Though I was born and raised in a small agricultural community in northwest Mississippi, some may doubt my southern roots when they learn that I’ve never been to a county fair. I’ve never risked my life on a thrill ride that fits onto an 18-wheeler, never entered a farm animal into a competition, and never ridden a mechanical bull. I can’t see myself doing any of those things, ever.
But if I did go to a county fair, one thing I know I would do is enjoy the many deep fried delicacies. I’m not referring to potatoes or even pickles, but to things like fried Hershey bars, Oreo cookies, and blocks of butter. These treats are sweet to the tongue but sour on the stomach. They are so delicious that you can’t help but finish them and seek more, but they soon turn into lead balls in your belly and wreak intestinal havoc. Only time and liters of water can help the trials pass.
Neither of my grade school boys share my affection for deep fried delights, not even the savory varieties. Recently I attempted to surprise them with an unhealthy treat for dinner: fried chicken. As I ripped into a chicken leg that dripped with greasy goodness, my boys removed all of the skin and breading and pulled the meat from the bone. “I don’t like all that crunchy stuff, Dad. It’s too drippy with grease.” I was simultaneously proud and disappointed. That they prefer healthier foods is great, but I hate for them to lose a crucial part of their southern heritage. If they give up fried chicken now, they may give up sweet tea and watching college football tomorrow.
I confess my high level of ignorance when it comes to any Canadian cultural distinctives y’all have (that is, those of you who are Canadian1). Most of what I know about Canada I learned from Martin Short in that quirky tourism film y’all put on at Epcot in Walt Disney World. I’ll bet you a toonie there is more to Canadian culture than ice hockey, a two-four of Molson, Celine Dion, money that looks like it belongs in a board game, maple leaves, and Justin Bieber.2
I also imagine that in the same way I am grateful for my southern heritage, Canadians are grateful for theirs. When my wife and I got married 14 years ago, we were willing to live anywhere, but we preferred to root, bloom, and produce fruit in the South. We desired to go to restaurants that served sweet tea. We wanted Yankees to be the ones with funny accents. We hoped to use phrases like “I used ta could” or “I am fixin’ to do it” and not be questioned about our command of the English language. We sought the surroundings of hospitable, hard-working, kind and patriotic people who usually did the right thing just because you’re supposed to.
But the American south, not unlike the frozen tundra that is Canada, has more than its fair share of cultural qualities that I, as a follower of Jesus, am not thrilled about. Take southern hospitality. When I talk with Yankees who are on vacation or have just moved down here, they almost always say, “Everyone is so nice.” Of course we are. But they don’t know what we may really be thinking. We may simply be keeping the peace, telling ourselves how much better we are than them so that we’ll be nice to them and they will think highly of us. If we’ve ever said, “Bless your heart” to you, we’re glad you felt better about whatever stupid thing you did, but that was really our way of saying, “We’re so much better than you! Aren’t you thankful for how kindly we have expressed our superiority?”
Isn’t it fascinating that a culturally ingrained commitment to kindness can also produce a sense of moral superiority over the person you are being kind towards? It’s moments like these that led me to explore the relationship between the cultural behaviors and habits I have and my faith in Jesus. What I’m discovering is that distinguishing between the seed of the gospel and the soil of the culture in which the gospel seed is planted can be a difficult task in cultures that are, by and large, moral.
Kind of like the American south.
Kind of like parts of Canada, eh?
So the trick in living as a Christian, then, is to separate our faith from those parts of our culture that taint it without a harsh disregard for the gift of the culture God put us in. There will always be things associated with our culture to peel away because they distract us from the gospel or distort our message to a lost world. There are also things about our culture that make us who we are and are God’s gifts to us to use for the expansion of His kingdom. The more we grow in our love for Jesus, the more we will see where to be more like our culture because it helps and less like it because it hinders.
Today’s post is by Rob Tims. Rob is the author of Southern Fried Faith: Confusing Christ and Culture in the Bible Belt. He blogs at SouthernFriedFaith.com. You can follow him there and on twitter @robertltjr.