Tuesday, June 01, 2004

Change it? Engage it? Get a bigger box to encage it?

In 1998, while defining their vision for the 21st century, the Christian university I attended was proud to announce their slogan: "Engaging the culture, changing the world." Their comprehensive plan proclaims, "Separation, detachment, or self-indulgence can never be our path... We exist to serve."

While there are plenty of places where my ideas diverge from those officially advanced by the institution of my dear ol' alma mater, I can't argue with their stated passion to help students "understand what gives shape to our world...to appreciate the fruits of culture: music, art, theater, poetry, film, literature." It's an idealistic slogan, and sounds ridiculously hokey after you hear it eight hundred times in four years, but (after some years of not hearing it every day) I appreciate its brand of idealism. It's borne of a thoughtful, appreciative approach that often seems lacking in some Christian circles.

I was just reminded of that slogan when I visited Slacktivist. Today he links to a transcript at Christianity Today of a little chat George W. Bush had last week with some supportive religion writers and editors. He has a different idea about what Christians should do with "culture." The headline of the article, and a main point of Bush's statements? "Bush calls for 'Culture Change.'" He said, "At home, the job of a president is to help cultures change. The culture needs to be changed."

"Engaging the culture..." I was lucky enough to participate in a volunteer trip to Ireland, arranged by my university, just after I graduated. A church in Ireland asked for volunteers to help staff their summer youth camps, where they brought together adolescents from Ireland and Northern Ireland for week-long summer camps. The first thing the camp director did when the six of us volunteers arrived that summer was to take us up to Belfast for a week-long course on the history and culture of Northern Ireland, to give us a more nuanced understanding of the background to the conflict there. It was, among other things, a reminder that we weren't sent there to change their culture. We were sent to understand it, to engage it, even, and to lend our services to those local people with what they sought to accomplish in the cause of peace and reconciliation in their communities. They were seeking change, no doubt about it. But they sought the change that would come through increased understanding and engagement across community lines (as well as increased opportunity for the impoverished residents of West Belfast in particular...but that's another rant), and not necessarily through artificially imposed changes.

"Changing the culture..." Sadly, there's an ever-growing strain of Christians in the U.S. who are leery of that sort of engagement. For them, culture change is the important part, not the engagement and respect that precedes it. That connection and mutuality are suspect to them--a potential source of corruption. My teenaged brother said to me in a heated moment last year, "If you aren't a Christian, I don't know if I should talk to you anymore." His reason? If I'm not a Christian, my opinions are of course groundless and absurd, but they might nevertheless coil their godless tentacles around him, whisper their sweet siren song in his ears and tempt him, lead him astray, make his feet stumble and eventually hurl him into the pit of everlasting fire and torment.

Okay, he wasn't that dramatic about it. But his point was the same: other people's beliefs are not a valid part of his culture to be listened to and understood even if he continues to disagree with them. They are a threat, a challenge, an affront to the stark purity of his own beliefs. Life, for him, isn't "glorious, fascinating, rapidly changing...at times terrifying," as my alma mater's comprehensive plan says. It's just a constant war between cultures, a war he believes must be won and can only be won by force. There's nothing glorious about other cultures; they are a challenge to be withstood and overcome. They are there in order to be defeated and changed.

"Engaging the culture, changing the world..." I watched Priscilla, Queen of the Desert on Sunday, and I loved it. I watched those Australian drag queens make their way across the outback and loved it, loved my glimpse into a completely different world. Maybe that's the thing--how much I enjoy that "engagement," on screen or in a book or (best of all) in reality. I thrived on the time I was privileged to spend in Honduras, in Ireland, in the classrooms with struggling readers in Seattle. It has never felt like something ponderous enough to describe as "engaging the culture," and I don't know that I changed anything except myself.

But I've made some new, unexpected friends. I've learned and grown and been stretched tremendously. I guess I have engaged me some culture. Maybe I've even changed the world a little. I'll probably never know, one way or the other. Still, I'd like to think it was a more productive process, both for myself and for the people I met, than it would have been if I'd gone in swinging a club of self-righteousness and duty, asking indignantly why these silly people couldn't just shape up and learn to get along. More fun, too.

So, see what I've learned: I like the slogan more than I thought I did. I think I might just go on doing this subtle "culture-engagement" for a bit longer. George can let me know how his method works out.