Language is perhaps the most frustrating shock. People seem to be talking at machine gun pace.
They run their words together and use confusing idioms. An Indian student spoke of disembarking from the ship in New York to be greeted by signs saying “hot dog.” He said, “I knew what ‘hot’ meant, I knew what ‘dog’ meant, and I got sick.”
Food is different and seems either too bland or too hot, depending on one’s taste. Difficulty in the use of eating utensils, chopsticks, silverware, or the graceful use of fingers can be embarrassing. Shifting to an unfamiliar educational system can be a difficult experience with its variation in examination and assignment procedures as well as its overall approach to the educational enterprise.
Cultural differences involving personal relationships and social graces are more subtle in their nuances but cause insecurity until their complexities are fathomed. Friendship and family patterns are often completely different, as are such little matters as whether to open a gift when it is received or wait until one is alone. Customs vary as to how best to compliment a hostess on her meal. The essence of politeness in one culture is sometimes vulgar in another.
These all combine to make one feel obvious and looked-at when he crosses into a different culture. One realizes for the first time how much he is a product of his own culture and how different other customs and cultures are.
But there are other things that do not change by crossing the border. They are transcultural. Loneliness is exactly the fame feeling in Brazzaville as in Boston. Fear is the same in Chicago or Calcutta. Grief over the death of a loved one is the same everywhere. These feelings do not vary with the color of our skin or the way we dress or eat our food. They are common to us as fellow members of the human race, completely apart from our cultural background. These common human experiences show us that we are much more alike than we are different because of superficial cultural differences. One time after hearing a baby cry, a Japanese professor friend of mine exclaimed with a smile, “Universal language!” Christianity is transcultural because it speaks to our universal humanity.
Unfortunately, many aspects of Western culture have insinuated themselves into Christianity. Western architecture, clothing, music, and customs, like church services at 11:00 am on Sunday morning, have helped to convey the erroneous idea that Christianity is inherently a religion of the West and of the white man.
It must be admitted that many have naively imposed Western culture patterns on Christianity and attempted to equate them. But these culture patterns are not an integral part of Christianity and must be clearly distinguished from the essence of Christianity itself. There may be no inherent cultural, political, economic, or social system in Christianity.
This is an important realization. An overseas friend bitterly said to me one day, “You in America want us to become Christians in my country so we will be a democracy. I don’t believe that democracy is the answer for our country. Socialism is a much better solution for our problems.” It was several weeks before he came to see that “the American way of life” and democracy are not a necessary part of Christianity.
Christianity has greatly influenced Western and American culture, but it is not coterminous with it. Neither America nor any other Western nation is really a Christian nation in the terms that Jesus Christ defined Christianity. Ours is a basically materialist society where lip service is paid to God on Sunday and “In God we trust” is put on our coins. As a nation, however, we live as practical atheists with material considerations, refusing God control of our everyday lives. Christianity has had impact in every kind of economic and political system and was actually born in a territory occupied by a totalitarian Roman government.
Christianity in Jesus Christ is transcultural because He touches our lives at precisely those points which are the same for every human being around the world, regardless of his cultural milieu. Loneliness, guilt, lack of purpose, insecurity, inner turmoil, fear of death, anxiety, incompleteness, frustration, and boredom are but a few of the experiences common to human existence. Jesus Christ offers a dynamic solution to these problems by providing a radical cure for the mortal disease of which these problems are merely symptoms.
His diagnosis of the disease that is common to every human being is rebellion and indifference toward God, our creator. He created us to function properly in a particular relationship with Himself, one in which we eagerly give Him control of our lives. We, in a sense, are like automobiles which are created to function properly only when an intelligent, sober driver is behind the wheel.
Under these circumstances, an automobile is an instrument of tremendous usefulness and pleasure. However, if an automobile is taken to the top of a hill, has its break released and is given a gentle shove, it is free only to careen wildly down the hill, crashing into anything in its path and ending battered at the bottom of the hill. It inflicts damage and destruction on anything in its path.
This is because the automobile was not created to operate without control. We function properly as human beings personally in relation to each other only when God is in the driver’s seat of our lives and in control. Having pushed Him out of our lives, consciously or unconsciously, we have become separated from Him. This is the source of all our problems.
This basic disease of rebellion is called sin by Jesus Christ. Its symptoms vary with different people even though the disease is universal. Lying, stealing, immorality, as well as the more refined sins of the spirit like pride, lust, greed, envy, and jealousy, are all symptoms of the disease. Because of the inner corruption of which we are all aware, we are separated from God who is infinitely holy and pure. Just as light immediately destroys darkness and the two cannot coexist, so the blazing purity of God consumes evil and impurity. We cannot as sinful people exist in His presence, defiled as we are.
