We hear these kinds of expressions all the time. But, a problem we run into when we talk about culture is failure to adequately define the term. The result is that we often get into arguments over whether culture is good or bad and end up arguing that this person or that church or that group is for, against, anti-, counter-, or even sold out to culture. Tempers flare, accusations fly, and no one realizes the discussion has been about different things.
To begin with, most common understandings of culture are too narrow and limiting. Some people think of culture only as “pop” culture. Pop culture is often rightly criticized because so much of it is vulgar, shallow, and un-, if not outright anti-Christian. However, all of pop culture in and of itself is not necessarily objectionable. Even some pop culture can be a vehicle of beauty, joy, and thought provoking themes.
Others go to the opposite extreme and think of culture as only “high-brow” art, literature, and classical music. Some think of this type of culture as inherently more acceptable and desirable; however, elitism is a possibility and there is plenty in high-brow culture that is vulgar, shallow, and anti-Christian. In and of itself, this type of “culture” is neither acceptable nor objectionable. It depends on the content and its purpose.
At the same time too many Christians confuse culture with the Biblical concept of the “world.” If they are the same, then culture should be rejected, because Christians are told to “not love the world or the things that belong to the world” (1 John 2:15). “World” here, however, does not refer to the physical world we live in, or the world that God loves and for which He sent His Son (John 3:16). It is rather the world of humankind – individuals, structures, systems, worldviews – under demonic control and hostile to God. Certainly, the distinction between culture and the “world” that is hostile to Christ is not always a clear one. We simply need to remember that:
n God created all that is, the spiritual, emotional, intellectual, and the creative, all of which were “very good.” Therefore, humankind was given the ability to develop culture and cultures.
n The fall resulted in the “world.” That is, our sin resulted in the marring of the image of God in humans, the scarring of the entire creation, including cultures, and opened the door for Satan’s ongoing activities in the world. The “world” as a force of opposition to God was formed.
n The “world” wars with God for our allegiance. The entire creation is fallen and in need or redemption. Because creation is fallen, human culture and all human cultures, are fallen. In them are elements both good and bad.
Culture, however, involves much more than just pop culture or “cultured” activities. It is language, customs, attitudes, values and expectations, and a way of life, all with elements of good and bad, and all by sin. The challenge for us culture bound beings is threefold:
n We have to evaluate our own culture. Because we are born in and of a culture we are blind to many negative aspects of our own culture and how these affect us. Total objectivity towards our own culture is impossible. Even if we agree that all cultures are to be judged by the Scriptures, we are reading, interpreting, and applying the Bible from within our own culture. The result is that we are able to see the deficiencies in another culture better than those in my own culture.
n We have to be careful with cultural comparison. Because I am a product of my culture, I tend to see mine as better than any other and as the standard by which all other cultures are to be judged. This can lead to an unwillingness to listen to, learn from, and appreciate other cultures. This does not mean that all cultures are morally and ethically equivalent. Biblically and historically, such a cultural relativism is unsustainable. Some cultures do approximate a Biblically based morality and ethic more than others and there are absolute Biblical grounds on which to judge the failings of cultures, including my own.
n We are facing the continued mixing, melding, and transposing of cultures. On the one hand, some aspects of the American culture (primarily consumerism and popular entertainment) are sweeping the globe. On the other hand, it appears that the rising cultures of China and India may dominate the twenty-first century. At the same time, almost all developed and developing countries are experiencing migrations and immigrations of peoples, resulting in the rise of multiculturalism, for good or bad. This means that fewer cultures are as “pure” and distinct as they were even a quarter of a century ago. Some celebrate this multiculturalism, while many others respond with growing prejudice, tribalism, and violent nationalism.
So, if culture is what and who we are, good and bad, what should be our attitude toward culture? More importantly, how do we evaluate culture? Although Scripture does not give us a definition of culture, it does show God’s hand in initiating culture, mankind’s hand in developing culture, and sin’s destructive influences on culture. Therefore . . .
1) Culture is God’s gift to us. However, because humans are fallen, so is culture, for it is made up of humans. There is both good and bad in culture. The challenge is to biblically identify which is which.
2) We are all culturally bound and inevitably “sold out to culture.” Some of being “sold out” is simply who we are and how we do things. They are what make us different from and interesting to each other. Some of being “sold out” is unbiblical, and we are often comfortably blind to those aspects of our culture. The challenge is to allow Scripture to challenge our own cultural presuppositions before we challenge those of others.
3) All of culture and all cultures are subject, therefore, to the evaluation and judgment of Scripture. The challenge is to do that in partnership with other cultures, all being open to reproof and correction.
4) Biblical culture is above all other cultures, although we fall far short of doing it perfectly. Being a disciple of Christ and living in Christian community rises above and transcends all culture and cultures. Now, it is impossible to live the Christian life in a cultural vacuum, but even when we do experience Christian life and community within culture, they must never be identified fully with any culture.
5) We must, therefore, present that Christian lifestyle, community, and culture packaged culturally when appropriate, counter cultural when necessary, accommodating to the culture at times, always in culture, but never fully identified with culture.
This is our Christian and our cultural challenge.
Next article: “Understanding multiculturalism”