The Namesake – Racial and Cultural Lessons for a Better Humanity

Posted on May 2, 2008


The Namesake movie (website here, trailer here) was produced in 2006 and is based upon the book by Jhumpa Lahiri. I found a very eloquent review of the book here, and a blog dedicated to the movie here.

The review linked above is going to be difficult to outdo (well done). So, for the purposes of faith, life, and culture, below are a few things for consideration in public and private discourse.

“Every day since then has been a gift.”

1. There is no better way to communicate the essences of culture and of life than through the genre of story.

In some of my “classes” on cultural studies (seminary), I’ve found myself frustrated at the lack of sensitivity and awareness as we sit in a classroom and make statements such as “black people do this…” or “whites hate this…” or “asians love this…” or “latinos generally behave like this…” “Did you know,” the professor states, “that ___s love to ___? That’s how they communicate love.” Well, that may be true — for some — but not all, and certainly not the ones I know in America. Why the generalization? Why make statements with such conclusiveness as to encapsulate all people of that color or race?

We have a challenge in this “melting pot” of the world. Cultures are not as they seem, and the kinds of syncretism that are happening in our ever globalizing society is as diverse as the people. It seems, then, that cross-cultural studies miss something huge when diverse peoples are boiled down to anthropological analysis. Why am I so frustrated at this kind of study? There is no story. How does one truly get at a higher level of understanding? Instead of starting with statements such as “This race/culture is…” begin the conversation with, “Once upon a time…”

I need to know people, characters, background, history,…in other words, I need a fuller phenomenological context. Textbooks will never provide that. Only stories will; movies, films, novels, etc. And so for all of the racial and cultural tensions we face, perhaps this one element, missing from the greater conversation, can bring us closer towards resolving the negative tensions we feel. Perhaps by telling, and listening to the stories of other people will we rise above mere categories of anthropological analysis, and get down to the heart of humanity that cries out to live out reality, rather than bullet-point it.

I find this applicable to what is currently going on in the media with Jeremiah Wright. Using him simply as an example, we can see how statements and people are taken out of the context of their stories, thus providing a different framework of meaning for the various strains of discourse that we are engaging in. I believe, and perhaps you’ll agree, that racial tensions by this kind of discussion only exacerbate the problem. What would happen if we took the time to listen to the fuller stories of each other rather than 2-3 min. sound bytes?

2. There is no better way to discovery than through experiencing contrast.

Exemplified in the movie, and taken from sociological observations, the only way that we understand truly who we are, and therefore what the world is all about, is through contrasting ourselves with something we are not.

My wife and I discuss frequently the necessity of travel and cultural engagement for the students that we lead. Isolationism and individualism is epidemic — many social analysts would conclude — and instead of truly discovering who we are, if we continue down those paths, we will merely myopically implode. The healthy alternative is being in close proximity to people and cultures unlike our own, listening, engaging, eating, learning language, compassionately understanding, and just being a part of a contrasting world. This kind of healthy communal interaction actually illuminates the individual soul. It is the paradox of discovery, “Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” (Luke 17:33) Perhaps then will we be able to do damage to all kinds of “isms” that we fight so vehemently against: racism, sexism, absolutism, etc…

3. In that discovery there is no better way to “find oneself” than by staying deeply connected in relationships with others.

As you may imagine, these concepts are steps toward an ultimate ethic. The next step, after understanding contrast, and getting in proximity to cultures and people who are not of your own ilk, is to respect the heritage and traditions deeply enough to actually partake in them.

Many may decry this as blasphemous syncretism, suggesting that, especially for the deeply religious, that it does irreparable harm to a person’s soul. But we must understand that cultural practice does not equal adherence, and to suggest that entering into another’s world for the sake of respect, conversation, experience, and redemption is a bad thing, ought to take an honest look at one’s own personal syncretism, for none are immune. For “evangelists” of their faith, it must be understood that the very influence that religious people attempt to have on others can only be accomplished by first taking the steps to listen and engage so as to be influenced first by them. To respect is to participate in ways that allow the tradition to touch you, and inform your life’s experience.

I suggest that these kinds of connections are imperative to healing and redemption, and that people of faith ought to find their full presence of being in the presence of others.

4. There is no better way to love than through laying down one’s life for his friends.

The ultimate ethic, therefore, is truly to love. To be so in tuned with the other, that the individualism and isolationism of self-seeking service begins to slowly dissipate as it is sacrificed for a greater life. If we are to continually look out for our own lives, to “each his own,” to “look out for number one,” etc., we ultimately destroy ourselves. It is first through a denial of self for the sake of the friends and relationships around us that we find a whole new kind of life that is abundantly more than we could have ever imagined on our own. This is the joy of culture, of race, of being diverse people’s in our one world. And when we decide to move, to step, to embrace one another in these very real, tangible, narrative ways, we too will be able to say that “every day since then has been a gift.”