Jesus Christ not only diagnosed our problem (and it is all humanity’s problem too), but He has given us a dynamic cure. He came into human history to make it possible for us to be cleansed, forgiven and reconciled to our creator and given power to live a new life. He did this by voluntarily dying in our place on a cross, thereby taking the sentence of death that God had passed on all those who had violated his moral law.
Peter, the great apostle, puts it this way: “Christ also has once suffered for sin, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God” (I Peter 3:18). St. Paul said, “He made him [Christ] to be sin for us who knew no sin that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (II Corinthians 5:21).
Claim And Credentials
This is possible only because of who Jesus Christ is. He claimed deity very clearly. His claim was so clear that He was accused of blasphemy by the Jewish people. They said, “We have a law and by our law he ought to die because as a man he claims to be God” (John 5:18). Since they were an occupied country without the power of criminal punishment they handed Him over to the Roman government.
The Roman governor, Pilate, who comes down through history as one of the world’s greatest vacillators, allowed Jesus Christ to be killed on a cross even though he believed Him to be innocent. It all came about because He claimed to be God. Not only did Christ make the claim, but He brought the credentials to substantiate this claim. Five times during the course of His life He predicted He would die but rise from the dead three days later. Even His followers did not take this claim seriously—but they were revolutionized when He rose from the dead and appeared to them, not as a ghost but as a person who could be touched, talked to, and who took food (Luke 24:42).
How does Jesus Christ become meaningful in personal experience as the cure for the dread disease of sin with all its symptoms? There is confusion about this and many mistakenly think one becomes a Christian by some external act, such as joining a church, being born into a Christian family, or participating in a Christian ritual like baptism or communion. These are things a Christian does, but this is not how one becomes a Christian. The clearest statement as to how one becomes a Christian is in John 1:12. “As many as received him [Christ] to them gave he the power to become the children of God, even to them that believe in his name.” The three operate verbs are believe, receive, become.
The New Testament uses the illustration of marriage to explain what it means to be a Christian and how we become one. Applying these principles to marriage, we can see the parallel in becoming a Christian. One may intensely believe in a particular fellow or girl as to their integrity, beauty, ability, etc. This, however, does not make them married. They may also have a strong emotional attraction. This is good but still does not produce marriage. Only when they commit their wills and mutually receive one another into their lives do they become married. Marriage takes place when one person believes in another person, then receives that person into his life. By this he becomes married. Marriage is a relationship, not a mental belief.
Similarly, in becoming a Christian one first believes that Jesus Christ spoke the truth about His identity as the God-man; His diagnosis of us as defiled, rebellious sinners; His death for our sin in our place so that we might freely have forgiveness, salvation and new life as a free gift if we will receive it; His resurrection from the dead and that He is living today and powerful to enter the life of any person who will invite Christ into his life.
Having believed these things, we must then receive Him into our lives personally; only then do we become children of God. We believe Him, receive Him and so become a Christian. In becoming a Christian, there is something to be believed and Someone to be received. Failure to realize and act on both aspects of establishing this relationship can lead to confusion and disillusionment. Many professing Christians to whom Christianity means very little are like a fellow who says, “I believe in marriage. I’m sold on marriage. I’ve read books on marriage and I’ve even gone to a lot of weddings but it’s funny, marriage doesn’t mean a thing to me.” The reason is very simple. He is not married. Marriage is a relationship, not a philosophy; and the same is true of Christianity.
There is one other parallel between becoming a Christian and marriage. In order to have a successful marriage, one must give up his independence and enter into a consultative relationship about every area of life with the person to whom he is married. It is like this in becoming a Christian too. Since it is a personal relationship with Jesus Christ once must be willing to give up his independence (which is the essence of sin) and become dependent on Jesus Christ, entering into a consultative relationship with Him about every aspects of life.
How then do we actually receive Jesus Christ? In Revelation 3:20, Christ compares our life to a house. He says, “Behold I stand at the door and knock. If any man hears my voice and opens the door I will come in to him and eat with him and he with me.” Just as we get someone inside our room when there is a knock at the door by opening the door and inviting the person to come in, we receive Jesus Christ by recognizing He is standing outside the door of our life and by inviting Him into our life in our own words, thanking Him for dying for us, and committing our lives to Him.
From the forgoing it is obvious that becoming a Christian is something that is internal and personal. For this reason it is impossible to bribe or force a person to become a Christian. A profession of faith made for those or other inadequate motivations is false and worthless. Christianity in Jesus Christ meets us at our points of deepest need as human beings. These needs are not the result of our cultural background but come from our membership in the human family.