What is culture?
“To understand the culture is to understand the people,
and this means an imaginative understanding.”
Culture is notoriously difficult to define. For some, culture represents the artistic tastes of the social elite: opera, art house cinema, or avante-garde art. Others think of culture as more of a political reality and seek to change it through the ballot box. For others culture has more to do with advertising, family, education, or religion. Rather than being an obstacle, this definitional difficulty can actually provide a rich understanding of culture, because culture includes all of these areas and more. Even so, culture is more than merely the sum of all its varied parts. It is a way of life for particular people connected in real, tangible ways. Sociologist Clifford Geertz described culture this way: “Man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs.” Culture is the webs of significance and meaning that hold us up. But culture is more than just the webs; it is also the making and cultivating of goods that form the webs themselves. For this paper, culture will be defined as the way people make sense of the world as they make something of the world.
In the beginning, there was culture. And it was good.
Genesis begins with a Creator calling the cosmos into existence. Each “let there be” brought forth something new to contribute to the growing complexity of goods. God as Creator was busy connecting this complexity of goods—day and night, sun and moon, plants and animals, water, earth and air—into a gloriously Good place for man to “live and work and have our being.” In other words, God was busy making a culture in which to situate his image-bearers.
When he finished his culture-making through speech, he did something surprising. He stopped his rhythm of “let there be…and it was good,” and got his hands dirty in the dust of his creation. The second chapter of Genesis zooms into the creation story and shows him coming down into it. He reached down and scooped up the soil and, like a master craftsman, worked the clay into the form of a man. After breathing life into the man, God took off his pottery apron and took up his gardening tools: “And the LORD God planted a garden in Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Gen 2:8).
Adam then follows in his maker’s footsteps when he is placed in the garden, “to work it and keep it” (Gen 2:15). God gives the man the work of naming the animals, a naming that continues to follow in the culture-making footsteps of God’s “let there be’s.” Adam begins his life in the pre-fall paradise by making and cultivating goods and meaning. God then makes a woman from the rib of the man and brings her to him, creating a society in the garden, one modeled after the society within the Trinity: “let us make man in our image…So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Gen 1:26-27). Rather than making the woman in the same way as the creation (speaking) or as the man (breathed-on clay), God made her out of the man and walked her “down the aisle” in order to present her back to the man in the culturally-significant act of a proto-wedding ceremony. He invited the man to “make meaning” of this monumental event, which he does by making the first poem in history: “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man” (Gen 2:23).
God speaks to the newly-married man and woman, giving them what was coined by twentieth century Dutch theologian Klaas Schilder as the cultural mandate: “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” (Gen 1:28). This mandate helps them to understand and transmit meaning (“What am I here for?”) to further generations, and it gives them work to do. God’s image- bearers are to make and to cultivate. They make more bearers of God’s image in order to fill the earth with his glory, and they are to cultivate the created order, ruling over it as God’s beneficent vice-regents. Before the fall, man existed as God’s representatives, living within and making culture to his glory.
“Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold.”
William Butler Yeats
God’s command to Adam, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen 2:16-17), was a command to trust him and an invitation to make meaning. The trees were a delight to the eyes and good for food (Gen 3:6) and were squarely in the midst of their garden home (Gen 2:9). Adam and Eve could not escape them, perhaps even resting under their shade as they seem to be doing when the crafty serpent comes to tempt them. These trees situate them within a story and invite them to make meaning: “Why did God put them here if we must not eat their good fruit?” “Why did he make their fruit look so good?” “What is special about these two trees?” Adam was meant to tell the story of God’s warning to Eve. They were meant to direct their story-telling and meaning-making toward trusting God, even when it was most difficult.
The fall was not just the tragic decision of two individual creatures;, it was a cultural failure. They fell because they cut the webs of meaning that held them up. They wanted to “be like God” (Gen 3:5), forgetting their story; they were already made in God’s image and tasked with ruling as God’s representatives. But God did not scrap his project, nor did he fundamentally alter their cultural mandate. Man would still be tasked with making and cultivating goods and meaning in the context of a relational society in the created order.
