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Big Fat Cultural Challenges

One of the ways sociologists categorize human cultures is by what creates fear in those cultures. Many cultures are animist, where the main fear is one of offending the spiritual forces of one’s ancestors. Western societies are generally considered to be guilt cultures, where we live with a sense that we have done something wrong, and this needs to be atoned for. And then there are honour/shame cultures, where the great fear is of committing a social offence that will lead to exclusion from the community. In animist cultures fear is directed towards the intangible, an invisible but very real spirit world, which can be entered and appeased through the mediation of a shaman. In guilt cultures there is a solid objectivity – we know we have screwed things up, and this needs to be put right. Much of the West’s work ethic is based on this desire to overcome guilt by proving oneself a success, and thus obtaining forgiveness. In honour/shame cultures there is a much greater degree of subjectivity – what counts is the sense of how other people view you, and what that does to your status in the community. Shame is as disfiguring, and as alienating, as leprosy.

The Channel 4 programme “Big Fat Gypsy Weddings” has drawn a massive audience (certainly by C4 standards). Its depictions of traveller and gypsy rites of passage have amazed and hooked millions of viewers. However, it has also produced outrage within the traveller and gypsy communities. As one representative told the Guardian newspaper, “We are hearing about the deep sense of embarrassment and shame many have been left with by such a narrow, misrepresentative and unjust portrayal of their community and culture.”
Which is very interesting!
It is interesting because the overwhelming response to the programme of non-travellers seems to have been a new appreciation, even respect, for gypsy culture. There have been some real star characters in the series, and much of the traveller approach to morality is deeply challenging to the more laissez faire attitude of the wider community.
What this reveals is the extent to which gypsy/traveller culture is an honour/shame one. They feel disgraced by what has been depicted, even though most of those watching it have been left with far more positive impressions. The significance of accruing honour and avoiding shame in gypsy culture has also been revealed in the series by the things that are important in gypsy life – caravans need to be spotless, cars need to be cool, and men need to be real men. All of which is fascinating to an audience who are shaped by a guilt culture.
Of course, bringing some theological perspective to these anthropological observations, the claim of Christ is to have victory over the fears of every culture.
Christ is the victor over every other spiritual power, so in him the animist can be set free from fear of the spirit world. Jesus is the one who has carried our guilt, as our substitute bearing the wrath of his father. This means that the ever-striving westerner can find freedom from his striving when he comes under the power of the cross and discovers that Jesus has paid all his debt. And the person living in fear of social disgrace can also turn to the cross, and there find one who carried our shame, who was publicly disgraced, in order that we might be declared utterly clean, and acceptable before God.
Jesus is always the Saviour, even when what we need to be saved from looks different, depending on the cultural viewpoint we are coming from.

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