from Guangzhou, southern China
It’s amazing how much of culture is transparent. We can’t see it because we see through it. What seems perfectly normal to us only seems that way because it’s woven into our cultural fabric. Stepping out of our culture causes us to look through a different set of lenses and reveals how much we take for granted.
In America, beautiful women are always tan. White Midwestern girls spend good money to fake-bake under UV lights in order to secure some semblance of sun-drenched skin. But in China, the streets swim with umbrellas even on the clearest day as Asian women try to shield their skin from the sun. Because the Chinese ideal of feminine beauty is a woman with a milky-white complexion.
Imagine the challenge this creates for advertising. Marketers always want beautiful people representing their products. But beauty is different in China than it is in America. The same darkly tanned woman who suggests beauty to an American audience would conjure up images of a humble peasant farmer to the Chinese. The ideal – beauty – exists in both cultures. But the cultural images that represent that ideal are widely divergent.
The same thing is true in our view of the gospel. Much of what we think is essential to Christianity, the gospel, and church planting is actually based on our culture, not the Bible. Just ask this question: what do I consider “normal?” Then deconstruct your view of normal by asking whether it applies in cultural contexts other than America.
For example: is gathered, corporate singing about the glory and goodness of God an essential aspect of worship? Try telling that to our brothers and sisters in China, who cannot sing aloud together in their underground house-churches for fear of awakening government scrutiny. Is reading the Bible an essential component of spiritual growth? If so, are we saying that Christian growth is not possible in places with massive illiteracy rates?
I don’t ask these questions to start arguments about hypotheticals. My goal is rather to spur critical reflection on how culturally bound our view of reality often is. Is that tanned cover girl on the grocery-store magazine rack really beautiful? Or did your culture just condition you to think so?