How (Not) to be Patriotic (Part 1): Understanding Culture and Faith

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My wife and I, on our honeymoon, did a Mediterranean cruise. We saw Malta, Naples and Pompei, Rome and the Vatican, Florence and Pisa, and finally Cannes, France.

Florence was a gorgeous city. We toured the city’s cathedrals, and through the streets we saw statue after statue, all by walking along very picturesque cobble stone roads.

We came to the city center where the Duomo was. This is a massive cathedral constructed by the same architect that did the St. Peter’s Basilica. The baptismal chapel on the one end of the Duomo has gold gates, called the “Gates of Paradise,” lined with plates of biblical artwork.

I remember thinking, we really don’t have stuff like that in Canada. We don’t have the depth of history like a place like Florence does.

The tour took a break and so I want to the bathroom. As I was washing my hands, one of the other people on the tour started talking to me. Apparently it was acceptable to talk to others in a bathroom in his culture.

“Are you enjoying the tour?”

“Yes, the gates were awesome,” I said.

“You’re an American, yes?” he asked.

Of course, I replied, “No, I’m Canadian.”

To which he replied with one of the most insulting things you could say to a Canadian in that instance: “Oh, same thing!”

If this was hockey, the gloves would have come off!

So, I turn to him and asked, “Your ascent – its Irish, isn’t it?”

“No, I am from London.”

To which I replied, “Oh, same thing!”

Now, since then, that story has caused me to reflect on what it is to be a Canadian. What does it mean to be a Canadian? Are we, as John Wing joked, “Unarmed Americans with healthcare”?

This is not as obvious a question as it sounds. Yes, I was born in the area in between the Pacific, Atlantic, and Arctic Oceans, North of America and South of Greenland, but that does not tell us much about what it means to be a Canadian. That’s geography. However that may tell us something or two.

“Canada [geographically] is like an old cow. The West feeds it. Ontario and Quebec milk it. And you can well imagine what it’s doing in the Maritimes.” – Tommy Douglas

My apologies to all the Maritimers in the room.

Anyways, what I am talking about is being a “true Canadian.” Is there such a thing?

Do Canadians have a particular culture? We love hockey. We love camping. Outdoor sports in general. Everyone in this room knows what it is like to walk out of your house in the winter and breathe in -45 degree Celsius air.

Canadian food: Maple Syrup, bacon, Nanaimo bars, poutine with globs of gravy and cheese curds, beaver tails, etc.

We like to drink unhealthy amounts of coffee, double double. We get our milk in liter plastic bags, not jugs.

Our money is all sorts of goofy colors, and for some reason, the Canadian mint is slowly turning all our bills into progressively larger coins. The 5 and 10 dollar coins are coming, people. What then? I think eventually we will have 20 dollar coins the size of frisbees and eventually 100 coins the size of manhole covers!

We have iconic figures like beavers, moose, the Canada goose. We are apparently really proud of our wildlife!

We sort of go to those kinds of things in order to understand ourselves, but those kinds of things are pretty surface level and outward. That does not tell us a whole lot about us. Hopefully there is more to us than that.

The fact that we have receded into those kinds of cutesy notions of who we are shows what the Canadian media philosopher Marshall McLuhan said decades ago:

“Canada is the only country in the world that knows how to live without an identity.”

McLuhan was the man that stated, “The medium is the message.” Canada had these brilliant culture philosophers like George Grant and Northrop Frye that no one really remembers today. It’s kind of sad.

Anyways, we are a pluralistic, multi-cultural society, not culture but a set of cultures, and that leads us to feel a sense like we don’t have a uniform set of values. We often don’t feel like we know who we are deep down as Canadians.

However, interestingly enough, while many Canadians are unaware of it, there is a bizarre consensus in Canada on values.

In college I read the book, Fire and Ice: Canada, the United States, and the Myth of Converging Values. It was a bit of an eye opener. Canada, according to sociologist Michael Adams, is becoming very different from its American counterparts. We are similar to Americans, but as far as values goes, the presence of America to the South of us as caused us to be increasingly different form them on lots of stuff.

That is one way of saying who we are, isn’t it? Canadians are not Americans. Whoever we are, we ain’t that. We are proudly not that.

We always define ourselves in terms our brothers and sisters to the south. Pierre Trudeau once likened North America to a bed where Canada was a beaver trying to sleep next to a raging Elephant (the US).

And while Americans assume they have a more uniform melting pot kind of culture and Canada has a multi-cultural, diverse culture, Canada is actually far more uniform from sea to sea than the US. That’s ironic.

In values of Authority vs. Individuality and Survival vs. Fulfillment, American regions are very diverse: the Deep South is strongly Authority-Survival, South Atlantic is Individuality-Survival. Some states were closer to Authority-Fulfillment while others closer to Individuality-Fulfillment. Meanwhile, all Canadian provinces fell within the Individuality-Fulfillment quadrant.

