In Washington Irving’s delightful The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, the author journals about his attendance at a venerable English country church: “The congregation was composed of the neighboring people of rank, who sat in pews sumptuously lined and cushioned, furnished with richly gilded prayer-books, and decorated with their arms upon the pew doors; of the villagers and peasantry, who filled the back seats and a small gallery beside the organ; and of the poor of the parish, who were ranged on benches in the aisles.” (The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, “The Country Church,” Washington Irving, p. 104)
One is immediately struck by the incongruity of the church seating arrangement: the wealthy enjoying lavishly decorated pews, but the poor unceremoniously inhabiting the back seats, and benches on the aisles. It is such a flagrant violation of the command of James 2:
“My brethren, do not hold your faith in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ with an attitude of personal favoritism. For if a man comes into your assembly with a gold ring and dressed in fine clothes … and you pay special attention … and say ‘You sit here in a good place,’ and you to say to the poor man, ‘You stand over there, or sit down by my footstool,’ have you not made distinctions among yourselves, and become judges with evil motives?” (James 2:1-4)
Surely anyone attending that church who possessed both a Bible and a conscience could have discerned that this scenario was wrong — couldn’t they? There are at least two explanations for this kind of blatant aberration:
- They may have been “culture-blind.” Believers in any setting can find it difficult to “escape” the cultural presuppositions they were nurtured in, and to detect contradictions between their culture and scripture. After all, those things seem to them to be “normal;” they were brought up that way. This is one of reasons why C.S. Lewis recommended reading books and sermons from other ages, and why Lesslie Newbigin encouraged Christian interaction with churches in other parts of the world — these members of other times and places are not bound by our cultural limitations, and they can help correct our “culture-blindness” with the light of God’s truth.
- But a second explanation exists. There is the distinct possibility that the wrong was indeed noticed even by some of those inhabiting that culture — but that those who detected it were not courageous enough to speak up about it.
Irving’s account ought to cause Christians today to examine our own practices: what blatant compromises with scripture do we tolerate in our churches week after week, to which we ourselves are just as “culture-blind” as the ancient English were to theirs? And are there those of which we ARE indeed aware — as perhaps some of them were — but we are just too cowardly to speak up against them?