One of the most commonly asked – and least satisfyingly answered – questions in the church is this:  how should Christians relate to culture?

Answers to this extremely important question range from “Christians should have nothing to do with culture” to “Christians should be directing culture”.  At least part of the reason for the vastly different answers is that the Bible gives us seemingly contradictory guidance on the matter.  On the one hand, the Bible says, “Do not love the world or anything in the world.  If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.” (1Jo 2:15)  On the other hand, Jesus said, “let your light shine before men that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mat 5:14)  The first verse certainly seems to say that we should distance ourselves from “the world” (culture?) while the second strongly suggests that we’re supposed to be living out our lives and our faith in the midst of the world (culture?).

Now, I don’t believe the Bible is contradictory, in part because I believe it to be inspired Scripture but also simply because I’ve had too many experiences where two passages that seemed to conflict turned out not to conflict at all, once they were both properly understood.  I think that is the case here.  In short, John is not saying that all culture is evil and to be avoided.  In 1Jo 2:15, he’s using “the world” as a metaphor for the entire sphere of life that is apart from God.  On the other hand, Jesus didn’t mean to say that we should live out our lives with no concern for the kinds of people we associate with or the kinds of influences that…well, influence us.  The whole truth is to be found somewhere in between these two extremes.

But this question of how Christians should relate to culture is difficult to answer for another, much simpler reason:  most of us aren’t entirely sure what culture is.  If we use “culture” as a synonym for non-Christian beliefs, practices, etc. then of course Christians will necessarily have an uneasy, if not downright adversarial, relationship with culture.  But is that what culture really is?  Of course not, and we need look no further for evidence than the fact that we can and do speak of the “Christian culture”:

“Evangelical Christian culture has a specific idea of what the third commandment entails…” (www.stuffchristianculturelikes.com)

 In spite of the increasing secularization of culture both in the West and in the world at large, I feel that the outlook for Christian culture is brighter than it has been for a considerable time — perhaps even two hundred and fifty years. (catholiceducation.org)

 Obviously you can’t have a Christian culture if culture=non-Christian.  But what do we mean by a phrase such as “Christian culture”? Or, for that matter, what does the word “culture” mean at all?

My goal in this short article isn’t to answer the much more difficult question of how Christians are to relate to culture but rather to set the stage for that discussion in upcoming articles.  For now, all I am trying to do is build some  consensus about what we are even referring to.

As you might expect, there is no shortage of definitions for culture:

  • Culture is the characteristics of a particular group of people, defined by everything from language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts. (livescience.com)
  • …for anthropologists and other behavioral scientists, culture is the full range of learned human behavior patterns. (anthro.palomar.edu)
  • a concept central to anthropology, encompassing all human phenomena that are not purely results of human genetics. Specifically, the term “culture” in American anthropology had two meanings: (1) the evolved human capacity to classify and represent experiences with symbols, and to act imaginatively and creatively; and (2) the distinct ways that people living in different parts of the world classified and represented their experiences, and acted creatively. (wikipedia)

You’ll notice that, while these definitions vary considerably, they do have certain elements in common.  Perhaps most importantly, all of these definitions focus on human behavior or, more precisely, on learned human behavior.   The last example above even speaks directly about behaviors which are not “purely results of human genetics.”  In other words, these definitions all speak of things which human beings choose to do.  This is not at all a bad place to start, but I think we can be a bit more precise.  The word we’re trying to define here actually comes from the Latin cultura which literally means “tillage” and was used to speak of what farmers did to the ground in order to make it a better place for raising their crops.  In later years, to “cultivate” something came to mean the nurturing care of something in order to produce a desired result and “culture” meant, loosely speaking, the thing which resulted from such actions.  Understanding this etymology of the word gives us, I think, a very helpful way to think about culture.  Give this some thought:  culture is the result of whatever human beings do with creation.  Defined this way, color is not culture because it is something God created, but associating blue with boys and pink with girls is culture; it is what we have done with creation.  Sound is not, strictly speaking, culture, but the music we make with sound is culture.

