I seem to have acquired a way of being neither quite inside nor quite outside any culture I encounter. I was quite inside the culture at Holy Trinity, but they’re a notable exception. It’s just as perplexing to fail to be quite outside a culture as quite inside it, because if you’re quite outside it, you can appreciate it as a thing you can have some sort of aesthetic opinion about.
I met a woman in the hostel in Tbilisi who’s middle-aged, from Australia, and has traveled all over the world; currently she’s heading to China. I was less struck by the number of countries she had visited, however, than the way she talked about them, and especially the way she appreciated countries in much the same way I appreciate books. Lord of the Rings is really very good and deserves its high reputation, whereas Twilight is tawdry and emotionally manipulative. Argentina was a delight to visit, whereas Peru is too touristy; I visited Indonesia five years too late; it’s already uninterestingly globalized. She was very gung-ho about traveling, and thought that all these experiences have been great, but there was something unsettling in the way she summarized her experiences. The mountains of Georgia are often much like the mountains of Arizona. The tourist shops of Georgia are not much more interesting than the tourist shops of Arizona. The churches will soon become boring if you only look at them, and don’t pray in them. Even if you do pray in them, you may have to spend some time praying to be more involved in that which you had set out to pray for. But surely there’s nonetheless much there, underneath the sometimes off-putting superficialities, which is more human, and therefore more worth knowing, than whatever it is one is struck by at first glance. A country is more than its monuments and quaintnesses. She didn’t want to talk about Georgia, the country she was then in, and brushed aside most of what I said about it, I suspect because I was treating it as a thing that one has to get to know, as one knows a friend, rather than as something that one sees and judges, as one sees a movie.
In any event, I was trying to say that it’s just as perplexing to be almost inside a culture as it is to be almost outside it. If I were quite outside of Georgian culture, then I could judge it. Since I’m not, I usually end up judging myself concerning my interaction with it. Left to myself, I teach much more like my Georgian co-teachers than like the imaginary Ideal Interactive Student Centered Teacher, and feel not a little defensive about this. It’s not permissible within Orthodoxy to judge church services (unless they’re actually done wrong), so one is left supposing insufficient effort or attention in oneself. Should anyone care, I prefer Byzantine services to Georgian or Russian ones, but generally nobody cares, anymore than Greek or Antiochian Orthodox people care that some parishioners prefer Western to Eastern rite services. Get over it. It’s not possible to regard a monastery like Davit Gareji as merely an interesting historical that I can have an aesthetic opinion about, as though I were in a position to approve or disapprove of it; it is much more likely to disapprove of me, and confront me concerning my own dependance on comfort and lack of spiritual seriousness.
I learned this perspective in church and from the writers I liked, just as the traveler I met surely learned her perspective from somewhere as well. I suspect that I learned it from missionaries, and people who like to consider all of us potential missionaries, or missionaries in training. Their attitude is generally to bring your teaching as close to someone’s culture as is possible without compromising its truth. On second thought, that’s mostly true of mid- to long-term missionaries. Short term missions (including World Race folks) seem to mostly develop a micro-culture within the team, which looks out at the people they’re serving as Them, to be “loved on,” helped, admired, pitied, compassioned, and so on from a moderate distance. I also learned, surely from somewhere, not to keep this perspective “in a neat little box” as the cliche goes, but to let it overflow from missions into, for instance, English language teaching. Which isn’t so very efficient, and certainly doesn’t lend itself to change-agent-hood. “I think that globalized culture is terribly dull and rather corrosive — how might I support the positive attributes of your own local culture, without becoming complicit in its deficits? I don’t know enough yet to do so, and don’t know the language well enough to ask.”
I’m not sure where I’m going with this. I keep heading out in different directions. I was going to say, some times ago, that a side affect of this — conflict? — is that it’s difficult to write about, since my own perspective in relation to the things I’m encountering isn’t certain. It isn’t certain when I should adapt, and when I can critique. To know that, I would probably have to know and be able to communicate with a really mature, trustworthy Georgian (or when I was in Alaska, a really mature, thoughtful Yupiik). If I could understand what the bishops are telling their people, that would help a great deal, I suspect, but my Georgian is still pathetic.
It’s difficult to write, because I can get so far as beginning to observe that something is the case, and am unable to transition from that observation to an opinion or a narrative. We went to a monastery, hiked up a sizable hill, and looked at ancient monastic cells and churches, from the 6th -13th centuries. They were frescoed. It was hot and steep. There were 6000 monks there at one point. It was like the Athos of Georgia. At one point all of the monks were martyred on a single day by the Persions. But later the monastery was rebuilt, and there were a lot of monks again. It was closed under the Soviets, and they had a base there for training soldiers for the war in Afghanistan (the other one, back in the day); they weren’t very careful, and ruined some monastic dwellings. There are monks there again now, but they can only be in the lower part of the monastery, and not in the caves, because Azerbaijan claims that side of the mountain, and has a watch tower and a military base. All of this impressive and tragic history, but it’s not at all shocking; it just is. That probably speaks badly for myself or for human history somehow. But then — I don’t know where to take this; what sort of story to tell with it.