When we think of “culture” very often our thoughts drift to the Box Office or the Voting Booth, betraying a superficial understanding of just what culture is. Contrary to popular perspectives, culture should not be relegated to the realm of the popular or political.
Nor is it merely that aspect of human living which most of us cannot reach, located too “high” for the mundane taste of ordinary men — opera, expensive art and fine wines. Culture is more than the ideals of politics and the product of the Arts.
What is Culture?
What then is culture? Culture is the shared beliefs, behaviors, and artifacts of a particular group of people who share a common language. If this seems all encompassing, that’s because it is. Robert Redfield helpfully defined culture as “act and artifact,” denoting the behavioral and concrete dimensions of culture. Culture encompasses what we do and what we make. Culture is expressed through the activity of voting as well as the creation of the digital voting device. Culture is behavior and product.
Cultural critic Ken Myers defines culture concisely as “what we make of the world.” This double-entendre refers to the activity of making artifacts, as well as our beliefs about what and how we make it. This is a helpful aphorism. Culture is conceptual and concrete, idea and artifact. It is the lyrics and the music of the songs we sing, the beliefs and the books we create. In sum, culture is act, artifact, and assessment or belief.
Jesus is Cultural
Culture is everywhere interwoven in everything for everyone. Your attire, your values and your behaviors — artifact, assessment and action. Wearing flip-flops is cultural. Driving to work is cultural. Talking on a cell phone is cultural. Going to church is cultural. Covenants are cultural (patterned after Hittite treaties). Your Bible is cultural (a product of Gutenberg’s press). The cross is cultural (Roman torture device).
No one is culturally neutral. We are all enculturated from infancy to grave. To be human is to be cultural, and when Jesus became man, He became cultural. Jesus spoke Aramaic, went to Jewish temples, drank wine, wore sandals and grew a beard.
We are Cultural
To bring this home, let’s think about some cultural practices. When English-speaking American women wake up in the morning and choose to brush their teeth, they pick up a cultural artifact, engage in a cultural act, and may make a cultural assessment — extra white teeth will make you more attractive than not-so-white teeth. This entire process, from act to assessment is cultural.
There are many cultures that find this whole process of tooth brushing amusing. However, those cultures have equally curious actions, artifacts and assessments. For instance, a village of Shan Tai speaking women wake up and put a towel on their head and a pipe in their mouth. Their assessment of this act is that it is feminine. Can you picture a Hollywood star with a towel on her head and a pipe in her mouth?
The Relativity of Culture
To some degree, culture is relative. In some cultures, women brush their teeth a lot and in other cultures women some pipes a lot. Both are considered feminine, expressing a relative femininity.
However, some things are not relative; there are transcultural truths that are always true no matter what culture we live in. Let’s hope wearing a towel and smoking a pipe is not one of them!
With a better understanding of culture in place, we can think more carefully about our “engagement” with it. We can be wise, discerning disciples who live out the lordship of Jesus through the power of the gospel in our own cultures.
All too often when we speak of “engaging culture” we rarely take into account the complexity of culture. With our more comprehensive definition in place, it becomes quite clear that our engagement with cultural acts, artifacts, and beliefs must be well thought out. Conservative or liberal views that insist “the culture” is necessarily something to be attacked or defended are misguided.
Engagement isn’t mere participation in culture (liberal Christian) as opposed to refusal to participate in culture (conservative Christian). Rather, cultures are complex systems of act, artifact and belief that need to be carefully engaged.
While I believe that some cultural behaviors and beliefs should be rejected, deciding what to reject and what to celebrate should be a careful and thoughtful process. Like it or not, culture is something we engage, deliberately or un-deliberately, consciously or unconsciously. The challenge is to engage culture in a very deliberate and theologically-informed manner.
The remarkable thing about culture is that it allows society to create, function and promote human flourishing — civilization. However, every human is responsible for their actions in contributing or detracting from civilization.
The Church’s response is motivated by certain beliefs. We need some kind of belief lens or worldview to help us make ethical decisions about our cultural values and beliefs. Are they good or bad, right or wrong, constructive or deconstructive, wise or foolish? Do we engage culture as agents of redemption or as consumers of entertainment? Do we engage culture as fearful critics or as uncritical participants? We all engage culture; we have no choice. The question is: “How will we engage culture?”
Redemption and Creation
In an article, Westminster professor William Edgar reminds us that one of Paul’s lessons was how culture can be redeemed:
It is never enough simply to decry the evils of the world, and then to offer salvation either as a way of warring against culture or as an escape from the world. In his Mars Hill speech, Paul reminds his listeners of the original purpose of history. God is the maker of the world and everything in it. He is to be worshiped as such.
Edgar suggests that we employ Dick Keyes’ concept of “near and far idols.” The near idol surrenders God-given cultural dominion to worship at the altar of another god, like power, money or success. The far idol is our actual trust in the near idol, a belief that power, money or success is reliable or will bring us happiness.
Identifying near and far idols is redemptive engagement with culture (or applying the gospel to everyday life). Edgar says also that redemptive engagement happens through redirecting or redefining cultural patterns affected by the Fall, such as Paul’s interaction with Greek philosophy.
We could say that there’s both external and internal redemptive engagement. The external redeems visible culture; the internal redeems our invisible relationship with culture.
In his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch has advocated not only the redemption of culture, but also the making of culture — good culture for an infinitely good Creator. Instead of simply condemning, critiquing, consuming, and copying culture, the way forward is to create a good alternative. Otherwise, we are simply left at square one, with very little Christian progress in various cultures.
So, instead of simply bemoaning bad movies, make better ones. Instead of simply copying contemporary music and inserting Christian lyrics, create new music and contribute to cultural change through innovation and creativity. Let’s draw attention to our Creator through superior or innovative cultural action.
I suggest that we engage culture both redemptively and creatively — credemptively. Instead of choosing between making and redeeming culture, let’s do both. We can make good culture and redeem bad culture, address near and far idols, contribute to human flourishing through all kinds of cultural expression — Art, Science, Technology, and so on. Just think of the gospel change that can occur through credemption.
Copyright 2009 Jonathan Dodson. All rights reserved.