Religion as culture

For the last four years our church experience has been orthodox. For the two years or so prior to that, we were not going to church at all, and before that, we were showing up on Sundays, but fighting our urge to run away (since HS, I think). For a long time we thought that the things that kept us from fully engaging church was the particulars of the specific church we were attending. At some point we realized that while churches have issues, we were the problem. The churches were probably doing a pretty good job in their context, but we were out of context. We had a hard time adapting to church culture. This realization did two things for us. First, it relieved a lot of angst toward church in general because we could let all the churches just do what they were doing. Second, it made us aware of the cultural aspects of “church”, and we could shift our perspective a bit, and reuse some of our cross-cultural experience to move our spiritual journey forward.

Now, I know that the term culture is very broad, but the definition that I am working with here is “the knowledge and values shared by a society”. There are corporate cultures, family cultures, sub-cultures, etc., and there are also religious cultures. We realized that our quibbles with church were partly quibbles with American culture. We have chosen to “opt-out” of much of American culture (TV, consumerism, affluence), and going to church was when we were faced with that culture the most. Our choice to “opt-out” was spiritually motivated, so to go to church for fellowship and worship and feel thrown back into an environment that we have come to view as spiritually damaging for ourselves was difficult. So we stopped going. We tried to maintain our own spiritual culture at home, and in some ways succeeded. Five years ago we decided to make an effort to keep Christmas focused on giving and the Nativity. We failed. Christmas was twisted, as usual. This is what motivated a search for a church culture that would encourage us in the right direction.

That is when we started at the Orthodox Church. It is like visiting a foreign country, a cross-cultural experience. That is what made it familiar to us. It was still awkward because of the different-ness, but we did not have to fight American cultural values while trying to enter into worship. We could start as observers, and because those in the parish knew we were foreigners to this culture, they did not try to engage us in a way that would shock us. Similar to starting out in a new culture, it takes a while to get your bearings, and just be OK with how things work. This particular parish does not have many pews, but has rugs, and most stand for the entire service. So, we started off sitting on the pews, and eventually stood with everyone else. There was incense and icons, and all the speaking parts were chanted, including the reading of scripture. People were kissing icons, and anything the priest held in front of them. Everyone made the sign of the cross at certain times. Entire families were in the sanctuary for the whole service, chattering and fussing toddlers and all. The colors of the priest’s clothing and other decorative pieces changed regularly without explanation. Not a sigle musical instrument. Candles burned everywhere. Approaching it as a culture, and keeping an eye out for the subtle patterns and nuances of routine helped us know what questions to ask.

But aside from the utility of viewing a new church as a cross-cultural experience, it was the actual culture that we were engaging that attracted us. This was a culture that was informed and molded by a deep and ancient tradition of interaction and communion with God. This was not new and exciting, nor was it novel. This was not people trying too hard to be relevant. This was not somebody’s platform for selfish ambition, nor a self-help support group. This was the eternally relevant worship of the Church. We were entering into something not dependent on us, celebrated eternally. Our place as individuals, as bearers of the image and likeness of God, became more clear. This is a culture that gives the Christian a home. The Kingdom of God. It was the first time we had felt at home, even if still foreigners. As TCKs, feeling at home was a big deal. No place was ever home. And this new foreign church felt like home.