Saturday, January 15, 2022

Melody's 2021 Reading: Cultural Differences

 Instead of taking you through the various genres of fiction I read this year (fantasy, contemporary, and some magical realism, most of it YA), I wanted to share some notes related to the winner of the Non-Fiction Bronze award, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes. Since reading that book, I've been keeping an eye out for narrative examples that illuminate the cultural differences discussed in Misreading Scripture. (You may also notice some tie-in with the winner of the Non-Fiction Gold award, The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, which investigates the origin of our western obsession with identity. Yep. That obsession, common to westerners both Christians and non-, has an origin story; it's not inherent.)

One of the main points of Misreading Scripture is that for each person, there are many cultural things that "go without saying." We don't even know that we believe them, because they feel inherent. And when something feels inherent, it's hard to get your head around something else. Novels are a way to make that easier. But first, a glossary of the cultures that have recently caught my attention.

  • Others-Focused
    • Honor/Shame Culture - A culture where you make choices based on what others will think. This sounds inherently bad to those in the west, but it's actually the culture of "Bible-times." (The authors of Misreading Scripture do an excellent breakdown of this culture by analyzing the story of David and Bathsheba through this lens.)
    • Collectivist Culture - A culture that places high value on selflessness, family, community, and cooperation.
  • Self-Focused
    • Individualist Culture - A culture that places high value on self-sufficiency, uniqueness, autonomy, and independence.
    • Guilt Culture - A culture where you make choices based on internal guilt or lack thereof (aka that Jiminy Cricket "conscience"). This sounds inherently good to those in the west, but that's because it is one of those "goes without saying" things that we've grown up with.
(I'm not an expert. You can find better and more scholarly definitions and examples on the internet.)

I want to note something important: none of these cultures are inherently bad or good, better or worse. They all come with pros and cons, and God can use any of them to build relationship with people and bring His Kingdom to earth. Just to set your mind at ease, I'll note as examples that a Christian's orthodox requirement of personal salvation is a feature of self-focused culture...and a Christian's orthodox commitment to helping the poor is a feature of others-focused culture.

Given that there is some good in these cultures, and given that they are incredibly foreign to me (how can one live a godly life without a personal sense of right/wrong?!), I've found that novels are particularly useful in examining how these cultures operate in real life, and I'd like to share a few on my 2021 reads with you in that context.

A Pho Love Story, by Loan Le, is exactly the delicious teen romance you'd expect from the title, but I found myself fascinated with the characters' coming-of-age journey. Both characters are children of immigrants, and their coming-of-age is truly about their movement from a culture where others tell you who you are (others-focused) to a culture we Americans are more familiar with, where you tell others who you are (self-focused). (Americans, if you haven't figured it out, are very into self-defined identities. Yay, individualism!)

Thorn and Theft of Sunlight, by Intisar Khanani take place within a strong honor/shame culture. I wouldn't have noticed it if I hadn't been looking for it, but the characters frequently base what is honorable (or not) on the opinions of those they respect, instead of internal conscience. If you're trying to understand how an honor/shame culture--the culture of both the Old and New Testament--operates for good, these books are a great place to start.

Concrete Rose, by Angie Thomas, captures an others-focused culture in which the characters make their decisions based on the good of others. It's another coming-of-age story, but this time, it's not about finding out how you self-identify, it's about accepting the mentoring of those who have gone before, making them proud, and creating a future in which others will thrive.

Vow of Thieves (sequel to Dance of Thieves), by Mary E. Pearson, was a re-read for me this year, but it still counts. It provides a great example of an others-focused culture, as characters derive their motivation from familial bonds (collectivism) and vows made (honor/shame).

It's much less interesting to share with you the self-focused stories I read this year, but here are a few:
  • All the Harry Potter books, by J. K. Rowling, take place in an individualistic culture. They address questions such as, "Who am I?" and "Why am I here?"
  • Snow Like Ashes, by Sara Raasch is all about the discovery of your true identity...after having been lied to about it for years and years.
  • The Lightbringer series, by Brent Weeks, places heavy significance on an individual's sense of right and wrong to influence their choices: guilt culture.
In truth, most novels I read have a self-focused perspective. That's inherent to us in the West. The American Dream is all about individualism, and so our books tend to be that way too. I'm grateful for the magic of fiction, forever allowing me to experience worlds different from my own. (Here's looking at you, Middle-Earth.)

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