Saturday, January 19, 2008

Valid Cultures

Magazine-Editor-Jim, one of our Starbucks customers, has gone out on a limb and recruited me to write an article for New England Condominium. This is daring of him because I have never written a commissioned article (let alone conducted an interview) in my life. And although he has maybe visited my blog occasionally, experientially all he really knows I can do is give him his daily grande coffee.

Yesterday I headed out to Concord, Massachusetts, about which this article is supposed to be. (And can I just say that I think that the fact there is a Thoreau Shopping Center is one of the most hilarious pieces of irony I've run across in a long while? I didn't see it, but I did see a sign for it.) Apart from the fact that I'm having a rerun of my New Year's Cold and so my head felt like someone was gripping it in a vice all day, it was quite a lovely little outing. The early morning slush-pelting had stopped, the sky had given way to blue and the temperatures had given way to 40. I visited shops, had a heart-warming (and maybe -stopping, but whatever) bowl of clam chowder at a local eatery, and I visited the Concord Museum.

Even though I was writing about living in Concord now, and the museum was about what Concord was famous for a long time ago, that visit was probably the most helpful for my article. But in one room, I saw something that gave me pause. And then made me a little angry, in two apparently opposing ways.

Of course in Concord, as in other parts of New England, there lived a tribe of Algonkians before the English settlers arrived. At some point (I'm sure after Concord was incorporated as a Puritan town), a missionary named John Eliot began to make inroads into the Algonkian population. A number of them became Christians (and were known as the "Praying Indians"), but they also were rejected by their "non-praying" cultural counterparts. Turns out, though, that their supposedly Christian brethren rejected them, too. The Puritans in Concord were afraid that the angry unconverted Algonkians, who were ravaging English settlements during King Philip's War, were going to attack them, too. So even though the Praying Indians were fighting on the side of the English, these Puritans sent their local Praying Indians off to a little island where many of them died.

I think I learned all this stuff once, but I had not thought about it in some time, and I read it with horror and found myself utterly infuriated. What right do we, as Christians, have to make our ethnicity of greater importance than our family-hood in Christ? How is it that we can imagine that Jesus does not transcend all that? Or that He won't call us to account for betraying His children that way? I think we still do it, when we forget the Persecuted Church or imagine the culmination of history and return of Christ is dependent solely on American or Western history and experience. It made me want to scream. Or cry, or something.

Then I read the next set of placards and felt like screaming again, for the opposite reason. This was set up as a sort of board-book and written in a somewhat condescending manner, as if by someone who does not really understand children. The text was in question-and-answer format. It delineated certain native customs which the Puritans were outlawing among the Indian converts. Then it said something like, "Why do you think the Puritans wanted to keep the Indians from performing their ancient rituals?" (for example). After you turned to the next board--well, what do you know? Apparently "The Puritans didn't think that other cultures were valid. They wanted to make everybody just like them." (I am not quoting verbatim, here, but if you doubt that I'm getting the basic spirit of this, you can just go visit the museum yourself.) At some point there was some dismissive mention of a belief in devil-worship.

Okay, look, guys. Puritans have a somewhat, er, puritanical reputation for a reason. The witch trials were a travesty. Also "American literature" from that time period is really boring. There were a lot of things wrong, I fully admit it. I just don't think it's fair for someone who obviously has no sympathy for a particular group of people to assume they know why that group did something, and then to present it to the general public. A lot of cultural desecration has happened in the name of Christ, and I don't want to try to justify it. I'm sure many of the laws the Puritans set down for the Praying Indians were condescending and culturally insensitive and arbitrary.

But the writers at the Concord Museum have conveniently ignored the fact that John Eliot, for one, was being as culturally sensitive as he, in his day, knew how, and that he loved these people and wanted them to know the salvation of trusting in Jesus. They don't take into account the idea that, for Christians, Jesus must take precedence over everything, and that even though for the most part we mess that up and assume Jesus to want certain things He probably doesn't, some cultural practices (like worship of natural spirits--or betraying a group of people because they're browner than you are) really do have to go. Some things do have to be renounced. Undoubtedly the Puritans didn't renounce everything they should have. But I do feel a case could be made for at least the above question, as follows:

The Praying Indians had dedicated themselves to Christ.
The Bible says that communing with spirits other than God is forbidden.
The Puritans (and presumably their Praying Indian counterparts) believed the Bible was truly inspired by God.
The Puritans wanted to help the Praying Indians to obey God, and not to be in contact with demons. So they forbade the use of powwows.

Maybe there was a better way for them to have gone about this. Maybe some of them were racist. But I don't think it's very helpful to assume such things. It's like assuming we have the only valid culture, or something. Sometimes I wish people would recognise that true diversity requires listening to what Christians have to say, too.

Happy Martin Luther King weekend, everybody!


Scott said...

congratulations on getting the commissioned assignment and may your words bring many on their knees to Christ.

Jenn said...

Thanks, Scott. The topic of the article wasn't broad enough to include this rant (which is probably good, because I'll bet I'd never be asked to write an article for these guys again if it were), but thanks for the thoughts.

Annelise said...

Great blog. And if you want to read more about one of my favourite people, John Eliot, I have an extremely well-written biography sitting on a shelf in my bedroom (top shelf maybe?)! Help yourself! Did we ever take you to the graveyard of the praying Indians in Grafton? It's on route 122 if you are ever over that way.

Annelise said...

I don't know if the museum indicated that John Eliot actually translated portions (at least) of the Bible into the Indians' language--which would have been fairly revolutionary at the time. I think there is something about this in the Old Sturbridge Village museum.

heather a. goodman said...

Sounds like you have a balanced approached to not justifying actions but understanding from their perspective how best to handle a situation.
I think we learn this in stages. Much like a missionary acclamating to a new culture: you think everything you do is right. Then you think that everything that's been done is wrong. Then you move to a stage of understanding that there's a balance.
Sidenote: Thoreau's Shopping Center is one log cabin in the middle of the woods selling axes. No, selling metal to make your won axes ;)

Jenn said...

Thank you for a thoughtful entry on a topic that can often be muddled with less-than-thoughtful rhetoric. Real answers are often way more complicated than the simplistic ones culture offers.