Cultural Context & Purple Hibiscus

Growing up, I knew some church holidays were based on a pagan celebration. Clearly, Jesus wasn’t born on December 25th with a Christmas tree in the manger. This year, I just learned that Easter is not, in fact, aligned with Passover, but is celebrated on the first full moon after the spring Equinox.

I get why the early church did this – we all need cultural context to best understand things and the early Christians utilized this effectively. Somewhere along the line, we forgot that most practices and celebrations are based on paganism and have declared All Celebrations to Be 100% Christian.

When I was in Nepal, my friend and I visited a Catholic church. I was longing for a familiar practice and she was raised Catholic so came along. Even though the words were Nepali, we could follow along based on the liturgy, which was the same. We sat on cushions on the floor and the incense used was distinctly more central-Asian than Eastern European, but the rituals were familiar.

book-purplehibiscus.pngIn Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie addresses the complexity of melding cultural traditions with modern Christianity. Heroine Kambili is raised with her brother, Jaja in a strict Catholic home. Not just strict as in practice – though it is to an abusive level – but strict in the sense that “true” Catholics are white and European. And as Nigerians, they must act as white and as European as possible to truly reflect God and His religion.

On a visit to their liberal Aunty Ifeoma’s house, Kambili and Jaja are shocked to experience the world of Catholicism combined with traditional Igbo song and culture. Because of her abusive indoctrination into what true Catholicism should look like, it takes Kambili quite some time to warm up to the idea that one can practice both native rituals and still be Catholic.

Purple Hibiscus brought up so many ideas from how we do missions to how we have Westernized Christianity and to what degree.

Mostly, it has me wondering, if by forgetting our past, we are missing out? Kambili experiences such a rich faith when she is able to see it through the lens of her Igbo ancestry.

Richard Twiss brings up similar ideas in his book, One Church, Many Tribes. He discusses the fact that, when we don’t allow for indigenous culture within Christianity, we miss out on a rich history and a new way of looking at the Gospel.

As a Protestant Christian from Western European descent, it’s hard for me to imagine a rich cultural heritage. Ancestrally, I come from the line of thinking that takes all iconography and relics out of churches; that creates a blank space to focus inward rather than outward.

In Paris, I would explore richly decorated Orthodox basilicas and ornate cathedrals; In Nepal, I stood in awe of the brightly colored Stupas; in Ecuador, I was reminded of the ideas that Western theology was the only way to see Jesus.

As Adichie so beautifully illustrates throughout her novel as Kambili discovers a grace-filled faith, filled with the teachings from her childhood but also the rich song and belief of her ancestors, she finds herself emerging from a muteness caused by abuse.

I wonder if, when we ignore the ancient cultures that have contributed to modern Christianity; when we fail to recognize the beauty in celebrating all paths, the church is rendered mute? We cannot declare the true beauty and grace that Jesus brought when we are stuck in how the world and the church should look.

When we open our minds to other cultures and their contributions, will we finally be open to all the church as the Body of Christ has to offer?

alexandre-dulaunoyToday, I’m joining Cara Meredith as she Reads for Change. Head over to her blog to hear her thoughts on Purple Hibiscus and to join the discussion.

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6 thoughts on “Cultural Context & Purple Hibiscus

  1. Very thought-provoking post, Annie! What you say makes sense. When missionaries go in and tell people they must worship in a certain way, they disregard the cultural ancestry by instituting a set of rules, so much is lost. This happened with the Hawaiian people for a time. Thanks for the food for thought!

    1. Thanks, Jeanne. I’m definitely grappling with it – especially how to shift our thinking. It’s one thing to attribute those actions to a generation who “didn’t know any better” but I wonder how we subtly continue this practice today…?

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