Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Church and Culture, 2

What is "culture"?

As Justin pointed out in the comments section of the last post, this is not an easily defined term. We use it as though it were... kinda the way we use pronouns like "it" too easily and too often as though everyone knows what "it" is we're saying.

Dictionary.com offers 14 definitions for the term culture. While in college, I once read an anthropology article that documented some 73 distinct uses of the term culture in the research literature. Okay, anything with 73 definitions is vague at best and probably close to useless as a specific enough framework for explaining anything.

And there, I think, is where the problem begins when you ask a question like "what is the relationship between the church and culture?" Nearly everyone has a different thing in mind when they hear the question.

There are two potential pitfalls with using the term culture. We can either define it so broadly that it really is meaningless, useless for actually drawing the kind of distinctions we think are helpful in some way. Or, you can define it so narrowly that the subsequent proliferation of mini-cultures is overwhelming.

Another problem: people do in fact move in and out of various cultures and maintain identities in differing cultural groups. So, culture is a fluid construct. It's a little like nailing Jell-O to the wall.

But here is a crack at it for the purposes of this discussion. When most people use the term culture, they generally mean:

The human production of ways of living and belief, generally intended by its adherents as an expression of the good or excellent life, passed on to other members of a significantly-sized common group.

Culture is a human production. It's what people make up. As early as Genesis 4, in the genealogy of Cain, we see the biblical identification of human cultural production with Jubal, Jabal, and Jubal-Cain. There is artistic production, animal husbandry and metal working--all indications of human activity.

Culture is or includes ways of living and belief. How we act and what we think constitutes "culture." Here is where we're in danger of arriving at 73 definitions or a million mini-cultures, unless we define it by some measurable group size (hence my qualification "significantly-sized"). I realize that not everyone will agree with this qualification, especially since I've not defined it, but not every gathering of 50 people who share a common musical interest, for example, constitutes a culture or sub-culture.

Culture is a statement about what is excellent in life or the good life itself. All cultures have some negative aspects to them. After all, culture is a human production and therefore limited and fallen. But, at their root, cultural systems attempt to codify and spread a particular view of what is excellent or good in life. That statement is shaped by certain resource and envirnomental concerns, but wherever we find a culture, we find people attempting to live out a view of the world that they believe to be good in either some moral, aesthetic, transactional, or instrumental sense. This isn't to say that what we find in any given human culture is good, but that it's participants are making the statement that they believe it to be good.

Last, culture is passed on to others. Usually there is generational transmission. Cultures, like most individual life forms, look to replicate and protect themselves. There is an impulse toward survival which most often takes the form of teaching those who come behind.

Okay... that's my little attempt at a definition. In the next post, I want to argue and have you all correct, improve, edit, redirect, rebuke, etc. the idea that there really are only two cultures in the world and that maintaining this view is vital for answering our question, "what relationship should there be between church and culture?"

Now, this post is my "thinking out loud." So, again, all comments are welcome.

7 comments:

Justin Buzzard said...

Good. I like/agree with the definition you've got going.

Joe Holland said...

Very good definition. It sets the discussion off in a good direction. It is very much like the definition I adopted for my own from David Wells' book No Place for Truth:
"..the set of values, the network of beliefs that are institutionalized in a people's collective life and that govern their behavior. Culture, then, is the outward disciplines in which inherited meanings and morality, beliefs and ways of behaving are preserved. It is the collectively assumed scheme of understanding that defines both what is normal and what meanings we should attach to public behavior." p. 167

David McCrory said...

Generally speaking a culture is derived from the cultus of a people. Religious motivations, where ever they are grounded produce the given culture. In other words, a culture is merely the fruit of underlying principles and values that motivate people to action. Consider any time period or group of people and look to their arts, literature, architecture, etc. and you will find expressions of these religious and fundamental principles for life.

So for the Christian, the long term answer to the ungodly culture of today is to produce a completely Christian culture - a reformation of culture that provides a true alternative to institutionalized education, religion, etc. that promote ungodly conviction. Christians must renounce the prevailing philisophies of today grounded in postmodern secularism and begin to build a culture where everything is oriented around Jesus Christ and His Law/Word.

FellowElder said...

Joe,
Thanks for the Wells quote. Excellent definition.

David, I appreciate your definition as well. Your second paragraph anticipates part of the crux of the issue. It'll be good to tease some of this out with you.

Thabiti

Matthew LaPine said...

Generally speaking a culture is derived from the cultus of a people. Religious motivations, where ever they are grounded produce the given culture. In other words, a culture is merely the fruit of underlying principles and values that motivate people to action. Consider any time period or group of people and look to their arts, literature, architecture, etc. and you will find expressions of these religious and fundamental principles for life.
David would you say that good religion=good culture and vice versa? What you said sounds very much like T.S. Elliot's Christianity and Culture.

Nicholas Cardot said...

Great post!

David McCrory said...

Matthew, I would say true religion produces a righteous culture. But we must bear in mind our limitations at expression due to our fallen nature. There is a pound of flesh in all we do. Therefore inherent in our culture (and our religion) will be error. Yet, rightly understood, the culture we embrace is an outworking of our worship.

Likewise, cultural holiness, subjected to the Word of God, is merely an outworking of individual personal holiness. Cultural change begins one person at a time. As we conform our lives to Christ and allow that to manifest itself, thought, word and deed, it necessarily impacts those around us. This influence, used by the Spirit, and rightly applied, can then begin to refelct change on a larger scale. A scale that will change the culture.

What is truly sad is that Christians used to know and believe these things.