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.
4 Suggestions for Post-Election Listening - The Gospel Coalition kindly posted my article, “4 Suggestions for Post-Election Listening.”
9 hours ago