My Doxology is Better than Yours (Part 1): How Cultural Threats Divide Us

My friend Randy is a math professor at an evangelical Christian college. In many ways he holds to the math professor stereotype: white-haired, intelligent, respectable and a little stodgy.  However, he is unique in that he begins every math class session by leading his students in a rousing rendition of one of the old European church hymns. This practice stems from Randy’s sincere love for hymns, as well as his belief that many young Christians possess inaccurate theology. He is remedying this problem one class session at a time by teaching his students accurate theology via hymns. Not long ago, Randy invited ten of his students over to his house for dinner. Before the meal commenced, he attempted to lead the students in the Doxology (“Praise God, From Whom All Blessings Flow”) that is most often used in his conservative, Eurocentric faith tradition. Much to his shock and dismay, he discovered that only one of his ten students knew the words to the brief hymn. He responded by interrogating them on which churches they attended and how they had missed learning this important piece of the Christian faith.  He then sent me and a few others a forceful e-mail demanding to know whether “this lack of knowledge represents an institutional problem for [his Christian college]? A problem for the Christian Church? A problem for both?”  He literally believed that his students’ unfamiliarity with an old, Eurocentric hymn posed a threat not only to his particular Christian college but also to the worldwide church! Further, he also believed that the threat warranted an antagonistic response.

Randy missed an opportunity for cross-cultural sharing, failed to capitalize on the group’s diversity, and allowed a simple cultural difference to separate him from others. Rather than graciously sharing his pre-dinner prayer tradition with the students and then inviting them to respond by sharing their own traditions, he put his students at arm’s length because they were unwilling or unable to assimilate to his culture.  This story illustrates a simple fact: we don’t like different people because they threaten our group culture.

Cultural threats are experienced when members of the ingroup believe that their system of values is being undermined by an outgroup.  According to integrated threat theory[i] the more group members perceive a difference between the ingroup and the outgroup on valued traits, the more likely they are to be threatened by them. When they feel threatened, they respond with hostility.  Michael Zarate and others[ii] studied cultural threats in the context of immigration and found that when an individual feels that his or her culture is threatened by immigrants, that person responds more negatively towards that group. The researchers found that when participants were asked to consider the mere possibility of sharing a community with immigrants who differed in language and interpersonal style, the participants felt threatened and responded with negative emotions.  However, when they were asked to consider the possibility of sharing a community with immigrants who possessed the same language and interpersonal style, the participants were not at all threatened and did not respond negatively. Interestingly, we often find acceptable channels through which we can express our hostility. In this case, individuals might take political action against immigration when in fact, they have little problem with immigration per se. They simply have a problem with immigration when it involves people who are different than them.

If we’re honest with ourselves we can see that we’re not much different than Randy the Hymn Lover or the participants in the cultural threat study. We love the idea of unity in the body of Christ across ethnic, linguistic and socio-economic lines but only if we share beliefs and practices with the other group. We don’t want to change the way that we worship. We don’t want to re-consider the Scriptural principles that our culture tends to emphasize or ignore. We don’t want to listen to sermons from people who hail from a different culture because we don’t get as much mileage out of their sermon anecdotes and examples.  As soon as unity requires that re-consider how we think about faith or how we express faith, we stall.  Further, if we’re not careful, the mere existence of cultural difference can provoke hostility towards the other group.

Why are cultural threats so threatening?  I believe that there are three reasons (as well as one complication stemming from the fact that culture and religion are often intertwined and easily confused) that I’ll cover in the next few posts. Oh, and I’ll talk about steps we can take to stop idolizing our own culture and start embracing others.

[i] Stephan, Ybarra, Martinez, Schwarzwald, & Tur-Kaspa (1998

[ii] Zarate, Garcia, Garza & Hitland (2004)