Monthly Archives: January 2018

Culture – More Than Creation

If the word culture is to be useful, it must define something. It must name and describe a discrete phenomenon in the world. A useful definition must limit its subject, so that we could easily say what is not culture.

The problem with many definitions found in Evangelical literature is that they seem to include everything. If everything in the created order is an instance of culture, then we may as well scrap the word, and speak plainly of creation.

Culture is not the created order. Time, space, and matter are not culture, and Genesis 1 and 2 are not the account of God creating culture. The creation is used in creating culture, but it is not culture itself.

Culture is not the world, as the Bible variously uses the term to mean the created order, mankind, the age we are in, or the system of thought and habit that opposes God.

As Christians dependent upon Scripture for our understanding of reality, we face a real difficulty in defining culture precisely. Scripture does not contain the word. The English word cultureis used in its modern sense from the 19th century. We’re then in the dilemma of either reading into Scripture a modern but false construct, or of locating in Scripture a real phenomenon, one which Scripture names differently.

What Scripture does describe is what man does. Man is a meaning-making creature. He orders his world to incarnate and symbolise his understanding of the meaning of reality. In Genesis 1, God turns chaos into order. Man, made in God’s image, is told to extend this work throughout the world, turning what is less ordered into something more ordered and meaningful. Humans do this because they are like God. They do not create as He creates, but they do take the raw unordered creation and shape it into systems of meaningful order. They do this not only to the physical world, but to the life of the mind, to matters intellectual and moral.

This phenomenon is culture-making. Humans make cultures. A culture grows out of a cultus (religion). The people share the same vision of what is behind and beyond this world. They agree on what the world is, on what man is, and on who are deities ruling over all. They agree on the moral order that should govern life. In short, a culture incarnates and expresses a religion. Everything in a culture is affected by the religion: art, science, jurisprudence, economics, politics and social etiquette. Religion is the lens through which all of life is viewed and understood. The group of people sharing a location, sharing this religion, then shape their world so as to cultivate their idea of reality.

The account of the Tower of Babel reveals a time when mankind had one culture, spoke one language, and was intent on symbolising their one idolatrous religion with a Tower. God’s scattering of the nations was both judgement and mercy. In the diversifying of language (and therefore of religion and culture), God “determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of u” (Acts 17:26-27)

The call of Abram is the beginning of God creating a culture for Himself, from which will come the redemption of all other cultures.

Cultures are humanly created systems of meaning. They are systems of meaning growing out of a cultus, that in turn cultivate a shared sentiment about reality.

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.