After they made leaf underwear to cover their newly discovered shame—itself a cultural activity—God cursed their work. The pleasure of making image-bearers would now come with the sting of multiplied pain. Their harmonious society would now be riddled with the desire to rule over each other. Their work would no longer be in the rich Edenic soil, but in the thorns and thistles of the fields. Yet, even in the terrible curse there is cultural hope. God gives their story a redemptive twist and invites them to make meaning when he curses the serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel” (Gen 3:15). God then comes back into his creation and gets his hands dirty again, as he did in the making of man, creating leather garments for them (Gen 3:21), an act that produced goods—stronger protection against the thorns and thistles—and meaning—an innocent animal shed its blood so that God could cover the shame of his children. In their garden betrayal, man rebelled at the awful cost of severing their relationship with their maker and bending and twisting their nature, degrading and making more difficult their mandate to make culture.
In the midst of the post-fall world degraded by the effects of sin, there is another beacon of cultural hope, something that has been called common grace by theologians over the ages. Common grace is common because it belongs to all people in all cultures and times. It is grace because it is a gift from God. God has gifted all humanity air in the lungs and blood in the body. The image of God, tarred though it may be, was not lost in man.
Common grace in the fallen world can be traced back to God’s response to the first betrayal. Though they were warned that “in the day you eat of it you shall surely die,” Adam and Even did not die! It is true enough that a spiritual death occurred, as evidenced by their naked shame and hiding from God, but we have no reason to think they understood God’s warning in those terms. They ate and God graced. There would indeed be death that day, but it was to be a spotless animal in their place. Common grace was evident even in their banishment from Eden: “‘Behold, the man has become like one of us in knowing good and evil. Now, lest he reach out his hand and take also of the tree of life and eat, and live forever’—‘therefore the LORD God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken” (Gen 3:22-23). They did not deserve to be saved from the terrible prospect of eternal slavery to sin, yet God gifted them with a “normal” life and an eventual escape from their sin-poisoned world. God graced them with children. When one of their children murdered his younger brother, God graced him with a mark of protection (Gen 4:15), because he was still a bearer of the Image, and as such he would always live under the common grace of his maker.
As the story progresses, it becomes clear that his image- bearers move off in two directions—one (the line of Seth) honoring God and remembering their story, and the other (the line of the wicked, grace-marked Cain) honoring themselves and forgetting their story. Common grace is strikingly clear in the story of the line of Cain. Though they did not honor God, his descendants were skilled city-builders, shepherds, musicians, and blacksmiths (Gen 4:17-22). All of this culture- making was accomplished by men and women who woke up each morning under the same sun as the line of Seth with the common grace of inventive minds and able bodies. It turns out that grace, like rain, falls on the just and unjust alike (Mt 5:45).
“Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
God’s people were always meant to be a culture within a culture. God chose them, though small in number (Deut 7:7), to represent his kingdom to the surrounding kingdoms. He gave them their own laws and worship practices in order to draw their hearts toward him and to set them apart as a distinctively good society. When his people failed he did not destroy them as they deserved. He restored them. Even when he drove them into exile and scattered them among foreign lands, he preserved them and promised them deliverance. He brought a remnant of them back to Jerusalem, during the time of Ezra and Nehemiah, and allowed them to rebuild their temple. Throughout their rough history he continued to speak promises to them through the prophets. He promised that he would send the true King to rule them peaceably. He promised a future good life together—a life where they would work fertile soil and eat and drink together under the promised King.
God’s promises were not culture-less promises to individuals. Cultures and peoples will be redeemed. Swords will not be burned up, but hammered (presumably by skilled blacksmiths) into gardening tools. Feasts will not cease to exist, but will be celebrated with gladness and shared memories. God spoke these promises over and over again to his people, until the prophets’ mouths were closed for hundreds of years. Into this expectant silence, in a nondescript stable in Bethlehem, a child was born.
