On Commercial Drive: The Trans-Cultural Generation

I hope some day, you'll join us / And the world will be as one.
                                                                            John Lennon

Some time ago, I had the opportunity to spend a Sunday afternoon in a little urban park just off of Commercial Drive in Vancouver. For those of you who do not know, “the Drive” (as it is locally called) is known as the hub of Vancouver's multicultural scene; it's residents hail from just about every place on earth—Asia, Africa, the Middle East, as well as Europe and North America. With nearly a hundred little cafes, ethnic restaurants and eateries, as well as galleries, boutiques, small entertainment venues and housing, Commercial Drive can safely be called a microcosm of pluralistic culture at the beginning of the 21st century.

Strolling the park, I witnessed a smorgasbord of lifestyles on full display. Shaved heads, dreadlocks, mohawks, dye jobs, muttonchop sideburns, cargo pants, long skirts, mini-skirts, fishnet stockings, Spandex, tie-dye, tattoos, piercings in every conceivable portion of the body, not to mention every possible skin colour—I saw these mixed and I found myself asking, “What is this spectacle and how am I to respond to it as a Christian?”

In answering this question, many Christians are tempted to echo Yeats' declaration that “things fall apart; the centre cannot hold. Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” In a way that seems almost instinctive, we tend to view our pluralistic times as the end of history, and history as nothing less than the story of decline. We cherish the notion of a Golden Age, a period when the law of God held sway throughout society. Since then, however, we believe that the world has grown steadily more corrupt and evil. Even if we acknowledge that evil has been present in every age, we assume that our age must somehow be the most evil of all...

If we took this approach, we could quickly come to regard the scene on Commerical Drive as a vision of a cultural wasteland, the detritus of a decaying western civilization. Confronted with the hodge-podge pluralism of cultures and subcultures mixing and matching without apparent order or purpose, many Christians are likely to conclude that such disorder is directly linked to the moral and spiritual relativism that they witness in the world around them. The erosion of social boundaries, the lines that separate ethnic groups, genders and economic classes, are all bound up with a more fundamental collapse of divine order. The breakdown of external laws—whether they define criminal behaviour, sexual behaviour or other cultural norms—is simultaneously an internal breakdown in the proper relationship of God to humanity.

In my view, this is not an adequate Christian response to the Commercial Drive phenomenon. While an adherent of a religion such as Judaism or Islam might well have cause to declare that “without the law, everything is darkness,” Christians must look to a different standard by which to measure their experience of the world, namely, the Person of Jesus Christ. For those who confess Christ to be their sole “rule of faith,” the regulations, prohibitions and taboos that have always characterized religion can no longer function in the same way.

The Religious View
Before the Incarnation, religion existed to sanction the unity and peace of human society. People did not actually relate to a deity that possessed an independent, objective existence; rather, they themselves proposed the existence of a deity to stave off potential social violence and anarchy. If the crops failed, for instance, rioting and looting might result; to counteract this possibility, leaders of the group posited the anger of a “god of rain” at the failings of believers, and proposed that a sacrifice be offered on behalf of all. As long as everyone accepted this solution, they could avoid violence and maintain peace. The actual existence of the so-called “god of rain” was beside the point. As long as the majority of a group were willing to channel their violent impulses into a collectively sanctioned sacrificial act, then the idea of an angry deity who had to be appeased had performed its function, which was to restore order and unity to the collective. In short, religion existed not so that people could relate to an actual God, but so that the idea of a god or gods—an idea that may or not be real in and of itself—could help them relate better to one another.

In this context, religion and culture were intextricably bound together. To return to our basic example, a society suffering the failure of crops (and the resulting violence and anarchy) collectively extended the unifying act of religious sacrifice into all aspects of life by imposing social strictures on its members: divisions between gender, caste or class systems, rules of dress and behaviour, and so on. All of these prohibitions would, of course, be enshrined in a divine decree: unless the members observed these social and religious rules, the deity would become angry and the crops would fail again. Religion thus sanctioned cultural unity, while culture bolstered religion. To violate the boundaries of one was to offend the commandments of the other.

In this sense, then, the person who regards the scene on Commercial Drive as a symptom of moral decay is essentially taking a religious view of the situation. To see the disintegration of cultural norms as a potential cause for divine wrath is to fall back on the ancient worldview in which religion existed to preserve society from self-destruction. The actual existence and reality of God—let alone our relationship with Him—has little bearing on the matter. The idea of God exists to justify the laws; the ordering power of those laws is what matters.

