Conversion and Culture
I came away from our visit to the mission amazed at the “conversion” of the native inhabitants, not just from the worship of their own god to Catholicism, but their conversion from hunter-gatherers to farmers, from nomadic tribe to settled mission-dwellers, from native language-speakers to Spanish-speakers, from acorn-bread eaters to pozole-eaters.
And all this in just 20 years.
Though much was gained in this transition, it occurs to me that much of the richness of their culture was also unnecessarily lost. As we attempt to influence culture, bringing our particular corner of culture under the lordship of Jesus, we must constantly make decisions about which parts of that culture to redeem, and which must be discarded in our integrative efforts. These decisions are not always easy. Sometimes it seems that the easiest path is simply to throw out the tangled pieces of the “culture” we have inherited. But at what cost? Integration is as much about what we keep, recognizing the beauty, truth, and wisdom of our discipline, as it is about what we bring from our Christian resources.
Bricks and Culture
Culture is like bricklaying. In the construction of a brick building there is a structure that should emerge from the culmination and synchronization of the work and of the individual bricklayers. In the post-modern pursuit of affirming the worth of all cultures and persons there seems to be a corollary that any and all brick laying will result in an appropriate building. Criticizing or contrasting the results of one set of workers pushes the critic into the category of persona non grata. In addition, there is a difficulty in defining a rubric to evaluate the work of an individual bricklayer. Surely not all mixing of mortar, handling of brick and the technique of installation are equal.
With this in mind I willingly offer the New Testament as a guide or set of principles on which to attempt to build a building..or a culture… or subculture. The New Testament valuation of persons, possessions and the planet seem to work well. From what little I have been able to investigate over the years, there is no other worldview in which I would rather participate. The New Testament provides an understandable prescription for the purpose of an individual and the culture in which he/she lives.
My point is that it may be appropriate to discuss the work of the Franciscan fathers in Alta California in two distinct but complementary areas. As far as the Fathers were presenting the Gospel to a new people group and understanding that a conversion to a new religion often means changing ones culture, I can applaud their work, dedication and accomplishments. As to having thought out a master plan that encompassed both individuals and the surrounding culture that nurtured their faith, I can learn from their efforts. It seems modern intercultural work could learn from this holistic approach and ask why the Franciscans continue today.
But we can also examine the work of the Franciscan Fathers as individual bricklayers. Here one could compare their techniques to other mission works. At this level I would disagree with the complicated presentation of the Gospel that seems to come from the accumulated history of the Catholic Church. As a stone age Native American I would have been fascinated, overwhelmed, and inquisitive of this new religion. On one hand entering in seems simple; be baptized, receive a new name and live at the mission. On the other there are so many intricacies to be mastered to please this Christian God. Because the work of the mission could not survive a transition to another political system, the technique used may be suspect as a form of bricklaying.
This analogy comes after pondering the ruins of the mission church. I could not but help notice that part of the building survived the earthquake. What was it about the technique of the bricklayers that worked on this part of the building that gave it the ability to stand after the earth shifted? Were they better at choosing the stones in the proper size and order? Is it I or is there a slight tapering to these walls on the exterior that gave them extra strength? Does the inserting of smaller clay fired bricks to make alcoves provide a shock absorber or flexibility that is necessary?
I look forward to our further discussion of the major ideas that are indispensible to a Christian culture and can be offered as arguments as to why a Christian culture or subculture may be better than cultural systems and to the techniques that are effective in creating sustainable environments for the faith.