God’s very son in the flesh. The promised King came into a uniquely first century Galileean culture. He lived in a family, wore clothes, ate regional cuisine, attended synagogue, and worked as a carpenter. He who stands above every culture became en-cultured. He came into the culture that He created, not only to restore our relationship with God, but to restore a culture that was meant to display the kingdom of God on earth. He gathered his twelve disciples—a number representative of the twelve tribes of Israel—and taught them and others about life in the Kingdom. While he lived among them he represented the culture of the kingdom, one that both transcends and includes the best parts of the many varied cultures of his image- bearers. His kingdom is a multi-cultural kaleidoscope of colors and flavors that are characterized by unity and diversity, servanthood, peace, hope, and love.
God’s son was given the name Jesus by his earthly parents under the direction of God’s messenger. The name itself—a combination of “Yahweh” and “saves”—is an invitation in making meaning. This child will be the one to receive the throne of David and his reign will be unending (Lk 1:30-33). He fulfilled this promise by fulfilling the righteous requirements of the law of the kingdom and dying to bear the shame and punishment due his enemies. He then rose victorious over death and the bent kingdom of the serpent. Before he ascended to heaven, he commissioned his followers: “All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt 28:18-20). Luke records another, related commissioning: “…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Hints of the cultural mandate echo through these commissionings. His followers were to make image-bearers, filling the earth with the glory of God. They were to make a new culture by inviting others into the story of God, a story that provided “webs” of meaning to make sense of life in this world. Rather than replacing the cultural mandate, Jesus gave his followers orders for how they were to continue their work. In fact, very few of his followers quit their jobs or left their homes to pursue vocational mission work. Centurions remained centurions, tent makers remained tent makers, families remained families, yet their life gained new focus and meaning as they lived with a new purpose to be his witnesses to all people. Jesus had not called them out of culture, but had given them a new culture with new webs of meaning and significance within the surrounding culture.
“I have come home at last! This is my real country!...This is the land I have been looking for all my life, though I never knew it til now…come further up, come further in!”
His followers quickly learned that even a redeemed culture had its problems. Generosity was not shared by all (Acts 5:1-12), old racial and cultural prejudices sometimes remained (Acts 6:1; Gal 2:11-12), and even missionary friends argued and split ways (Acts 15:36-40). The painful reality is that the kingdom, though it has been inaugurated in and by Jesus, still awaits its consummation at the fullness of time. The gospel tells us that, contra Yeats, the center (Christ) can hold. But things still fall apart.
The putting- back- together of all things at the consummation of the kingdom will not be, as is often taught, a total destruction of the physical and cultural world. Heaven will not be a bloodless, ethereal world of clouds and harps and chubby baby-angels. The scriptures tell a different story—the story of a people who lost a garden but will gain a city: “And he…showed me the holy city Jerusalem coming down out of heaven from God, having the glory of God, its radiance like a most rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal. It had a great, high wall, with twelve gates…” (Rev 21:10-12). The city will look both like and unlike the great cities within our earthly cultures. There will be walls and gates and roads and artwork and a river running through a great park. Yet, it will be so radiant with God’s glory that it will have no need of street lights or the moon or even the sun. And God will be so present with his people that they will have no need for a temple or church. The gates will never need to close because there will be no danger or darkness. In the place of dangerous marauders, distinctive people groups and civic leaders will pour in through the gates and bring their gifts and glory to give to God and to beautify his new city.
The story moves from the garden to the city, but it also moves circuitously from the tree of life lost to the tree of life gained: “Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations” (Rev 22:1-2). In addition to the startling reality that there will be time in the new creation (months), we learn that the nations, rather than being destroyed or flattened, will be healed by the leaves of the tree! The nations, with their diverse cultural contributions, will live and worship together in a rich harmony:
“After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!’” (Rev 7:9-10)
Sopranos, altos, tenors, and bass’, wearing and bearing cultural goods, will contribute their uniqueness to the song of praise.
