The Gospel and Cultural Diversity

Bible and Mission by Richard BauckhamDoes the presence of a single ‘grand narrative’ that is the biblical story reduce, flatten or fight against cultural diversity? Is it just another example of a totalising ideology that seeks to impose itself at the expense of particularity?

I believe the Bible answers these questions with a resounding, ‘no!’. I’ve posted before on what James Brownson calls the ‘irreducibly multi-cultural‘ mode of the presence of God (see The Multicultural Presence of God). But here is a nice quote from Richard Bauckham in his Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World. In it he suggests not only that the Bible does not flatten cultural diversity, but that it celebrates and requires it. Indeed, the biblical metanarrative confronts those competing stories (in our own day, globalisation being a dominant one) that would seek to totalise:

The biblical story is apt to clash with the global metanarratives of power, and… with local narratives that ape them. But this is not necessarily the case with all the local individual narratives it encounters. The biblical story is not, as the narrative of economic globalization has been called, a cultural tidal wave sweeping away all the wonderful diversity of human culture. Perhaps the miracle of tongues at Pentecost in Acts 2 is a symbol of this. It is a miracle that symbolically transcends the diversity of human languages: they no longer divide people or impede understanding, as they did at Babel. But this diversity of human language is not abolished. Everyone hears the gospel in their own language. The miracle was in one sense quite superfluous, since virtually everyone there could have understood Greek, Aramaic or Latin. There was no practical need for such profligate speaking in all kinds of local languages. But God reverses Babel in such a way as rather conspicuously to affirm human cultural diversity. When Paul states that in Christ there is no longer Jew, Greek, barbarian or Scythian (Colossians 3:11), what he denies is cultural privilege, not cultural diversity.

The biblical story is not only critical of other stories but also hospitable to other stories. On its way to the kingdom of God it does not abolish all other stories, but brings them all into relationship to itself and its way to the kingdom. It becomes the story of all stories, taking with it into the kingdom all that can be positively related to the God of Israel and Jesus. The presence of so many little stories within the biblical narrative, so many fragments and glimpses of other stories, within Scripture itself, is surely a sign and an earnest of that. The universal that is the kingdom of God is no dreary uniformity or oppressive denial of difference, but the milieu in which every particular reaches its true destiny in relation to the God who is the God of all because he is the God of Jesus.

It’s worth noting that talking about Pentecost as a ‘reversal’ of Babel is a complex and contested issue. Check out Wycliffe’s Eddie Arthur on Babel, Pentecost and the Blessing of Diversity to explore more.