When at seminary 38 years ago we turned our attention in one semester to culture and Christianity in the light of world missions and noticed how experienced and wise missionaries regularly worked within cultural norms rather than trying to inset western culture.
That left a lasting impact upon me and often wondered in my own situation, what was Christian and what was culture and could other cultures fit as readily into my western concept of Christianity.
America, the land of evangelicalism with such sound theological forebears as Jonathan Edwards, have such an interesting and challenging view to what being and illustrating Christian is.
Having founded the Sports and Leisure Ministry in 1982 placing chaplains into professional sports, and undertaking numerous study tours of US Sports Ministries, I found several anomalies to my Australian come English evangelical thinking.
Two examples to suffice. For decades Australian evangelicalism frowned horribly on anyone playing sport on Sunday. Australian cricket captain of the 1960's Brian Booth would not play cricket on a Sunday.
Yet there was never any such prohibition of such activities in American evangelicalism. Champions (sport, movies, business) are heralded and cheered and honoured and for sports stars that inevitably meant playing on a Sunday. Preachers would ensure church services were over in time for parishioners could get to "the game".
Different cultural perspectives or a 'grace sin' on one or the other?
Another example. In my parents era, one would never buy an ice cream on a Sunday, but Americans saw this as a cultural delight. My parents frowned on buying the Sunday newspaper printed on the Saturday, but found no such issue buying the Monday paper printed Sunday evening. American entrepreneurship meant everyone was encouraged to spend on Sundays as well as Mondays and Tuesdays and ... not spending money was un-American.
Australia could not have been any more opposite. Spending money was frivolous and a good evangelical Christian demonstrated their reverence by giving any loose change to Missions, and certainly not wasting it on any personal delights. I'm still so influenced by this aspect of my culture that I'll look to at other options before spending money.
There are other odd things too that illustrate such issues for Christians. Consider these conservative evangelical Christian luminaries who turned their worlds on their heads for the Gospel - Jonathan Edwards, Charles Spurgeon, Karl Bart, G. Campbell Morgan, Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and C. S. Lewis - all godly gifted Christian leaders – all hailed for their Christian witness and turning nations around - wait for it - they all smoked!
The culture element
There are times in which one gets 'evangelically' shocked and one such occasion was when reading Stuart Robinson's book Mosques and Miracles. Imams have come to Jesus through dreams and believed God had called them to remain in the mosque.
What is that about? Is it culture? Is it theological? Is it wisdom? Is it Eastern? It's all so very foreign to my western evangelical mind set of cultural norms.
It's been many years now since the Jesus I know has become far removed from the white skinned, blue eyed, sanitised saviour.
Rather my Jesus is street wise (smart as), calls people to a discipleship that is costly and challenging and frightening. He does some pretty scary things, like walks on water (where's my physics text book when I need it), turns water into very aged and cured wine, he disappears when physically threatened. Who is this man?
And what about the things he says: non one speaks more about the horrific place of hell than this Jesus. No one speaks more about being clinically judged by your deeds and even your intentions (now that's below the belt). Yet he speaks and does illustrating a sort of love that's as different from romance as night is from day. Who is this man?
The answer to these types of questions can be found in any Christian community within any culture and seeing Christianity in word, deed and the theatre of life – whether that be my Australian evangelical branch of culture or the followers of this Jesus in places most of us only see on the evening news after a natural disaster or on a national geographic documentary.
The wonder of the Gospel is that culture often enhances belief in such a Jesus. I recall, which I have said in this column previously, many years ago now, when a young man, an Anglican missionary to our own indigenous peoples in the Northern Territory recounted how such a woman, having heard the story and message of Jesus exclaimed: "I knew him, I knew him, I just didn't know his name!"
Dr Mark Tronson is a Baptist minister (retired) who served as the Australian cricket team chaplain for 17 years (2000 ret) and established Life After Cricket in 2001. He was recognised by the Olympic Ministry Medal in 2009 presented by Carl Lewis Olympian of the Century. He mentors young writers and has written 24 books, and enjoys writing. He is married to Delma, with four adult children and grand-children.
Mark Tronson's archive of articles can be viewed at http://www.pressserviceinternational.org/mark-tronson.html