What is culture?
Culture is part of the ‘natural habitat’ we inhabit daily as we live our lives, yet something - like the water fish swim in - that we seldom stop to seriously consider. It’s one of those words we throw around and assume that everyone knows what it is and what we mean, but sometimes find it hard to actually define it. We feel caught off-guard.
It's sort of like if you’re asked to define “what is irony?” (Answer: it’s what you’re experiencing while struggling to define the word “irony”)
This 5-part series of articles will explore the theology of culture: what it is and what should be our relationship to it as Christians. At the end of every article I'll suggest what we can do and some questions to help you reflect more on what's been covered.
A Definition of Culture
The original word “culture” has three different senses coming from its Latin roots. Firstly, colere which refers to agriculture - as in cultivating crops. Secondly, colonus, which has to do with inhabiting something. And finally, cultus, which has to do with honour and worship - think our English word, “cult”. There is an intrinsically religious aspect of culture which we will look at later in this series of articles.
There are many ways the word culture is used. For our purposes for this series of articles, this is what we mean by ‘culture’:
Culture is the cumulative and shared product of what people believe, value, do and make as image bearers of God in various times, groups and places.
So, for us, the culture we live in is the result of what people have and continue to believe, value, do and make publicly in our particular groups, area and time in which we live. We cannot help but create culture and live in it.
Result of the Imago Dei
We cannot help but be ‘cultural’ beings because we are all made in the image of God (imago Dei). Genesis 1 & 2 lay the groundwork for any Christian discussion of culture. In Genesis 1, we see God create everything and then bring order to the raw materials of creation by separating, organizing, and filling the spaces He had created in order to make them functional, flourishing and fruitful. So, when we talk about humans “imaging” God - we are talking about our activity of imitating God by taking raw materials and bringing order to chaos to make things functional, flourish and fruitful.
God gives us the creation mandate which is the foundation for culture in Genesis 1:28,
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
There are a few important things to note about the creation mandate:
Blessing - It starts with His blessing given to all humanity
Procreation - this is an ongoing command to humanity to multiply within the bounds of marriage. The family is the primary unit of community and societies.
Subduing the earth - the word does not mean a destructive or violent subjugation but rather enabling us to make sense of creation and to understand the possibilities that creation represents. It is our cultivation of creation’s ‘raw materials’ into something productive.
Have dominion - this is the natural result of humanity fulfilling the command to fill the earth and subdue it. Humanity is to take its place as the crown of creation caring for and ruling over creation as God’s vice-regents.
Fulfilling the creation mandate produces what we call culture. Bruce Ashford comments,
“Pause for a moment to reflect on the fact that God’s command to work was a command to change and even enhance what he had made. Adam and Eve were not supposed to leave God’s creation as it was, but to make something out of it. They and their descendants would be able to “work the garden” not only by cultivating plant life (agri-culture), but also by cultivating the arts, the sciences, or the public square (culture in general).” (Bruce Riley Ashford, Every Square Inch, p. 26)
As humanity is fruitful and multiplies, we form new people groups who are image bearers meant to glorify God. As we subdue the earth, we take the raw materials and potential of God’s creation and harness them to make tools, technology, art, music and all the artifacts of culture. Finally, as we exercise our dominion, we maintain order over the earth resulting in governmental structures, set up just laws to order societies and care for our environment and wildlife. In short, the creation mandate is the basis of culture.
Culture after the Fall
Ever since the Fall in Genesis 2, our world under the curse of sin. But does the Fall destroy the creation mandate and, by implication, the goodness of culture?
I. The goodness of creation is not eradicated but corrupted
No. As we saw, culture is not inherently evil but rather the product of the creation mandate as we image God as humans. However, the Fall’s curse does affect all of God’s good creation - more specifically to our creation of culture. Sin corrupts its direction. The Fall doesn’t totally destroy goodness, it corrupts it.
The structures and elements of the material creation itself still retain aspects of their goodness from creation. The Fall doesn’t automatically make apples or wood or even cats evil (though some people might contest that last example). But it does corrupt the intentions of humans and the direction to which they are oriented. They are no longer directed towards glorifying their Creator as they ought with the work of their hands, words of their lips and affections of their hearts. Rather, now they have disordered and misdirected works, words and desires.
