Conversion to a New Culture

For some years I have been saying to anyone who will listen that the Bible, and specifically the Torah, is a cultural manual for God’s people. If Christianity is inherently communal (and it is), then Scripture provides the outline for the culture that is to form and to characterize Christian communities.

It is encouraging, therefore, to read other believers discovering some of the same truths. This is an excerpt from an excellent book I’m reading right now titled, Inhabiting the Church: Biblical Wisdom for a New Monasticism.

John Alexander, who was for many years the pastor of the Church of the Sojourners community in San Francisco, once wrote an essay that he called the “Apache Document,” proposing this scenario to his readers:

Suppose a white person went to Arizona for a weekend and came back saying he’d become an Apache. He still talked the same, he still lived in the same place, he still related to nature the same way, he still talked to everyone he saw, and he didn’t spend much time with Apaches. The only change you could see was that he wore buckskin Sunday mornings and went around telling people he’d become an Apache.

What would you think? I’d think it was odd. I’d suspect he hadn’t joined the Apache tribe in any meaningful sense.*

Alexander’s point, of course, was that we don’t usually think about conversion as joining a tribe. Yes, we talk a good bit about conversion. And, yes, most Christians learn how to look like a Christian on Sunday mornings. But there is little evidence that most of American Christianity actually believes that the gospel offers us a new culture–a new ethnic identity in our sea of multiculturalism.

But if God really has made us part of a holy people, then we have been baptized into a new family whose way of living calls into question all the practices of our different cultures. This is not to say that black Christians have to become white or that Latinos need to act black, but rather that black, white, and Latino must become Christian. First Christian, then white. First Christian, then black. First Christian, then Latino. For Christianity is a culture–a set of beliefs and stories and practices that shapes our vision of the world around us and the decisions we make about ways to act in the world. Christianity is not a culture wholly incompatible with black culture or with white American culture, with Hindu culture or with Arabic culture. But it is a culture that calls every human practice into question.**

Like I was saying the other day, the Gospel is designed to permeate every fiber of our being and to transform us; from the way we talk to the way we think, from the way we eat to the way plan.


*Alexander, “On Becoming an Apache.”

**Wilson-Hartgrove, Jonothan, “Conversion” – an essay in the book Inhabiting the Church: Biblical Wisdom for a New Monasticism by Jon Stock, Tim Otto and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove

11 thoughts on “Conversion to a New Culture

  1. Hello Nate,

    One of the issues that I have with Torah observance is that the Torah itself does not relate to our Western-American culture. One area of divergence, for example, is sexual ethics. The Torah relates to a patriarchally-aligned society in which a wife is acquired through a financial transaction with her father. Additionally, the Torah judges sleeping with a niddah a more heinous crime (resulting in being cut off) than adultery between a slave owner and a married slave (resulting in a korban chatat). Such details and others from the various voices of the Torah make it clear that women are deemed as property like land or cattle.

    I doubt, for one, that a monolithic “Torah culture” ever existed as I consider the Torah to be a collection of multiple legal and narrative voices evidencing multiple milieus at different eras and settings (Monarchial, Exilic, Post-Exilic). The Holiness Code, for example, I believe is an Exilic allopatric composition later accepted and redacted posthumously in the Levant. Its compulsion for ritual and ethnic purity suggests a setting of unredressed identity diffusion against which the authors were throwing up a wall of purity precepts.

    A return to “Torah culture” would be a step back for women, gays, lesbians, and any married man who did not purchase his woman from the patriarch.

  2. For refutation of the Documentary Hypothesis see the writings of U. Cassuto among others. Since I categorically reject the idea and believe that the Torah was authored by Moses with perhaps some sections appended by Joshua, I don’t intend to discuss variations of JEDP here.

    As for the Torah indicating that women is property this is a misunderstanding and misapplication of the its principles. You make the mistake above of interpreting against the milieu of 21st century Western society, while to understand the Torah’s rulings one must juxtapose it with the contemporary cultures of the ANE. This is a simple mistake, Peter, I’m surprised you’ve been taken in by modern, liberal rhetoric of this sort.

    The degree to which a Torah culture has ever existed is impossible to know. Whether a monolithic one ever persisted is doubtful. Although, Joshua does confirm for us that while Joshua and the other elders lived, the people of Israel “served the LORD,” which indicates to me that the culture was taken on. As you know, the shaping of culture is an evolutionary process. Clearly, however, Torah has indelibly marked the culture of both Jewish and Christian history.

    Indeed, a perfectly realized Torah culture will not occur till Messiah’s return, but that does not negate the validity of the goal.

  3. Peter,

    Forgot one other thing…

    The idea that Torah does not relate to Western-American culture, if accepted, is a problem that relates to the entire Bible, not just to the Torah.

    In reality the geographic, cultural and chronological distance between the post-modern North American landscape and the Bible is nothing more than a hermeneutic challenge.

    The principles of hermeneutics then will define legitimate and illegitimate interpretations (which hermeneutic is a separate question).

    What the multi-layered distance between today and yesterday mandates is that halacha must be a living, breathing corpus.

