This video has been making the rounds and it reminded me of how inexact the current evangelical understanding of culture is. Many assume that culture is everything that the church or religion is not and so Christianity and culture need to be brought into a coherent relationship. The problem is that this understanding of culture is about as precise as the adolescent quip “whatever.”
For instance, here is an on-line dictionary definition of culture:
1. the quality in a person or society that arises from a concern for what is regarded as excellent in arts, letters, manners, scholarly pursuits, etc.
2. that which is excellent in the arts, manners, etc.
3. a particular form or stage of civilization, as that of a certain nation or period: Greek culture.
In other words, culture used to refer generally to the arts, education of a liberal variety, morals, manners, and languages. This definition arose chiefly in the eighteenth and nineteenth century when European nations were caught up with their superiority over barbarian continents and peoples. That’s not meant to be a swipe against the notions of higher, lower, and middle-brow cultures. It is to suggest that we are using the word today when talking about “the transformation of culture” in a different way than it was originally employed. Since language is essential to culture, the idea of transforming English or Dutch or Swahili according to — what, Christian rules of language? — makes about as much sense as transforming culture.
What is not used nearly as much — in fact, seldom — by evangelicals is the phrase “civil society” and this is much closer to what people mean when they talk about transforming culture. Civil society refers to all of those spheres of life outside control by or regulation from the state. It is comprised of clubs, community organizations, schools, and voluntary associations of all kinds including churches, for starters. And what characterizes civil society, as opposed to culture, is pluriformity and diversity. A healthy civil society is one in which people form distinct associations to address separate parts of human existence. A Kuyperian might be tempted to speak of sphere sovereignty when thinking about civil society but in a healthy society voluntary associations far outnumber the spheres.
But what is particularly frustrating about contemporary appeals to culture and its need for transformation is that the Bible fails to yield a definition of culture or describe a Christian one for that matter. The notion of culture is much later than Hebrew or Christian times and the concept is simply absent in Scripture. That sure is an oddity if Christians are more then ever agitated to Christianize the culture.
Of course, the remedy, as usual, is to read the likes of a Russell Kirk, T. S. Eliot, or Joseph Epstein on culture and what makes for a wholesome one, and let the Bible speak for itself about matters of faith and practice. Authors who do not go to the Bible for the details of a healthy culture do go to another divinely revealed book whether they know it or not — general revelation. If evangelicals spent more time reading secular authors on culture, and less time trying to find cultural patterns or norms in holy writ, they might deflate the scope of culture and find less reason to transform it. And that in turn might elevate the importance of word, sacraments, and prayer.