“Every cultural context is structurally good, but directionally corrupt. For this reason, we must live firmly in the midst of our cultural contexts (structurally), all the while seeking to steer our cultural realities toward Christ rather than toward idols (directionally).” (Bruce Ashford, Every Square Inch, p.18)
For example, in the creation mandate - we were told to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth”. This command to procreation forms the basis of the family unit which is the foundation of societies. However, since Humanity's Fall, we have adultery, abuse, abandonment, abortion, etc which corrupt what was meant to be a good part of culture.
So, while in this series of articles I’ll be pointing out and critiquing a lot of the corruption of the culture around us, I don’t want you to get the idea that culture is inherently evil. It is sin's corruption that is the real problem.
II. We become idolatrous
Culture reflects the fallenness of the creation’s curse of sin, while also retaining some of the goodness of its original intention. Thus, because of the misorientation and misdirection of our intentions and desires, culture can reflect our fundamental sin problem of idolatry. All culture is a reflection of the people who create and live in it. Our fundamental nature as ‘worshippers’ remains unchanged after the Fall - we still work and act in such a way to bring glory to something. And so, all cultures will also reflect the sinful idolatry of that people group. Some people groups will idolize materialism and wealth, or health and beauty, or status and power, or sex, or prestige and honour, or a host of other things which aren't inherently evil… our hearts are, as Calvin said, a factory of idols and our culture likewise can both enshrine and produce those idols. The things themselves are often good, but our hearts make them into ultimte things - worshipping the created rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:25).
The Culture Wars
So we see that sinful, fallen humanity can create idolatrous culture. Secularism or any other worldview likewise produces a culture. It is often believed that secular culture is neutral because it rejects religion. But I want you to see that it is actually deeply religious. This is because every culture is based on practices, beliefs and affections that shape what type of culture we produce.
“It is interesting that the Latin term "colere"... also refers to religious service, and comes into English as cult, cultic and so on. Culture and cult go together. If a society worships idols, false gods, that worship will govern the culture of that society. If a society worships the true God, that worship will deeply influence, even pervade its culture." (John Frame, The Doctrine of the Christian Life, p. 857)
For Christians, God reforms us into a new people for Himself through faith in the Gospel - as we come to believe, love, and do what we were originally intended to. Therefore, the Gospel itself produces a culture.
Culture is “religion externalized” - it reflects outwardly what we value inwardly, it is how we worship and show what is really in our hearts. (See Dr. Joe Boot’s article, Christ and Culture) So, when we’re talking about what we see as the ‘culture wars’ we are talking about nothing less than competing religions, competing worship and rival gods. Our experience as Christians of the ‘culture wars’ is inevitable since we are dealing with two (or more) completely antithetical visions of life and human flourishing.
Today, in our context in the Western world - many of us feel like there is a growing hostility in our culture towards Christians. For many decades we enjoyed being a part of the majority culture in the West. The majority of Western first-world countries were founded on Judeo-Christian principles, and even our laws and foundational documents reflect this. So for a time, being a Christian carried much cultural advantage and little cost - especially when compared to Christianity in other times and places.
However, the times and tides have changed as our culture has moved from being ‘Christianized’ to Postmodern, and now being called ‘Post-Christian’ as many of the formerly shared fundamental assumptions Christians had with the larger culture no longer exist. This has happened at what is 'warp speed' by historical standards! However, the vestiges of our Christian heritage still linger.
The majority of people still believe in the fundamentals of human dignity, freedom and rights. But the roots of these ideas? Our progressive secular culture seeks the kingdom without the King. It tries to replicate its own vision of the kingdom - a world with human rights, dignity, freedom, love, equality, joy, etc - but without Jesus at the centre. Indeed, in much of our culture, Jesus isn’t even in the vicinity of their thought!
However, culture apart from Christ will always lead to chaos because since the Fall, sin pervades all of our cultural activities and products. Only a Christian worldview can bring hope to our culture. We cannot destroy the foundation and expect that the structure will still stand. As the influence of Christianity erodes, even these vestiges of its heritage will fade to be replaced by a culture that reflects what our societies truly worship. This is what we hope to explore in some more detail in the following articles in this series. I hope that you will join me on this journey!
Questions to reflect on:
Do you sometimes feel tempted to dismiss all culture as inherently bad or embrace all of it as purely good?
Have you ever considered culture as “religion externalized?” What are some ways you’ve experienced our culture’s idolatry or hostility?
Next week in our next article in this series we will consider the religious nature of culture. Stay tuned!
Articles in this series:
Series Introduction (Nov 4)
*dates are when the articles are scheduled to be published