How The Gospel Guides us in Engaging Indian Culture

The more we see every culture through the redemptive arc of Christ, the less vulnerable we are to the twin errors of engaging too much, or too little.

India is home to twenty-two major languages and hundreds of dialects. Each of its twenty-eight states and eight union territories represents a unique blend of culture, cuisine, and faith. 

I grew up in a traditional Gujarati home, steeped in our unique culture. But my family also travelled to different states, multiple times a year. I tasted a slice of many diverse cultures, each as beautiful as the other.

But it was only when I became a follower of Christ that I learnt to truly behold this kaleidoscope that is India, in all of its breathtaking beauty.

I first tasted the love and mercy of Christ in November 2003. My new faith gave me a far more profound understanding of the true meaning, value, beauty, and purpose of diverse cultures.  

I did not initially see the greater beauty. Like many other first-generation Christians in India, I found the kaleidoscope a little awkward to handle.

I loved being a follower of Christ and I loved being Indian—celebrating all its diverse cultures. But I lacked a true and robust theology that helped me enjoy both, correctly and simultaneously.

It took me a while. But I soon discovered how my faith in Jesus made the view through the kaleidoscope even more magnificent.

Creation and Culture

In the creation account at the beginning of the Bible, God created Adam and Eve―the father and mother of all humankind―in his image.

As many different races and ethnicities emerged from Adam, the image of God was imprinted on each of them.

Our Christian identity is not meant to snuff out our unique cultural or ethnic Indian identity.

As the apostle Paul eloquently declares in Acts 17:26-27: “And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. . . .”

At the end of the Bible, when God closes this chapter of the creation story and begins the eternal story of a new creation, people from every nation, tribe, culture, and ethnicity gather to worship Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God (Rev. 7:9-10).

Our Christian identity is not meant to snuff out our unique cultural or ethnic Indian identity.

On the contrary, God receives greater glory when the redeemed from every culture and ethnicity worship him in their unique ways, for all eternity (Rev. 21:24-26).

The Twin Errors in Cultural Engagement

In the absence of this biblical understanding, Indian Christians are vulnerable to drift into one of two opposite errors.

Either we counter the culture around us, declaring everything to be bad. Or, we conform to our culture, embracing all of it―the fallen along with the good.

Those who counter culture, typically have a monastic view of the Christian faith. They argue that culture is essentially corrupt. To keep oneself pure one must refrain from participating in it.

The Pharisee in the parable Jesus recounted in Luke 18:9-14 illustrates this well. In its Hebrew form, “Pharisee” means “separatist” or “separated ones.”

The Pharisees started with pure motives. Greeks had infiltrated their culture. Hellenistic culture had started to dilute the Hebrew faith.

As a response out of good intentions, they wanted to consecrate themselves and be pure. But somewhere down the line, they slipped into legalism that pulled them away from the heart of God.

Unlike the tax collector in the parable, the Pharisee was so self-righteous in being counter-cultural that he felt no need for any repentance.

Similarly, many followers of Jesus in India also often isolate themselves totally from Indian culture and traditions. 

God receives greater glory when the redeemed from every culture and ethnicity worships him in their unique ways, for all eternity.

On the other extreme, there are people who conform too much to culture. They embrace the good in all aspects of culture, but fail to either see or challenge its fallenness.

This stance may appear noble and accepting. But it fails to challenge sinful aspects within the culture―bigotry, sexism, corruption, casteism, and the like.

They resemble the tax collector in the parable, but lack his repentance.

Both are equal and opposite errors that lead us away from the gospel narrative of how Christ Jesus entered our culture in order to redeem us.

The Antidote to Both Errors

God calls Indian Christians to engage with our culture by looking at it through the lens of hope and redemption. We are called to engage with our culture in a manner that both celebrates the God-given goodness in it, and also challenges the sinful errors in it.

Every culture has both. No culture is so bad that it has lost all aspects of God’s goodness. And no culture is so good that it does not need redemption.

India’s hospitality, inclusivity, ethnicity, diversity, cuisine, humility, and even our openness to spirituality all reflect the image-bearing nature of man.

But sins of casteism, corruption, self-centeredness, greed, and hypocrisy betray the image of God—grieving and angering the heart of our holy God.

We are called to both celebrate the good and challenge the bad in our culture. Both are different ways of pointing to the redemption that God offers in Jesus.

My Indian and Gujarati Journey

I am slowly growing in faithfully engaging with my own Gujarati culture through the lens of Christ’s redemption story

I am now able to see and celebrate how the fun-loving nature, hospitality, clothing, cuisine, and even the business-mindedness of my community reflect the heart of God.

At the same time, I am aware I need to lovingly have tough conversations about the greed, casteism, and gender inequality that still continues among us.

As I increasingly do both, I am seeing that my Gujarati identity is very much part of my story as a follower of Jesus. There is no dichotomy.

In Christ, God is redeeming all things (Col. 1:19-20). The gospel is a story of redemption and God is not done with us yet.

As our National Anthem eloquently declares: 

Thou art the ruler of the minds of all people, dispenser of India’s destiny.

The name rouses the hearts of Punjab, Sind, Gujarat and Maratha, of the Dravid and Orissa and Bengal; 

It echoes in the hills of the Vindhyas and Himalayas, mingles in the music of the Yamuna and Ganga and is chanted by the waves of the Indian Sea. 

They pray for thy blessings and sing thy praise.

The salvation of all people is in thy hand, thou dispenser of India’s destiny.

Victory, victory, victory to thee.

God’s design for the redemption of all people and cultures (Rev. 7:9-10) and our hope in the same, helps us identify, and celebrate aspects of culture that God is already at work in.

We are called to partner with him in the work of restoration and transformation.

All of this is possible only because of the word that became flesh and incarnated into our world.

Jesus engaged with our darkness and left his heavenly throne to die a brutal death so that you and I can be reconciled with our maker.

Our forgiveness came at a huge price, but it was a price Christ was willing to pay with his own life.

He invites us to rise above our little self-centred stories and be part of his larger story where he is making all things new.

My love for my saviour and my love for my country are not meant to be at odds with each other. Rather, my love for India is deeper and sweeter because I have seen his redemptive love for our country.