In Kissimmee, Florida, in 1993, I took my first college counseling class. On the very first day, the instructor stood up and said, “We are going to talk about how families work in this class, and at some point we will be talking about some dysfunction, and you will want to say, ‘That’s totally normal. My family did it.’ You have to understand, that is not an argument. It seems normal to you because that’s how you grew up, but that doesn’t make it right, or healthy, or even normal.”
Considered in the abstract, I thought that was an insightful point. About three weeks later when I caught myself in the middle of an argument with those very words on the tip of my tongue, it seemed like some kind of a trick. Of course what I grew up with was normal!
But no. It is possible that other people are normal and I am the weird one.
As with individuals and families, so with cultures. A culture can be weird in some respects, and we should expect that in some respects, we are the weird ones.
For example, through the history of the world, standards of physical attractiveness trend toward wide hips in women and a certain amount of fat in both genders. Why? Because the wide hips indicate a good capacity for bearing children, and the extra fat indicates prosperity. In the West today, our standards of feminine attractiveness run to rib-counting skinny, and even our standard of masculine beauty involves almost no body fat. Let’s not get into arguing about who is right; the point is just that virtually no culture in the history of humanity agrees with us about this — we are the weird ones.
Similarly, how we find a mate is plainly out of step with the mainstream of human society. In the West, we see our way of finding and choosing a mate as better, because it gives people the freedom to choose their own mate. In most cultures through most of history, it was understood that kids of marriageable age were morons who knew nothing about picking a mate, and matches were made by the parents and extended family. Viewed from that perspective, the Western way amounts to familial neglect at a critical moment when the child needs the family’s support. They would no more let an 18-year-old pick his own wife than they would set a 2-year-old loose in the jungle to find his own food — they would say neither one is equipped to make an intelligent choice. Again, the point is not to argue who is right or wrong, but just to notice that what we find ‘normal’ is in fact highly unusual — we are the weird ones.
In an earlier post, we talked about the isolation that is so common in our society now. Just a few decades ago most people knew their neighbors, and could rely on them for small things like a cup of sugar or help raking the leaves. Today, it’s often considered normal not to know the names of the people who live across the street or two houses down. This isolation is new even for us, and is practically unheard of in the history of humanity. Showing up at your neighbor’s door unannounced, asking for a half-cup of flour, is socially awkward today — but that kind of community support is the norm in human history. Again, we’re the weird ones.
In fact, we are the weird ones in a whole series of instances. We are the only slaveholding culture in the world ever to willingly give up slavery on the grounds of the golden rule. (“As I would not want to be a slave, so I would not be a master,” as Lincoln put it.) We are nearly the only culture in the world to punish wife-beating or spousal rape as crimes in themselves. We have criminalized polygamy, which again puts us in the minority. (For a book-length description of our weirdness, see Jared Diamond’s The World Until Yesterday.)
In any given case, the fact that our culture is weird does not mean that we are wrong. Arguably, the New Jerusalem will be the ultimate outlier culture, at many points radically different from anything that has preceded it in the history of humanity — but of course, the New Jerusalem’s culture will be designed and implemented by God Himself and His perfected saints. No Christian would argue that because the New Jerusalem is weird, it is therefore wrong.
All this to say that what our culture does, is simply what our culture does. It is not necessarily right or wrong, normal or abnormal — it just happens to be the way we do it. This is important because like neophyte counseling students that assume their family of origin was right and normal, we tend to assume that our culture is right and normal, and then use our culture’s way of doing things as the measure of what is reasonable and attainable. That will not do. God often calls us to be countercultural. “That’s weird” does not mean “We can’t do it.” Maybe we can. Maybe we should. And maybe it’s not even really that weird — maybe it’s normal and we’re the weird ones.
- This post discussed several ways in which our culture is weird. Can you think of three more ways we are weird? Are those things right or wrong?
- Have you ever traveled outside your own culture or country? What were some things that seemed normal to them but very strange to you?
- Is God calling you to do something that would seem weird in our culture? What could you do this week to begin obeying God’s call?