Much that qualifies as culture is deliberate (e.g. farming, music, writing, architecture, etc.), but not all of it.  Sometimes we do things without being aware of why we do them or even of the fact that we’re doing them.  This is particularly common when we are simply mimicking things we’ve been exposed to from birth (e.g. language, patterns of behavior, etc.) but these too involve things we do with creation so they must be thought of as culture.  Now, obviously, some of what humans do with creation is good or in keeping with God’s nature, commands and desires.  Some of what humans do with creation is bad or contrary to God’s nature, command and desires.  But the act of doing things with creation – that is, culture-making – is a God-given mandate:  God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” (Gen 1:28)  While any given act of culture-making can result in culture which is good or evil, the act of culture-making itself is morally neutral. It is the intentions which motivate culture-making and the results of that activity which can be judged from a moral perspective.  I believe that the intentions and the results must be assessed independently.  It is theoretically possible for someone to have bad intentions but to produce something good or for someone with good (or neutral) intentions to produce something evil.  In either case, both the intentions and the results should be assessed independently.  Good intentions do not necessarily get someone off the hook if they have evil consequences,  nor does someone deserve immunity for an evil act just because it happened to have a unanticipated good result.

However, this business of intentions and results raises an important point:  we are not always conscious of the morality of our culture-making activities because what we do with creation is often learned, at least in part,  from our families and others we associate with.  This is not to say that there is nothing unique about a given person’s culture-making but only that we learn the craft of culture-making from others and we can easily – and unconsciously – follow such learned patterns for the rest of our lives. The result of this is that there many patterns of behavior that are observable across large populations who have common influences.   In practice, however, we often use the word “culture” to refer to these large-scale tendencies that are observable across populations.  Thus, we often speak about such things as, for example, American culture while recognizing that this is an oversimplification.  It is often the case that when someone speaks of “culture” they are actually referring to what we might call common culture.  Common culture refers to the patterns of culture-making that are observable in a given population.

Of course, it is also true that, within large populations that possess a common culture, there are many variations on the basic themes.  So, for instance, most people in the United States speak English, but it is usually only in the South that you’ll hear people use English to express the sentiment, “Ya’ll come back now, hear?”  And even within the South there are people who never say this.  In the same way, most European/Western music is built off the seven-note scale (diatonic) but there are pockets of people in the West who very much like the sound of the sitar which often produces notes that do not correspond to any diatonic note.  The point is simply that, while we can speak of culture in general terms, we must always be aware that what we do with creation has infinite varieties.   When the group we are speaking of is large, many descriptions of the group’s culture will tend towards oversimplification (e.g. Americans listen to rock and roll). When the group we are speaking of is small, many descriptions may actually be defining characteristics of that group (e.g. Goths dress in black).  What is important to understand here is simply that what most people mean by “culture” is really common culture, or those patterns of culture-making which are observable in a given population.

When we think of culture as what we do with creation then it should become clear that all human beings are culture-makers.  We cannot help it.  Obviously when we plow a field or prune a rosebush or paint a picture or build a building or plan a city we are shaping creation in various ways.  But culture-making is far more pervasive than this.  Every time we speak, we force air to carry sounds for us so that others will understand our intent; this too is culture-making.  Of course, some people affect larger swaths of creation than others or do so in a way that others mimic, thus furthering the impact, but all human beings are culture-makers.  It’s just what we do.

When we understand this, it also becomes clear that it makes no sense at all to say that Christians should avoid culture.  The very act of telling someone to avoid culture is an act of culture making!  This would be like someone telling you that it is wrong to tell someone what to do.  However, precisely this kind of self-refuting behavior is relatively common among Christians.  When a congregation develops a group consensus that Christians should avoid being affected by culture, they have actually created a common culture, which they want Christians to be affected by.  What they really mean to say is “you should avoid that culture in favor of this one.”  This is not necessarily a bad thing, especially when there are features of the other culture which are antithetical to Christian living and growth.  However, it should be noted that the call to “avoid culture” is really only a call to “avoid that culture” and this avoidance is really the creation of a new culture.

It is only when we understand this inescapable reality of culture-making that we can begin to wrestle effectively with the more serious questions of how Christians are to relate to the culture(s) around them.