The travel books will tell you to go to the local market. You can find out everything you need to know about a place, its people, and their values by how they buy their food and feed their families. Cultures are pervasive, and we can adjust and conform to them with the right amount of effort and sensitivity. When you are in a market you are surrounded by culture like a fish in an ocean of smells and sounds and stores. My wife and I always went to the market within the first few days of being in a new place. Whether it was the Naschmarkt of Vienna or the Grande Place of Brussels or Christmas markets in our old home town of Düsseldorf, we would stroll around looking at vendors and soaking in a new place for all it was worth.
We moved back to the United States last December after living for the better part of the past six or so years overseas. Arrogantly, I felt we would slide right back into American culture. Why not? We are American, after all, and this is our homeland. And then I went to Sam’s Club. Standing there, next to 100oz cans of nacho cheese and gallon tubs of mayonnaise, I realized what it was that was causing the underlying stress buzzing at the bottom of my emotions. The stress that has made me short with people, made me exhausted at the end of most days, and made me question so many decisions I’ve made stems from not belonging. It’s culture shock. The disorientation I was feeling was because my own culture had become unfamiliar to me. I’ve taught students about the effects of culture shock, and even counseled many through them. For years, I have been asked to lead “cultural sensitivity” classes, and yet here I am falling victim to culture shock in my own homeland. Culture shock isn’t a positive emotion, but it is proof that we have been somewhere else, or come from a different place.
Sometimes we as Christians need to recognize when we feel culture shock. More importantly, we need to recognize when we should feel culture shock. When we watch the news and it seems to go against all the teachings of Jesus, that isn’t our culture they are talking about. We should be disoriented in conversations about things that are not of God, not comfortable in those conversations. Our culture is one of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. When we are outside of those, we should feel a little uncomfortable. I am not advocating we stay in a Christian bubble any more than I would advocate against going to Portugal (you should go to Portugal). I am saying we need to recognize the difference in our culture and the culture of the World. The culture of greed, of materialism, of oppression, and of inequality is not a culture we should find comfortable. We should feel at home around grace and peace, and be ambassadors of those to the world. I hope I feel more disoriented by the culture of the World every day, as I become more a member of the culture of Christ. I hope I am more aware of the differences between the desires of God and the desires of the world around me. I hope I can point others to a better way to live.