At the seminary where my husband teaches, the annual “Culture Night” is one of my favorite evenings. With students from more than a dozen countries, it is a potluck like no other: South Indian curries, Dutch pastries, Kazakh barbecue, and Brazilian caramel crowd the tables. The student council designs the games to challenge everyone’s knowledge of others’ customs and histories. People know each other well, so we can laugh together at misconceptions, stereotypes, and our own blunders.
Each year we go with our children, and each time the evening teaches me. Yes, I learn things about other cultures (spicy kimchi pancakes are a thing). But I learn things about holiness, too.
When you have several Ethiopians in a school, the rest of the school learns a bit about Ethiopian culture—what makes someone Ethiopian in thought and action, not just skin color or height. Every culture has its weaknesses, its specific tendencies toward sin. But because of common grace, each has its strengths as well. And at a place where many of the students are maturing Christians, we have the privilege of seeing what a culture looks like as it is sanctified.
Someone once said that “culture is religion externalized and made explicit.” That is a profound thought. To a large extent, it is true. The way that people live and celebrate and worship is an outworking of what they believe about God and therefore themselves. But there are things about cultures—food, dress, and certain strengths—that remain unique, even in a community of believers. The beautiful thing about Christianity is that it does not neuter culture: it makes it holy. When the good news about salvation in Jesus works itself out in a community, cultural sins or weaknesses begin to die, and cultural strengths serve the new purpose of glorifying God and allowing Christians to enjoy their Maker.
At the culture night, I can look over at one table and see Brazilians laughing uproariously. Their extroverted culture is made holy as they serve and minister with genuineness, showing gentleness to people who are more reserved. The Malawian Christians retain their deep respect for authority while realizing that every believer needs accountability, and they must be willing to require it. I see South Koreans keeping their cultural formality while growing a passionate love for the church, striving to be all things to all men. And Americans? Well, I hope the Americans can recognize the incredible privileges of wealth, education, and freedom that we have; we can grow in humility, cheerfully serving with no public recognition.
For one evening each January, a couple dozen countries get together in a high school gym to celebrate culture. And there, under the snow in the dark, we can all see God working out His promise that every nation and tribe and tongue will surround the throne when the snow and the dark are no more.