“Neither Jew Nor Gentile”
The Christian Gospel revolutionizes this ancient religous view. The Apostles proclaimed that in the Person of Jesus, God initiated a fundamentally human relationship with us. No longer mere an idea, a proposition invoked to secure society, the Incarnate God both actually existed and demanded a real communion with His creatures at the most profound level. The Apostle Paul refers to this intimate union as living in the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:2) that is initiated when Christians put on Christ in baptism (see Gal. 3:27). The complete union with God in Christ through Baptism gives us access to the life of God—His Spirit—which then literally inspires us to live according to the Spirit (Rom. 8:4), that is, as God Himself would live.

The social and cultural ramifications of this Gospel are truly revolutionary. Having proclaimed our radical union with God in Christ through baptism, Saint Paul says, There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28) By entering into baptism, by sharing in God's divine breath, His one Spirit, we become intimately 'one' not simply with Him, but also with each other, transcending the boundaries that traditionally have both divided and separated the human race: socio-cultural, economic and sexual. Those restrictions, which ancient sensibilities could not distinguish from the commandments of religion, Christians understood for the first time as permeable. If the basis of unity was once the rigid maintainence of boundaries between culture, class, and gender, now the Gospel offered a greater basis of unity: the Person of Jesus Christ.

Does Christianity, then, represent the eradication of culture? Hardly. The Incarnation took place, after all, within a very specific historical and cultural context: Jesus was an educated Jewish male in first century Palestine. The 'particularity' of God's revelation to humanity is central to the Gospel, in that human beings do not relate to one another in the abstract, but rather to specific persons, each of whom emerges from a historical and cultural background. For God to engage in an authentically human relationship with us, therefore, meant becoming not merely 'Man' in some generic sense, but a man, which also meant a culture and a history. And just as the original revelation of God in Christ was an enculturated event, Christianity continued to propagate in specific cultural terms wherever it was proclaimed, whether in the Hellenic people of the Mediterranean, the western Europeans, the Slavs of the 10th century, or the Native Americans in the 18th century. In short, the experience of historical Christianity must always be a rich cultural experience.

That being said, St. Paul's words to the Galatians remind us that while Christians may receive and live out their faith in specific cultural contexts, Christian community can and should strive for a union with God and with one another that is trans-cultural. Although we live a world that draws a line between Jews and Gentiles, men and women, slaves and free, baptism makes it possible for all to transcend their socially, biologically and economically-imposed limitations and know one another as members of the same Body, enlivened by the same Spirit.

A 'Trans-Cultural' Generation
How does this understanding of Christianity lead us to respond to the Commercial Drive phenomenon? If we may view this pluralistic scene as a snapshot of a quintessentially pluralistic, contemporary society, I would propose that what we are seeing here is an attempt to actualize the revolutionary trans-cultural vision of Christianity itself.

Modern democracy—with its emphasis on the radical equality of human beings regardless of cultural, gender or other differences—was not an original invention; it borrowed its principles from St. Paul's New Testament teachings. Indeed, the ongoing project of secular pluralism may be understood as an attempt to implement the social implications of the Gospel while rejecting the Subject of the Gospel. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one—the verse from Galatians, truncated to exclude the name of Christ, may well summarize the 'counter-Gospel' creed of our secular, pluralistic age. The lyrics from John Lennon quoted at the beginning are simply a trite restatement of this creed.

What we see on Commercial Drive, then, is a people striving to overcome cultural, social, gender and economic limitations, without recognizing the ultimate source of their impulse in the Christian Gospel. This pluralistic display is not 'decline and collapse' but a collective fumbling for a union that goes beyond the categories that have defined and confined human civilization from its beginnings. More intentionally than any that have come before, this generation seeks to relate to others in a community that transcends all earthly limitations.

Certainly the denizens of 'the Drive,' and indeed our entire contemporary pluralistic society, would not recognize this drive for cultural transcendency as finding its fulfilment in the divine-human communion in the Body of Christ. Indeed, many of them would be actively hostile to such a notion. Nevertheless, if we Christians can retrain our vision to see the display of Commerical Drive as an attempt to 'feel after' God—unacknowledged and even denied—then we will find ourselves face-to-face with an opportunity—not merely to lament once again how 'things fall apart'—but to lead this generation back towards the Wellspring for which it is longing—the one Jesus Christ in whom we can truly 'be as one' beyond all worldly divisons.


Edward-Seraphim said…
As a Christian who spends much of his time on the drive, first I would say "right on!".
Second I would say that the experiences I have on the drive, and many places like it in other cities always leave contemplating my relationship with Christ. Many of the people who frequent the drive profess a life with an emphases on "co-existence" and community. A way of being I believe Christ calls us all to embrace.

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