Is religion a part of culture, or culture a part of religion? Are they the same thing or different altogether? Perhaps they are both threads in the same fabric, so intertwined, so tightly woven that there is no longer a clear difference which makes the over-arching pattern, design or picture.
A wonderful friend and colleague from Canada recently asked me a difficult question. She’d just finished reading my book, Unspoken Rules, and wanted to understand if my main characters shared their parent’s faith, or just their sense of community and tradition. She wanted to know if there was a meaningful difference.Tough one, right? We ended up having a delicious discussion about it, and I doubt she was satisfied with my answer because, the truth is, I don’t know – or not exactly anyway.
What I know is that Culture is man-made – a set of shared values, customs, ideas, habits, practices and thoughts. On the flip side, Religion is commonly viewed as being ‘of God’ – an organised collection of beliefs, myths and world views related to an order of existence. As to a meaningful difference? That’s the really hard part because no matter which way I look at it, for me, they are so embedded in each other that I just don’t know where one begins and the other ends. Or which came first and which will come last?
I remember growing up that all those big religious celebrations were so wonderful… so rich with life and laughter, with drama and stress. There was certainly the religious component, but in my mind, the cultural component was bigger. Easter was a somber occasion to begin with. We would lent. Meat and dairy foods sacrificed in honour and gratitude to Jesus Christ. Good Friday midnight mass, flowers, candles, the choir’s voices deep with sad tones. We kept our heads bowed and hands clasped. At home, preparations began for the Easter Sunday feast. Every inch of the house would be cleaned, every food and beverage option catered for. After Easter Sunday service was over… it was on!
Food, music, laughter, gossip. Mezze style food first, lots of bread, Raki or soft drinks to wash it down, and then out came the hot food followed by desserts and cut fresh fruit. The kids generally sat on a different table, sometimes in a different room. The men usually at the head of the table, plates filled by the women. The women rushed back and forth to the kitchen doing dishes, brining out more food, getting coffee on the stove. Everyone knew the part they were expected to play – and it was a beautiful thing. The death and resurrection of Jesus Christ took a back burner.
But there were expectations and rules to abide by – deep seeded, unsaid, but clearly known by everyone in our community. Who would host the banquet? Who would have to visit whose house by when? What kinds of gifts were taken. It couldn’t be just anything, it had to be good quality chocolates, or flowers, or maybe a bottle of nice liqueur or wine. Everyone took their shoes off at the door and wore slippers provided by the home owner. Everyone was kissed on both cheeks. We all ‘Happy Eastered’ each other. If anyone was overlooked… well, everyone knew about it.
One difference I’ve found is that culture and customs change over time, while religion tends to remain the same (or so it seems) – but is that true on an individual level? Yes, the words in the bible don’t change, but the way we interpret them definitely can, and often does. In fact, as we get older, the way we view life changes and the things we believe in are such a huge part of that – so if everything about us changes, including what we believe in… is our religion really unchanged?
Ahh…such food for thought.
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Tip o’ the Fez to you.