When speaking on the topic of faith and culture, I usually begin with a pop quiz. I ask people to turn to the person sitting next to them and see if they can come up with a definition of culture, and then decide whether Christians should be for or against it. As you can probably guess, the responses are all over the map. By the way, how would you answer those two questions?
Why is this? Well, to be honest, culture may be one of the hardest words to define in the English language because it is used in many different ways. But if we don’t have a clear picture of what culture is, then it becomes extremely difficult to determine what Christianity’s relationship to it ought to be.
In short, we need a robust theology and philosophy of culture that we can understand and then communicate to those around us. In this post, I want to unpack and clarify some concepts that will be essential to establishing our biblical basis for engaging culture.
Culture is as old as humankind is, but the word derives from the Latin cultura and colere, which describe the tending or cultivating of something, typically soil and livestock. In the eighteenth century, it would come to apply to the cultivation of ideas (education) and customs (manners). Then there are sociological and anthropological definitions, which are helpful in their own way but involve hard- to-remember phrases such as “transmitted and inherited patterns and symbols.”
Theologian Kevin Vanhoozer suggests:
“Culture is the environment and atmosphere in which we live and breathe with others.”
Philosopher Garry DeWeese helpfully unpacks this concept a bit more by defining culture as a
“shared system of stories and symbols, beliefs and values, traditions and practices, and the media of communication that unite a people synchronically (at a given time) and diachronically (through history).”
The most transferable way I have found to summarize what culture is comes from Andy Crouch: “Culture is what people make of the world.” In other words, people interact and organize while taking all the raw materials of planet Earth and doing something with them.
This covers everything from microchips to BBQ, computers to cathedrals, music composition to the development of law and government, city planning to education, and entertainment to Facebook. How people communicate, work, travel, order their familial and societal lives, and create technology are all artifacts of culture. And since Christians are people too, we are necessarily involved in the creation of culture. There is no such thing as a culture-free Christianity.
So we clearly can’t be against culture in this sense because Christians, as part of humanity, were given the mandate (in Genesis 1:27 – 28) to make something of the world.
I will have more to say on this in the days and weeks ahead as we explore what it means for us to live faithfully in a post-Christian culture.
How do you think Christians should relate to culture? I’d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment below.
Would you like to explore the relationship of Christianity and Culture further? I have written more in depth on that here.
If you enjoyed this post, then you would like 8 Things Christians Must Understand About Our Cultural Moment.
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