When most people use the term "culture," they're referring more often than not to ways of being and meanings that some identifiable group of people have developed. And strictly speaking, culture is not synonymous with "race" or "ethnicity." There may be overlap between the terms, but they are not identical. Race and ethnicity refer to the people in view; culture refers to the habits and customs and beliefs of a group of people within or across ethnic lines.
Though we may speak of differing human cultures to some extent (they differ in some particular beliefs or modes of dress, for example), there are really only two cultures in the world.
There is that culture which is the product of man. Man is its progenitor, and the cause of man is its aim. Both the social actions and the ethics of this culture are determined by men. In human culture, there is the attempt to speculatively construct meaning and purpose in life. By "speculatively," I mean an attempt to arrive at meaning and purpose "out of man" himself.
Perhaps a representative example of this would be hip hop culture. Here is a new culture, in many regards, that has spread in the course of a generation across ethnic and international lines. Hip hop is as big in Japan or Africa as it is in Long Beach or Brooklyn. It's a culture that has its origins with man (actually, largely adolescents). From its inception, it's been an attempt through language, dress, music, dance and art to state a philosophy of life. As a culture, the hip hop vision of the "good life" greatly values material possession, hedonistic pleasure, and valorizes particular images of masculinity and feminity as ideals. There are ethics. A kind of respect is highly prized, so any affronts are generally serious (in some cases, life threatening). And there are themes touching upon justice and suffering. There are virtues like neighborhood or group loyalty and authenticity (keepin' it real). In our lifetime, hip hop has been something of a laboratory in the development of culture.
For all that could be said about the particulars and nuances of Hip Hop culture, it is for all intents and purposes the same as every other man-made culture. Its view of the good life centers upon man. Its ethics center upon man. Its virtues are determined by the self-interests of men. The big questions of origin and purpose are all answered speculatively, from inside the thoughts, experiences and aspirations of man.
Man's culture stands in stark contrast to the culture created by God. It's not that human cultures have been altogether unconcerned about God and issues related to the things of God. Most all cultures have some depiction of a supreme being and relate much of life's existence to that being. The great difference is that the culture God creates and gives to His people both originates and terminates outside of man himself. It's not indifferent to men (God uses things like human speech and writing, for example), but neither is it limited to the thoughts and ability of man.
If we were attempting a definition of culture from the vantage point of the people of God, it might read something like: "The God defined ways of living and belief, which authoritatively defines the good or excellent life, entered into not by natural means such as generational transmission, but through a supernatural act of adoption carried out by God himself."
I think what the Bible reveals to us is that part of what God does in the redemption of man is give Him a new culture. We only have space here to sketch this idea through Scripture.
The first culture we find in Scripture is that established by God in the garden. The oft used "God's people in God's place under God's rule" is an apt summation of this idea. In the creation account and the garden narrative of Genesis 2-3, we see God giving to Adam and Eve a defined way of life (marriage, keep the garden, etc.) and an authoritative statement on the good life ("be fruitful and multiply," "eat of this tree you shall surely die"). It is God himself who creates Adam and Eve and who places them as His people in the Garden. This is how life begins.
Genesis 3 records the Fall of man. And interestingly, right on the heels of the Fall arises human efforts at establishing an alternative culture to that forfeited in the Garden. The murderous, vagabond Cain builds a city and names it after his son (3:17). Five generations later, Lamech institutes polygamy (v. 19), places a carnal premium on physical beauty (seen in the meanings of his wives' and daughter's names), and his children become the "fathers" of certain cultural advances like music, metalworking, and nomadic shepherding. By Genesis 6, this human attempt at culture is radically depraved and wiped out. By Genesis 11, man proves incorrigible and his depravity intractable at the tower of Babel.
But alongside the events of Gen. 3-11, there are the reminders of God's redemptive purposes and His establishment in the line of men His own culture. Gen. 4:26 tells us that men began to call on the Lord following Lamech's boastful sins and lineage. Noah finds favor in God's sight (Gen. 6:8). In Gen. 12,Abraham is called out of Ur, a pagan human culture, and separated for God's redemptive purposes. Unlike his pagan forebears, Abraham calls on the name of the Lord (12:8). Human conventions, like covenants, are reappropriated in God's cultural economy (gen. 15). Even from the womb the people of God are identified and separated from the people of human culture (Gen. 25:23).
The Law establishes the culture's law, ethics, virtue, etc. upon the holiness of God rather than merely the self-interests and wisdom of men. In the giving of the Law, God sets His people Israel apart as holy unto himself. The Law not only makes sin known, but it also marks out the people of God. It is the failure of the people of God, called the "holy race," to keep themselves from the manmade idolatrous cultures around them that grieves Ezra in his day (Ezra 9:1-3; see also Neh. 9-10). Notice a number of peoples are listed. All of them have this in common: their cultures were not God's culture. Only two categories of culture exist: God's and man's.
And this call to be separate, called out of the world and into the culture of God, is found in the NT as well. For example:
What agreement is there between the temple of God and idols? For we are the temple of the living God. As God has said: "I will live with them and walk among them, and I will be their God, and they will be my people." "Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord. Touch no unclean thing, and I will receive you." "I will be a Father to you, and you will be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty" (2 Cor. 6:16-18).Moreover, those who were once on the other side of this separation from God's people are now brought near through faith in Christ (Eph. 2:11-19). They enter the "nation" and culture of God through Christ, and they are to be separated from the culture of man (Eph. 4:17-19, for example)
The entire Biblical narrative follows these two trajectories. Man ruining himself in sin and self-made culture. God setting His people apart.
If this basic two-culture framework holds true, there are a couple of implications to consider.
First, though a manmade culture may have certain aspects that are noble, beautiful, and good (we do still retain the image of God though marred by sin, and God's common grace is real), I think this framework warrants a basically skeptical stance toward manmade culture. I'm afraid that every culture includes some idolatries, and we're not always aware of what they are. here's a healthy skepticism.
Second, one part of the project called the Christian church must be the articulation of a distinctively Christian or God-made culture over and against the manmade cultures by which we're surrounded. Separation requires distinguishing. (Note: I'm not here advocating a separatist view. People mean varying things by separatism. Perhaps we'll take that up specifically at a later point. My point here is simply that an attempt must be made at real definitions and distinctions when it comes to the notion of culture).
Third, any appropriation of and engagement with manmade culture by the church must of necessity follow the definition work mentioned in the second implication. The Bible is replete with examples of God's people following the siren songs of the cultures around them in part because they either forgot or never accepted fully the culture into which they were called. God's culture can't simply be assumed and then we quickly move on to "engaging the culture" or "incorporating aspects of the culture" in church life.
Fourth, all of this suggests there must be some regulative principle approach to church life. Leaving aside for a moment the differing definitions, it seems obvious that participation in God's culture requires knowledge of and adherence to God's rule. That rule is expressed in His Word. It's the only infallible rule for faith and practice.
Okay... I'm still thinking out loud. What say ye? What am I missing? What's wrong with this picture? What's helpful or correct do you think? Does this flatten the notion of human culture too much? Are there other implications or would you differ with some of the ones I've listed?