Saturday, 2 August 2014

Balancing Faith and Culture

In my role as a leading figure in Reachout Trust, a ministry to the cults, and given my Welsh nationality, I have drawn comments and questions on discussion boards about the Welsh national cultural event known as the Eisteddfod. People are puzzled that even “so-called Christian leaders” attend and take part in what is so “obviously a Pagan festival.” It is culturally Celtic (the first ‘c’ is a hard ‘c’, not like the Scottish football club) has a circle of druids, an Archdruid, flower dances, oak leaves, a sword, a stone, and a throne – O,my word it just gets worse.

This year (1-9 August 2014) it is being held in the West Wales town of llanelli (Llan means church and Elli is the name of a leading Christian figure associated with the place, hence Llan – the church of, Elli – St Elli) You can get a lot of useful information about the Eisteddfod, its history and form here. It is a festival that celebrates Welsh language and culture and is conducted in Welsh, though very welcoming and accessible to non-Welsh speakers. But there is also an international Eisteddfod which is multilingual, multicultural, welcomes visitors and contestants from all over the world and is the biggest cultural festival in Europe.

When people ask the answer is always the same. It has nothing to do with authentic druidism, and what people see as ‘pagan’ is nothing more than the fanciful cultural trappings of an otherwise innocent cultural festival. It celebrates culture and talent in many forms, music, dance, poetry and literature, academic achievements, civic service, charity work. There is a regular Christian presence at the festival and every opportunity to share the gospel. Still, there will be those who will struggle with the question of faith and culture, some taking the purist view.

With our very seasons and times named with the names of pagan gods (think days of the week, months and seasons of the year) and pagan customs marking our every day lives, from the wedding ring, through carols, flowers on graves, and so much more, how do we balance faith and culture?

Simply because something has a pagan origin does not mean that it is sinful to use it, even for a religious purpose. The early church met in houses but when Christianity became an official religion of the empire Christians modelled their public buildings on what was already there in society, the basilica. At a time when your social status was reflected in your dress, church officials dressed like government officials. Today, when we see priests wearing church vestments, we are looking at the continuation of this form of dress which originated with the Roman nobility.

Our practices, dress and customs, both religious and civic, have developed over generations and reflect that history, as also our attitudes. People who complain today about drums and guitars in church should realise that the church organ, so beloved of many, was seen as worldly when it was brought into the church a thousand years ago. Think of the so-called gothic revival of the nineteenth century, which has bequeathed us a heritage of cold, drafty and pretty but pretty useless buildings, but at the time regarded as God honouring.

Even today, we find ourselves doing things that our forebears might find odd. How would those of just a generation or two ago make of our casual dress in so many churches today? And what do we regard as acceptable today that might appear unacceptable to those that come after us?  It might be said that culture both helps and harms the church, but either way culture contributes to how the church is defined and how Christians live.

When it comes to a Welsh cultural festival Christians must, as with so much of being ‘in the world,’ decide for themselves what to get involved in and how involved to get. We can’t avoid a day of the week named for Saturn in a month of the year named for Augustus, or an innocent but ultimately ‘unbiblical’ birthday celebration. We can be wise in our choices as we interact with our own cultures. As for the church in the world, Christianity has a history of ‘baptising’ pre-existing customs into the church, from Christmas, through Harvest Thanksgiving, to music and the way we dress.

What is important is that we are slow to judge, eager to learn, anxious to understand, wise and charitable in our judgements, and honouring to God and culture in our choices. A religious attitude doesn’t sanctify us any more than customs need desecrate.

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