Ten Mangled Words: “Culture”

Jackhammers are not the ideal tool for mixing cake batter. Some mess will almost certainly result. Evangelical Christians using the word ‘culture’ often remind one of a baker with a such a power tool. When most Evangelicals begin writing or speaking on culture, one winces. A migraine is certainly on its way.

The word culture, in the hands of Evangelicals is plasticine. It’s verbal play-dough, and can be shaped nearly infinitely. Here are some favourite forms of those pontificating on culture:

1) Culture is “the stuff people do and the way they are”. This definition has the nifty distinction of including everything, and excluding nothing. Everything is culture. Of course, when a word means everything, the disadvantage is that it simultaneously defines nothing.

2) Culture is race. Skin-colour, and in some cases, home language, is equivalent to culture. For this reason, the church must be “multi-cultural”, and multiculturalism is touted and celebrated by some Christians, who should have committed Proverbs 17:28 to memory.

3) Culture is “the way of life” in a city, or nation. Music, food, clothing, customs, attitudes are put into the blender, and the puree that results is called “their culture”.

But none of these will do. Culture cannot be everything for it to be a useful concept. Culture is definitely not the quasi-secular concept of race. Culture is not a collection of habits. When Christians think of culture in these terms, we can expect calamitous results.

If there is one word that Christians should be especially careful to define, it is culture. After all, culture is formative and determinative in every area that matters: worship, discipleship, evangelism, and missions. What and how you sing, how you present the Gospel, your idea of Christian devotion, and your approach to matters of conscience are all determined by your understanding of culture, and how that understanding is worked out into life and ministry. Indeed, when we “export” Christianity in the form of global missions, our understanding of culture is tested at nearly every point. A gelatinous understanding of culture leads to embracing and endorsing what should be rebuked, and importing and imposing what ought to be left at home.

But how many seminaries teach on culture in missiology, besides pointing out the obvious (“people will do things very differently where you’re going”)? How many apologetics classes teach the meaning of culture, and how it shapes presuppositions, instead of merely harping on about axiomatic presuppositions? How many pastoral theology classes explain what a Christian culture looks like, instead of merely talking knowingly about contextualisation? How many church history classes are concerned with tracing the development and decline of Christian culture through the ages, instead of using it to produce hagiographies? One wonders how an idea so central to Christianity goes mostly undefined through years of ministerial training. And when the leaders are fuzzy and vague on this idea, few of their people will do much better.

Does it matter? It may not matter if the average Christian cannot formally define culture properly. It does matter when his idea of culture is amorphous and secular. Such a Christian will lack a crucial element of the Christian life: discernment. Understanding culture is fundamental to understanding cultural phenomena, and it is cultural phenomena that we bump into all the time: music, language, dress, conventions, customs, technologies, foods, social structures, ethical matters. When a Christian does not understand the meaning of these things, he cannot respond obediently to them. He cannot discern their meaning and their proper use, so he cannot be pleasing to God in the areas that he lacks discernment. In sum, the Christian life is incarnated in culture, and a faulty view of culture will lead to minor and major errors in judgement.

For this reason, rescuing the word culture from its mangled form is no mere academic pursuit. It is how we obey God in the present world.

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