Culture vs. God: The Ultimate Message of Bonsai

The Bonsai story begins with a quote from anthropologist Ruth Benedict who studied the Japanese culture during and post WWII.  In Patterns of Culture published in 1934 she wrote:

“The life history of the individual is first and foremost an accommodation to the patterns and standards handed down in his community.”

And Bonsai closes with this scripture given to us by the Apostle Paul by way of his letter to the church in Rome:

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.  Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is– his good, pleasing and perfect will.  (Romans 12:2 NIV)

Why would I end the book this way?  Having lived so “globally” for so long?  Why would I take, what many might see, as a “narrow-minded approach to “good” when the culture of Japan in many ways had been so rigid, and “Right man” (my Japanese ex) even more so?

As a teenager, I felt like I had no structure, or frame of reference growing up in blue-collar, rural Michigan.  Following a 4-H exchange trip, I found myself longing for the patterns I recognized in Japan– all of the structure the Japanese people follow in their daily lives.  It is a framework that effectively conveys community values.   It was this structure that Right Man both used and ignored; he used it to his advantage and ignored it when he found it an obstacle to his plans.

The rigidity of the Japanese culture which requires a level of escapism for many young people to endure, is a fascinating dichotomy to observe.  It is what makes Japan a special place to visit; a place many, like myself, cannot, in many ways, resist.  These “patterns of the community” which were handed down to Right Man, replaced the patterns handed down to me…which as teen I did not recognize.

With two sets of “patterns” impressed upon me, it eventually became hard to know instinctively, what was the best way to think about or do anything.  I had two sets of values, two frameworks of reference. One quite loose and open; another more defined but yet open in almost disturbing ways.

When, many years after my bonsai life was over, I inadvertently stumbled upon Christianity and eventually came to believe, one could argue that I had once more replaced old patterns and values with yet another– effectively replacing one “Right” (man) with another by believing Jesus Christ.

Ah touché!

But no…and here’s why.  If this world (or any other) is our only frame of reference, and we are continually taking in all kinds of information with our senses– daily adding to our knowledge of the things around us, then I would argue how…at any given moment, can we claim to know what is truly right or wrong by our exposure?  If we agree that we can’t, does that in turn make every way OK?

For me, this is the linchpin of an argument for God, and I, having examined the evidence and feeling moved by what Christians would say is the Holy Spirit, have made my choice in who that God is and the nature of Him.  And as I look over my previous choices and matters before me today, I can consider what might be pleasing or unpleasing to the creator– which may or may not be different from that which is pleasing or unpleasing to the fellow who sits randomly next to me.  I can decided these things by a framework that is above me; and feel quite comfortable as a follower, that what I am doing most of the time will be out of love, without judgement (…although this is weak point of mine!) and with forgiveness.

At the tail end of Bonsai, on the page before the scripture, it is written, “There is only one truth, and God tasks each of us with the responsibility to identify it…” The key part being “each of us” as in, I personally am not going to identify it for you; and I must, as part of my truth, refrain from judgement (…as in condemnation.)  What you identify as truth is a personal choice, …perhaps the most important choice for the existing individual. And one more thing…the right way will not restrain you, but free your limbs and allow you to grow (a bonsai-ism).

It is my sincere hope that readers of The Six-Foot Bonsai will understand, that for me, a final leap, a two-feet together standing long jump, was necessary, and will find it, as I do, the right move for an individual who does not want to be confined to the patterns of this world.


Photo Wikipedia Commons


14 thoughts on “Culture vs. God: The Ultimate Message of Bonsai

  1. Well written response. Life is a journey and we all follow different paths. We are influenced by our community, family, and culture! For some of us with supportive families our journey was easy, for others not so. Let us remember Jesus’s command this holiday season, To love our neighbor.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. If there is no judgment, there is no need for forgiveness.

    I find inspiration in the natural world. Animals instinctively choose life-sustaining activities, which are rarely conflictual. There is a give-and-take that adapts to circumstances.

    Lately, it seems our human societies have lost touch with the instinctive cooperation animals enjoy. I don’t understand the cultural drives to dominate and control others, yet this is the history we have all inherited. Maybe those who are insecure in their own beliefs feel compelled to convince others by force or deceit. Power abuse comes in many forms.

    Jesus was the ultimate pacifist, but Christianity has not followed his example. And Paul met a violent end. To the skeptic, it suggests the pacifist way is ineffective and not practical in the “real” world.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Katharineotto for your thoughtful comment. I should probably clarify, that I am separating judgment (condemnation) vs. discernment to protect ourselves from harmful people, situations as the like. I would never suggest people roll over and become pacifists. Excellent point!

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you Wally! I missed your comment yesterday! I believe Christians are being lumped together and all of the bad examples of Christianity are being heaped upon us– those who know we are not perfect, not the ones to judge…just individuals who have made a personal choice to admit our frailties and have opted for a savior. To me it is a smart choice to admit we don’t have the answers!

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Oddly enough, I’d not long finished reading your book, and my feelings about your journey tie in very well with your comments here about two sets of standards being impressed upon you, and having no structure. You were no doubt somewhat (unknowingly) seeking a stability, a form of reference, for life. The rigidity of the culture gave you that, and far more than you bargained for.
    One thing that does shine through is a sense of inner self. I get the impression several times that you knew what needed to be done, and eventually you found the strength in yourself to do it. You had faith in yourself, and that has been further refined now by your faith in God.
    I believe it was Richard Nixon who said that the best steel has to go through the hottest fire. You have been through quite a fire, and emerged from it forged anew and tempered against the world by your faith.
    My compliments not only on your writing, but also on emerging after the journey with your new-found strength. I look forward to reading more of your insights.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am so glad to hear from you HM! Particularly now. I keep wondering who you are and about your interest in our story. I see your beautiful photos and want to know more of your background. For me, background and story are quite important.

      Once again you are perceptive to notice that I knew what needed to be done. Maybe my mother-in-law was right in saying that too much philosophy had gotten into my head. I was into existentialism and Kierkegaard was and still is my favorite.

      As I look back, I had spent little time in the aesthetic stage before I prematurely entered the ethical stage– subscribing to a rigid system before I was mature. So it was with great angst that I returned to the aesthetic and proceeded to teeter between the two states before finally making the leap to accept an objective uncertainty as the truth by which I expect to live and die. In the end Kierkegaard was right, but had to progress and transcend otherwise I would not know it to the core of my being as I do now. Still I wish I was quicker on the uptake as too much damage occurred.

      Honestly I don’t think there is any review that I anticipate more than yours! I am grateful for your thoughtful critique.


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