Revelation 21:2 is the last thing a careful reader of Genesis 1–11 would expect: in the remade world, the center of God’s creative delight is not a Garden, but a City. And a city is, by definition, a place where culture reaches critical mass—a place where culture eclipses the natural world as the most important feature we must make something of. Somehow the city, the embodiment of concentrated human culture, has been transformed from the site of sin and judgment to the ultimate expression of grace, a gift coming “down out of heaven from God.”
—Culture Making, p.122
The book of Leviticus, graveyard of so many good intentions to read straight through the Bible, is in fact an instruction manual for the creation of a distinct people in the context of the Ancient Near East. By observing its commands and prohibitions—both the broadly ethical, such as “you shall love your neighbor as yourself,” and the narrowly specific, such as keeping meat and milk separate in Israel’s diet—Abram’s descendants will be shaping their own distinctive cultural identity. Even the most puzzling, and seemingly arbitrary, features of the Levitical code require Israel to consciously depend on the God who revealed them, rather than simply absorbing and imitating the cultures that surround them.
—Culture Making, p.128
To those that have acquired the taste, nsenene is the object of undiluted greed for many Ugandans of all ages. A favourite joke is to tease a husband about finding himself on the receiving end of his pregnant wife’s tantrums if she asks for nsenene in the middle of the night, moreover on the wrong month.
During the month of Musenene, everyone was sure to get a mini harvest and neighbours would freely (maybe grudgingly too) share their catch.
Well, the romantic story of nsenene of old is no more. Today most of the grasshoppers that make the long trip from the Abyssinian heights end up at commercial harvesting rigs set up by ambitious greedy capitalists who have monopolized the catching of nsenene.
Weeks before the first insects are expected, building sites with top floors are booked and leased for the sole purpose of catching the most nsenene possible. The ‘combine harvesters’ consist of rows of huge barrels fitted with shiny new iron sheets and crudely wired light bulbs. The fluorescent lights bounce off the iron sheets, at once attracting and blinding the insects. When they hit the iron sheets the nsenene slide all the way down to the bottom of the barrel, literally. Security guards are hired to keep watch, and sometimes live electric cables are wired around the area to deter thieves. This way the monopolists lag home tonnes and tonnes of nsenene, and close out the ordinary people who used to get free ‘manna’ from heaven.
What the reading yields is the idea of father and mother as the Universal Father and Mother, the Lord‘s dear Adam and His beloved Eve; that is, essential humankind as it came from His hand. There is a pattern in these Commandments of setting things apart so that their holiness will be perceived Every day is holy, but the Sabbath is set apart so that the holiness of time can be experienced. Every human being is worthy of honor, but the conscious discipline of honor is learned from this setting apart of the mother and father, who usually labor and are heavy-laden, and may be cranky and stingy or ignorant or overbearing. Believe me, I know this can be a hard Commandment to keep. But I believe also that the rewards of obedience are great, because at the root of real honor is always the sense of the sacredness of the person who is its object.
There is nothing tidy about the cultural project of Israel. When we read it as a whole, rather than plucking selected passages to justify our culture wars or cultural withdrawal, the story is profoundly humbling. If God’s chosen people experienced such frustration and failure in creating and cultivating culture, how can followers of Christ, scattered among the nations, expect to do better?
—Culture Making, p.132
God never allows human culture to become solely the site of rebellion and judgment; human culture is always, from the very beginning, also marked by grace.
—Culture Making, p.124
In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Jewish feminists claimed that the mikveh and other laws dealing with niddah, or menstruation, deemed women’s natural cycles unclean. (Under rabbinical law, married couples are forbidden to have sexual relations during the woman’s menstrual period and for seven days after menstruation has ceased. Some couples even sleep in separate beds during that time.) Objecting to what they saw as the patriarchal concept of ‘family purity,’ many feminists rejected the mikveh and the rituals that surround it. Mikveh continued, of course, but mostly among Conservative and Orthodox Jews.
‘Early feminists were very negative about the mikveh, seeing it as a denigration of women, a focus on ‘cleanliness’ and ‘impurity’ that seemed to be a way of keeping women from tainting men,’ says Shuly Rubin Schwartz, assistant professor of American Jewish history at Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. ‘Now women are saying, ‘Wait a minute. This is a tradition that was an important part of Judaism for our foremothers. Let’s look at the deeper meaning.’’
God’s intervention in human culture will be unmistakably marked by grace—it will not be the inevitable working out of the world’s way of cultural change, the logical unfolding of preexisting power and privilege. Wherever God steps into human history, the mountains will be leveled and the valleys will be raised up. “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed” (Isa. 40:5)—the glory of a God who confounds even his own people’s expectations of how culture changes.
—Culture Making, p.130
The whole of the Hebrew Bible, from Genesis 12 to Malachi 4, can be seen as a record of Israel’s education in faith—not “faith” as a purely spiritual or religious enterprise, but as a cultural practice of dependence on the world’s Creator that encompasses everything from military strategy to songwriting.
—Culture Making, p.131
If the rest of the congregation were to learn from our experiment, they had to be able to observe it beyond just hearing about it in sermons. Therefore, each participant opened a Facebook account and joined a Facebook group we named “Living Leviticus.” Participants posted journal entries, photos, comments, and videos. Daily online activity reminded us that we each were part of a (virtual) community of obedience. Because Facebook is a social networking site, a couple hundred people also joined the group and many more from all over the world logged in to read and comment. A cluster of Messianic Jews even got ahold of our page and began offering their own advice on how to keep Torah.
Among the many lessons from the month, rising to the top was the realization of how much we take God’s grace for granted. Because holiness can be difficult, we default to simply admitting we’re miserable sinners, get our grace, and then get on with living our lives the way we were going to live them anyway. As one participant put it, “I never before realized just how good I am at detaching God from my day-to-day life.” But if reading Leviticus only succeeds in making you feel bad for being a lousy Christian, you’ve missed its point. Leviticus isn’t in the Bible merely to show you your need for grace. It’s in the Bible to show you what grace is for. The ancient Israelites were already chosen people before God gave them the Law. The Law’s purpose was never to save anybody. Rather, its purpose was to show saved people how to live a saved life.