Weight of Culture. Weight of Truth.

I recently heard a Native American woman give a public talk describing the unique culture and history of her tribe. It was interesting, especially when she explained their religious beliefs. She said for the first 20 days after a child is born, she is kept inside with the windows shaded. Before daybreak on the 20th day, many of the paternal relatives come to name the child, and then she is brought outside at dawn to see “our father the sun” for the first time. She made clear that the tribe considered the sun a deity. She also explained the tenant of the tribe’s religious beliefs that weather patterns are a direct result of—that is, punishment or reward for—human behavior. She said if there was a drought, it was believed that people hadn’t been treating each other well, and if it rained, they had.

Much of the purpose of the talk was to foster an appreciation of cultural diversity, and I’m sure it did. To most of the suburban, white people (like me) in the audience, her descriptions of tribal lifestyles and beliefs were fascinating and exotic. Certainly the horizon of cultural awareness was broadened.

But there was an important consideration about the beliefs she described that I think was absent in most of the audience. The whole thing about the sun being our father, and weather patterns being the direct result of human behavior is really interesting, and certainly “diverse” from most Americans’ worldview, but it seems that very few people were concerned with the question of whether or not it’s all true. And I write this mainly because I think the intended audience response to the woman’s talk is characteristic of American pop culture as a whole.

I’m afraid the moon of “diversity” has eclipsed the sun of truth. If one holds that being a part of a culture is of the utmost value and follows the appreciation of that culture from those in and outside, it is the utmost virtue. I hope I’m not being too culturally insensitive in saying that culture can easily be over-deified by those who reverence no deity.

Obviously, if one disagrees with the beliefs of a certain culture, it is never acceptable to express this through degradation and disrespect; no matter how much people disagree—we all know that’s the wrong approach. But aside from all the emphasis on cultural diversity, doesn’t anyone care about what’s actually true and false anymore? I love black-eyed peas, fried okra, sweet tea and thick humid nights. These are central to the Southern culture in which I was raised. I appreciate them and hope others outside the South will too. But racism was also a central part of my culture, and I don’t appreciate that. On this point, truth and justice are much weightier than culture. The hard part is that many times certain moral and religious beliefs are so deeply intertwined with culture.

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I suppose it would be hard to be an accepted member of this particular group if one rejects the idea that the sun is our father. I know it is hard, in many circles at least, to be an accepted member of Southern culture if you think (like I do) the idea that whites are superior to blacks is a ferociously idiotic and immoral one. Once, when I argued against racism with someone back home, I was actually told, “But you’re a Southerner, and this is what Southerners believe!”

It’s true that I’m a Southerner. It’s also true that I’m white and was born in the ‘70s. But these aspects of my identity lost all their weight—lost all their imperative allegiance—when I became a Christian. It seems to me that all other aspects of one’s identity are pebbles—perhaps grains of sand—lying at the bottom of the mountain of Truth (A.K.A Christ). “Who are my mother and brothers?” He asked. What an outrageous questioning of allegiance! Can’t we ask in the same vein, “What is my culture?”

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