Monthly Archives: January 2018

Culture, Not Race

Scripture does not define the word culture, but it certainly describes the phenomenon of culture-making. Humans are meaning-making creatures, who fashion their world after their values, religions, and world-views.

The Bible also describes the behaviour or way of life that comes from a certain culture. The Greek word anastrophe is translated conduct, or way of life. In contrast to those who define culture as “everything people do” the biblical writers see one’s anastrophe as rooted in one’s religion. That is, idolatry and false systems produce one kind of anastrophe, whereas Christianity is supposed to produce another.

as obedient children, not conforming yourselves to the former lusts, as in your ignorance; but as He who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct [anastrophe], because it is written, “Be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on the Father, who without partiality judges according to each one’s work, conduct [anastrophe – verb form] yourselves throughout the time of your stay here in fear; knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct [anastrophe] received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot. (1 Pet. 1:14-19)

Peter contrasts one form of culture with another. One was received by tradition (which is simply a culture stretched over time), the other is shaped by the new life in Christ.

Here we see the tragic misstep of equating culture with race. For if culture and race are synonymous, no culture can be critiqued. One would then be judging the value of a people based upon skin colour, which is racism proper.

Scripture does not critique people based upon their ethnos (race). It does, however, critique their anastrophe, which is to say, their culture. If the culture of a people has produced immorality, idolatry, perversions, Scripture condemns the culture. In condemning the culture, it is condemning the belief-system that created that behaviour. 

One sees the sad result of equating race and culture in South Africa. Here, untaught believers will still refer to “my culture” as a contrast to another believer’s “culture”. You will routinely hear people say that missionaries brought “their culture” and imposed it upon Africa. Some dear black believers are desperately trying to discover some pristine form of “black Christian culture” untouched by Western hands. Believers speak of certain ways of worship as belonging to one culture (by which they mean ethnicity) as opposed to another. 

Now I, for one, rejoice in the diversity of our country, and of my local church. I love the many colours that look back at me on a Sunday morning. I enjoy being called “Mfundisi” (teacher) by some of the members. I enjoy tasting, hearing and seeing the mix of foods, languages and social customs that mingle in our local church. A multi-ethnic church is a joy. Racism is an evil, and I will, as the occasion suggests, write and preach against racism as a sin. 

But our church is not “multi-cultural”. That would be equivalent to saying, it is “multi-anastrophal”, or “multi-religious”. No, in the biblical sense, our church is uni-cultural. We love and honour Christ. With Scripture as our final authority, it shapes the loves, beliefs and behaviour of those who call themselves part of our church. However much melatonin the skin of the various members contain, however many of our country’s eleven national languages (yes, eleven!) they speak, however different some of our social customs may be, we are actually bound and shaped by one culture: Christian culture. 

I recognise speaking of “Christian culture” raises several other questions. What place is there for differing expressions of music or art in this supposed Christian culture? Has Christian culture existed in the past, and what did it look like? What if one ethnic group has dominated in historic Christian culture? What element of missions was pure ethnic preference, and what was true Christian culture? Should modern missionaries attempt to leave the cultures they find in as pristine a state as possible? We will attempt to deal with these questions as we rehabilitate this mangled word. 

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.