What does that mean? Here are some of his statistics: Only 20% of Canadians attend church weekly versus 42% for Americans. Only 18% of Canadians feel that the father must be Master of the house versus 49% for Americans. 71% of Canadians felt that a couple living together were family versus 49% for Americans. Only 25% of Canadians were prepared to take great risks versus 38% of Americans. Only 17% of Canadians feel a widely advertised product is probably good versus 44% of Americans

Adam’s said, and I think this sums it up well: Americans would be more likely to brag about a new car; Canadians more likely to brag about the trip they went on.

Adams feels that “an initially conservative society like Canada has ended up producing an autonomous, inner-directed, flexible, tolerant and socially liberal people. On the other hand, “an initially liberal society like the US has ended up producing a people who are materialistic, outer-directed, intolerant and socially conservative.”

Now, here is the important question for today. Does that make our culture the right one?

According to the news, people from both American and Britain have been googling “How to move to Canada” at record rates, but I think that is short-sighted.

I don’t think anyone of them is necessarily bad or good. I see things like and things I am concerned about in those statistics. Sure there are cultures that have strong education or have less crime or promote religion. However that can all have good aspects and bad aspects.

Of course, if we said that Canada’s culture was the best,  we would be saying that out of bias, and we would also be failing to cultural arrogance, which is not good.

The fact is that you can take your culture in a good way or a bad way. You can’t blame your culture for stuff you know is wrong. Any culture has upsides and downsides. The point is to be aware of it. There will be extremes. Culture is not necessary a thing to be opposed in faith, but is something to be understood critically, placing our faith and discernment first. We need to celebrate the good and work at eliminated the bad.

Christians have usually two dangerous responses to our cultural identities:

(1) Isolation: Churches that Retreat from Culture

This is very common of fundamentalist churches. Our culture is bad, impure, evil, so lets huddle in our faith bunker where it is safe.

Churches that get isolated don’t use the goodness the Spirit of God has planted in the culture to use to communicate the Gospel. Paul knew this when he spoke to the people at Mars Hill.

There is no such thing as a culture-less church. No church is free from culture. God did not intend it that way. The Bible was written within a culture of its own, but the Word of God speaks to all cultures. The church should be working to promote the best of culture. The point is discerning the good from the bad.

It is not weather we will have a Canadian culture within us or not, the question is will we be aware of it and response appropriately.

Canadians are more skeptical about consumerism and war, and more hospitable to immigrants. That’s good. I think Jesus was too!

Canadians are individuals that value strong relationships over institutions and programs. That is something we can work with.

Canadians might be skeptical about religion, but they are open to talking about justice, spirituality, ideals, and values. In a round about way, that sounds religious!

Lots of people want to lament that our culture is becoming less Christian. That is true in one way, but that does not mean the Spirit has stopped working in our culture to make opportunities for the Gospel.

(2) Accommodation: Churches Claim All Culture for their Own

The worst example of this in history is when Emperor Constantine in the third century made Christianity the state religion. To be Roman was to be Christian. To be Christian was to be Roman. Roman law was ordained by God. The church went to war against Rome’s enemies.

We saw horrific examples of this in Nazi Germany where the state church proclaimed Hitler to be chosen by God to bring glory back to Germany.

We see the same in the British Empire. Where the Anglican Church sanctioned colonialism. The British colonized half the world and now complain about immigrants taking their identity!

We see this also in America today, sadly. American wars for oil have become evangelical crusades against Muslims. The American motto of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” is preached as gospel in some churches.

We Canadians can do the same.

I think ours is a culture of apathy and skepticism. We have allergic reactions to organized anything, except organized sports. We have trouble committing to community. We are terribly afraid of offending people with the truth. We are individualists that don’t know who we are and don’t want you to tell us.

That comes out in our religion.

We say stuff like, “I believe Jesus in my Lord and Saviour, but that is just my personal opinion.” (A joke often made by the ethicist, Stan Hauerwas).

We are multi-cultural, which is great. But also we have allowed tolerance to go a bit too far. There are two kinds of tolerance, by the way. One kind says, “You are different from me, so please help me understand you, and let me make a space for you, so that we can have peace.” That’s good.

There is bad tolerance that says, “I don’t know you, I don’t care, you stay out of my business and I’ll stay out of yours. If we bump into each other at Foodland, lets have a shallow conversation about the weather or local sports team, but not anything meaningful, let along religious.”

We are terribly afraid of speaking truth and very afraid to commit to organization and community. That fear has caused us to shrink back from opportunities to encourage people with the Gospel. We are so afraid of offending people that we miss opportunities to encourage.

When we think about our nationality, we have to be critical. We are called to be “in the world and not of the world”

We need to understand that there is good and bad in our culture. We need discernment to that we do not fall into nationalism. Being Canadian can be a good thing, but not necessarily.

This is why we look to how we are apart of another nation: the kingdom of heaven…

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