My family and I recently had an opportunity to spend a few days in Bangkok. One of the perks of being a professor is that occasionally you get to go on sabbatical, so the Buchanans headed for the farthest place from work: Australia. But Bangkok was a stop along the way, so we decided to venture out beyond the airport and go exploring. Finding a hotel in the center of Bangkok’s Chinatown district gave us a rapid immersion in Asian culture, something for which none of us were prepared.
This was my first time in a city in southeast Asia, and the sights, smells, and crowds were overwhelming. With me being roughly a foot taller than most people and having blond-haired, blue-eyed children, we stood out in the crowd; and the smells of the cooking foods (“was that a raccoon on that barbeque, Daddy?”), the narrowness of the walkways, the busyness of the traffic, and the pushing of the crowds was more than we could handle.
I do enough foreign travel to have one of those cards that lets me board the plane first with the “preferred flyers,” but I found Bangkok to be altogether too foreign, and for the first time in my life, I felt culture shock. There was something paralyzing about being immersed in a civilization so completely different, to feel so much like I didn’t belong. The combination of inexplicable insecurity, anxiety, and vulnerability was unexpected. It was evident in the whole family.
As different as Bangkok was, I am sure the kingdom of heaven will be even more radically different. And I wonder if many of us will undergo culture shock when we try to settle there. The City of God, the New Jerusalem described by John the Theologian in the Book of Revelation, sounds rather foreign:
The constant singing, the twenty-four-hour-a-day worship, and the many-eyed and many-winged angels make for a culture very different from that of my small town in Pennsylvania; even different from stranger places like New York or Los Angeles.
Perhaps the degree of culture shock we shall encounter in the kingdom of heaven depends upon how far we are from it today. Of course, we are heirs of the kingdom (James 2:5), but the Fathers of the Church teach us that the kingdom of heaven is accessible now. For example, Symeon the New Theologian wrote, “seek, knock, that the door to the Kingdom of Heaven be opened and you may enter into it and have it within you.” Similarly, Isaac the Syrian said that “the stairway to the kingdom of heaven is within you, secret in your soul.”
If we have the kingdom of God within us, if we are used to worshiping with the angels, then we cannot feel out of place when we take our great sabbatical leave to the heavenly kingdom.
Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children.
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“Culture Shock” first appeared in the May 2003 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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