“Fear is not a Christian habit of the mind.”
As members of a culture within the cultures, Christians have a difficult task. We live in the time between the times, what has been called the “already, not yet” of the kingdom. As we await the new city and the consummation of the kingdom, what do we do? When we recognize that culture is the way people make sense of the world as they make something of the world, we also recognize that there is no escaping cultural engagement. Though much can and has been said about the way in which Christians ought to engage culture, for the sake of simplicity we will look at four actions that every Christian can do in whatever cultural setting they find themselves in.
The scriptures end with hopeful waiting: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all. Amen” (Rev 22:20-21). Followers of the “Lord Jesus” must not put kingdom hopes in political leaders or “Christian” athletes and pop stars. We await the return of the true king. We have hope for the world around us but our expectations must be chastened. We will not be the ones to build the city. It is not, in the end, ours to build. The city will descend and the kingdom is received as a gift (Heb 12:28). We are to cultivate what James K.A. Smith, in Awaiting the King, describes as a “posture of uplift, tethered by hope to a coming king.”
Jesus taught his followers to pray: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt 6:10). This prayer has a forked aim, one side longer and less direct than the other. The long aim is that our prayers would help usher in the promised kingdom in all its power and glory. We pray for the heavenly city to descend and the king to wipe away our tears and the wedding banquet to begin. When we do not know what to do or how to make a difference in the world, prayer is the one activity always available to us, and it is good that the followers of King Jesus would pray for the consummation of the kingdom.
However, the scriptural record and historical evidence often leads God’s people to despair and hopelessness. This is where the shorter and more direct aim of prayer can be helpful in cultural engagement. This aim is for the kingdom outposts of local churches to grow into communities that represent the culture of the kingdom here and now. These communities are filled with people who gather to worship, bringing unique cultures of their neighborhoods, families, ethnicities, and workplaces. When God’s people pray for his kingdom to come in their church, they are acting as cultural change agents, laboring together with God for his kingdom outposts to shine light into the darkness of the watching world.
“So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). Christians, like all other people, are called to work while on this earth. Hard work excellently done reflects something of the image of God and brings him glory. And because God worked to create the cosmos, every legitimate vocation has inner dignity because it follows in the pattern of our maker. When Jesus called together his first followers, they were fishermen and tax-collectors, doctors and tanners. What their vocation was mattered far less than how they worked at it. This means that rather than only missionaries, priests, and company presidents, all Christians engage culture when we work—creating goods and meaning—with the ethics of the kingdom guiding our efforts. As Luther said, “If he is a Christian tailor, he will say: I make these clothes because God has bidden me do so, so that I can earn a living, so that I can help and serve my neighbor.”
God is on the move, growing Christians into the culture of the kingdom, so we will be ready to receive it when it comes in full. We need not feel the pressure to create the perfect society on earth, or to build the kingdom now. We need not claw our way upstream of culture or worry overmuch when our famous “Christian” political leaders and pop stars fall short or fail morally. We represent a culture that is coming.
Jesus, at the outset of his most famous sermon, said, “You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?...You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden” (Mt 5:13-14). Salt and light are qualities that cannot be gained, they just are. They are given by their maker. Jesus is king over every square inch and in his sovereign wisdom has placed every single one of his followers squarely in the midst of whatever cultures we find ourselves in. We are to season and preserve like salt; adding the flavor of the kingdom into the families, workplaces, schools, and political realities we find ourselves situated within. As we season and preserve, our faithfulness to the hidden kingdom of Christ is to shine like a city on a hill—illuminating the path and captivating the hearts of the weary travelers wandering in the dark streets of the fallen world.
Rest, because the king is on the throne and he wants to use your faithfulness exactly where you are. Work, not as an excuse to evangelize or as a means to build the kingdom on earth, but excellently and to the glory of God. Pray for the kingdom to come in the culture of the church now, and in the surrounding world on the day of the return of the king. And keep waiting hopefully: “Behold, he is coming with the clouds” (Rev 1:7).