by which a group advances its self-understanding or even gains and maintains power over other groups. They would charge, for instance, that the way one tells the story of Western expansion in the United States says a lot about what values one holds and what interests one has.

For others, "history" is the ever changing and adapting process of human culture.  History is placed over against the eternal or timeless.  Considered in this way, history represents the way every culture, indeed every person, is a product of socio-cultural forces and trends that began long before the present.  If the eternal or timeless points toward what is universal about all people, the historical points to what is unique about each place and time, to the particular combination that allows anyone or any culture to claim their individuality.

How, then, might a Christian worldview respond to such concerns?

A Few Assertions About the Nature of History

  1. History is not independent of interpretation.  Facts are always placed within a framework.
  2. History is both objective and subjective.  It has "a factual impact".  Certain historical records, occurrences, and data exist independent of us and do guide and shape the way we interpret, yet history also has a personal shape; different people ask different questions and end up with differing observations about what the facts mean.
  3. History is a narrative: 1) it often focuses on individuals, their identities, and their relationships with institutions; 2) it has a certain sequence and contingency with a narrative pattern--one thing "follows" another for a reason; 3) it has a "story-worthiness" that explains why we are concerned with it; 4) it often has a certain "trajectory of culmination," a certain end or purpose that the historian feels it is leading up to.
  4. History may also have a deep sense of connection with the teller: it helps explain who we presently are (e.g. The Exodus, Christ's resurrection).
  5. History, from a Christian perspective, includes an account of God's actions in the past.  History, therefore, also shapes our faith: we better understand what we believe on the basis of what God has done for us.
  6. While every history may have potential for power, it does not follow that all history need be used oppressively.  Some histories (e.g. Christ) may be used to liberate.
  7. In addition, some histories may be told not to gain power but to give it up, to admit our past failures and mistakes.
  8. Because Christians affirm the incarnation of Christ, the covenant God made with Israel, and the particular circumstances surrounding the cultural makeup of the early Church all as historical realities, we also affirm the historicity of human culture in general.  To affirm that God is, in some sense, eternal and therefore above time, does not mean that we deny the particular time-bound nature of our own cultures or of God's willingness to enter those cultures to speak to us, most perfectly in Christ in first-century Palestine.
  9. Likewise, to affirm that we are in part shaped by the particular historical forces of our cultures' pasts does not negate that God has a universal will for all cultures and times.

[Some of these ideas are from Frykenberg, Robert Eric. History & Belief: The Foundations of Historical Understanding. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996.]

Questions of Language: Language is also a large issue for many modernists and post-colonialists.  One major point of concern has to do with the relationship between human systems of language and the real, objective world.  Is there any connection between the two?  Many argue that language is a system that has no direct bearing on the actual, physical phenomena.  For such thinkers, language is a human attempt at meaning, is always inherently subjective, and evolves slowly (or rapidly) in response to various cultural and political pressures.   We name things in order to control them or to in some way create meaning where no meaning can be found objectively.  Such a view leads to various claims about why we write and speak--for some, language is a form of play, for others, it is a tool for power, and still for others, it is a concession to our limitations.  How, then, might Christians respond to this issue?

The Gift of Language

[The following is from  Kopple, William J. Vande. "Toward a Christian View of Language" Contemporary Literary Theory: A Christian Appraisal. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991. 199-230.]

  1. God is the ultimate source of our linguistic abilities.  God's own nature reveals one who communicates and can be communicated with by means of language.
  2. Despite some rudimentary abilities towards sign-making and communication, the full-bodied gift of language is present only in the human species.
  3. Christians should be wary of behaviorist explanations of language.  While not completely so, human language ability seems to be fairly innate.  Given exposure to language, children across the largest variety of abilities are disposed toward attaining speech.
  4. Language is both intricate and infinite in its combinations.
  5. Language is more than arbitrary sign-bearing; it is symbolic, for it brings things to mind.  It employs concepts that are both abstract and fairly stable, as well as patterned.
  6. Language points to both the consciousness of the self as well as the existence of others.  Our languages are larger than ourselves.   They point to our abilities to articulate memory, express emotion, and debate ideas.
  7. The relationship between the world and a language is not an arbitrary one.  The world is sufficiently there in such a way to force language to develop concepts to explain it. 
  8. Language is also interpersonal because a language's stability is based on the slowly changing historical consensus of speakers.
  9. We have a responsibility to speak truth and this includes speaking it both clearly and poetically.

Questions of Identity and Reconciliation: Another large issue in a world deeply divided by ethnic and racial genocides is how one is to act and live amidst such seemingly rival claims.  Modernism tended to stress a kind of "objective" or cosmopolitan person who would embrace a way of life somehow separated out from that of ancient tribal identities.  But as modernism begins to crumble, so does such an assumption.  Increasingly, it is more common to argue that one's particular racial, ethnic, and regional identities contain real, non-negotiable values.  Some go farther to suggest that such identities are basically impenetrable to each other, that groups can not truly understand each other: "It's a Chicano thing" or "It's a Southern thing."

This becomes further compounded when two or more groups have a history of distrust, mistreatment, or oppression between them.  How should a group respond to those who have historically oppressed them?

Identity and Reconciliation (Miroslav Volf)

Volf's model suggests how Christians may be part of their own culture yet respect and learn from other cultures.  It also suggests how Christians can respect diversity and interact across the difficult problem of past and present cultural hatreds:

  1. Christians are strangers or aliens in the world. This suggests exclusiveness.
  2. Yet we live in and for a culture even if we are not entirely of it.  We have identities tied to the people group, ethnicity, and nation we grow up in. 
  3. Christ has called us to have a "crucified self," one that is centered not in our cultural identities but in the crucified Christ.  As such, we are called to radical self-giving.  We do not lay aside those identities but they are less important than our call to be one with Christ.
  4. Life in the Holy Spirit gives Christians a new "catholic" or universal personality. The Spirit opens up a space in me to receive the other.
  5. Because we are aliens in our culture, we have enough space to choose to be separated from the hereditary evil in that culture.  The purity of our allegiance to Jesus Christ keeps us from honoring any one culture too highly, for we remember that we are finally called to Christ.
  6. Being separate allows us to embrace otherness.  God, in the creation of the world, both separated and bonded together differences--between men and women, humans and other species, and between groups of people.  Our identities suggest that we have unique elements that set us apart from each other, yet we are also connected together and have responsibilities to each other.
  7. Christ has created the church to be distinctly multicultural in the sense that it remains open to all cultures, for all are called to Christ.
  8. We are also called to have an evangelical personality--one that stresses repentance and transformation for all evildoers in every culture.  We cannot claim a stance of indifference to the world's hatreds and sufferings.  Neither can we avoid our own particular culture's involvement in the world's web of sin.
  9. The only way to break the cycle of oppression between cultures is to recommend a radical repentance and forgiveness for all involved.  Even those who have been victims of oppression need to repent of their own temptation to continue in hatred for the ones who have victimized them.
  10. We need a practice of forgiveness and justice that respects the differences of the other.  Forgiveness does not mean an absorbing of another's differences, rather a respecting of them.

[Volf, Mirsoslav. Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation. Nashville: Abingdon, 1996.]