  4. A quote from N.T. Wright seems appropriate here:

    “Reality as we know it is the result of a creator god bringing into being a world that is other than himself, and yet which is full of his glory. It was always the intention of this god that creation should one day be flooded with his own life, in a way for which it was prepared from the beginning. As part of the means to this end, the creator brought into being a creature which, by bearing the creator’s image, would bring his wise and loving care to bear upon the creation. By a tragic irony, the creature in question has rebelled against this intention. But the creator has solved this problem in principle in an entirely appropriate way, and as a result is now moving the creation once more toward its originally intended goal. The implementation of this solution now involves the indwelling of this god within his human creatures and ultimately within the whole creation, transforming it into that for which it was made in the beginning.” pg 97-98 The New Testament and the People of God

  5. first, just to clarify, this is differnt Peter making a comment…

    anyway, Nate, i think you raise a good point. i too was very interested in what Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove had to say. in fact, i bought two of his books and then talked with him via email quite a few times. my take away was that many of the things that are happening at Rutba House are incredible.

    there is no question that the communal living they have in great. but i dont think its the only way we can have true community. with that said, there is nothing wrong with choosing that way either. my concern, however, with the New Monastic movement in general is where its focus is.

    you see, from my personal experience and reading the books and seeing those who they are modeling themselves after, it is really more “Roman Catholic” than “Hebraic”. the problem with this, to my mind, is not because Hebraic means something holy and Roman Catholic doesnt, but because in this case, it means praying to Mary and even Thomas Merton (i am not kidding on that one, Wilson-Hartgrove literally was talking about praying to Thomas Merton through his friend Jim Douglass) and other stuff that i dont think is good tradition.

    in fact, in a Hebraic world, this would be considered breaking the commandments. not only “graven images” but also “you shall have no other gods”.

    so that is why i think its important to have some balance when engaging into new movements.


  6. Hello Nate,

    I recently read U. Cassuto’s The Documentary Hypothesis. Though I do agree with Cassuto that several aspects of the JEDP version of the hypothesis are overly simplistic, I do not doubt that the Pentateuch is polygraphic. Rethinking the Pentateuch by Campbell and O’Brien is an innovative approach to the multiple voices in the text. I prever the approach to the Pentateuch provided by these authors. I have also benefited from Milgrom’s approach to this topic as given in his Anchor Bible commentary on Leviticus.

    Yes, Torah relates to ANE cultures. This was one of my points. It is the relationship of Torah to the ANE that antiquates much of its legislation and legal principles. It would be unhealthy to construct community based on cultures alien to our contemporary zeitghiest. I think, frankly, that it is impossible to have such community without ignoring aspects of the Torah that are obviously archaic and irrelevant, yet, by selective handling of the Torah, the community would not be formally a Torah culture. Such a community would simply become a subculture of “in-group” morality and “out-group” exclusivity with identity norms selected from an ANE document.

  7. Peter S.,

    I appreciate Milgrom for many reasons but his views on source development are not one of them.

    I could argue with your assertion regarding the irrelevance of Torah in many ways, but the proof is in the pudding. We have a community here without an “in-group/out-group” mentality that bases its practice on the commands of Scripture, while remaining pertinent to a mostly post-modern, mostly post-Christian North American society. And it is growing and attracting those who have no background in Torah. I cannot refute the work of God in our midst.

    We are, of course, learning as we go and modifying as the Spirit teaches us, but the words of Scripture remain our plumb line and the traditions of believers over the centuries aid us in walking the straight path.

  8. Peter B. (is that accurate?),

    Interesting info about Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. I will try to confirm with him what the deal is with that. However, even if he has been misled in regard to some things, there is no denying much of the truth that God has led him into as well.

    I have personally witnessed more of a willingness to pull from both Hebraic and RC (and other) strains than an enchantment with the RC among the emergent and New Monasticism folks, but it is indeed possible that they could swallow some chaff with the wheat.

    Of course, the Rutba House manner of community isn’t the model we should emulate, but as you say they have stumbled on quite a few positive things.

    I hear you loud and clear about balance, in fact, I am constantly talking about the willingness to live in tension that is required of maturing people.

  9. “A return to “Torah culture” would be a step back for women, gays, lesbians, and any married man who did not purchase his woman from the patriarch.”

    Women have it made today, I suppose is the message we are to get from this quote?

    So a woman today has it made does she when her husband decides he wants another woman and either finds it while he is with her, or leaves her easily by divorce to move onto the next woman. Many a woman would have traded a secure life of a binding contract with penalties, instead of being a freebie in today’s world in which a man has adultery with no penalty.

    Secondly, why mention only the gays and lesbians? What about the pedofiles? Aren’t they born that way too, with their own desires becoming evident as they sexually mature as a teen and find they are attracted to children? I suppose next in our society we will see the pedofile lifestyle portrayed as healthy family life.

  10. for all those out there,

    sorry if i sounded too negative about the rutba house. i think what theyre doing is great. i love the willingness to live among the poor and live together in community and live a disciplined life, etc. great stuff.

    but like with anyone or any organization, there are things i disagree with. that it all i meant to come across with.


  11. Peter B (and anyone else interested),

    I communicated with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove regarding praying to Thomas Merton and his answer satisfied me that he is thinking about the idea of the communion of the saints in a balanced fashion.

    To me this is a great example of how careful we need to be in making assumptions about what people personally believe. While I think most who read this blog would agree that the RC church has some significant theological problems, that doesn’t mean that one can’t glean some great insights from Catholic believers.

    On the other hand, those of us who are willing to try and winnow the wheat from the chaff are going to be attacked by zealots thinking they speak with God’s voice. People who mistake their limited understanding for the narrow way that leads to God.

    Peter B, please know that I didn’t find your post about Jonathan to fit in that category at all, but am speaking more generally now.

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