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To Make or Redeem Culture?

June 2, 2009

When we think of  “culture” very often our thoughts drift to the Box Office or the Voting Booth, betraying a superficial understanding of just what culture is. Contrary to popular perspectives, culture is not relegated to the realm of popular or political. Nor is it merely that aspect of human living which most of us cannot reach, located too “high” for the mundane taste of ordinary men–opera, expensive art, and fine wines. Culture is more than the ideals of politics and the product of Arts.

What is Culture?

What then is culture? Culture is the shared beliefs, behaviors, practices and artifacts of a particular group of people who often share a common language. If this seems all encompassing, you’re beginning to get the meaning. Robert Redfield helpfully defined culture as “act and artifact”, denoting the behavioral and concrete dimensions of culture. This shows us that culture includes both activity and product. For instance, culture is expressed through the activity of voting and the digital voting machine.

But what about our beliefs and languages? What of the ideas that motivate the vote we cast? Are those part of culture too? Yes, they fall under beliefs, beliefs that are not shared by all people, all Americans, or even all Texans. So, if we dogmatically say that women should have equal rights as men, we are stating a belief that is part of our American culture. There are plenty of other cultures that strongly oppose such a belief. Equal rights across gender is a particularly strong belief in post-suffrage America; however, many societies today are far from egalitarian. Cultural critic Ken Myers defines culture concisely as “what we make of the world.” This double-entendre refers to the activity of making artifacts, as well as our beliefs about what and how we make it. A helpful aphorism indeed. Language enables us to make sense of the culture we make and is cultural itself. Anthropologists generally agree that language is a good dividing line between cultures because it is used to transmit our shared acts, artifacts, and assessments. So, we can summarize culture so far as act, artifact, and assessment or belief.

Example: Brushing Your Teeth or Smoking a Pipe

So when English speaking American women wake up in the morning and choose to brush their teeth, they pick up a cultural artifact, engage in a cultural act, and may make a cultural assessment—extra white teeth will make you more attractive than not-so-white teeth. This entire process, from act to assessment is cultural. There are many cultures that find this whole process of tooth brushing amusing. However, those cultures have equally curious actions, artifacts, and assessments. For instance, village Shan Tai speaking women wake up every day and put a towel on their head and a pipe in their mouth. Their assessment of this is that it is feminine. Can you picture Angelina Jolie with a towel on her head and a pipe in her mouth?!

To some degree, culture is relative; however, Christians generally claim that there are transcultural truths that are always true no matter what culture. Let’s hope wearing a towel and smoking a pipe is not one of them! The point of all this is to fill out just what culture is. It is everywhere interwoven in everything for everyone. Your attire, your values, and your behaviors—artifact, assessment, and action. Wearing flip-flops is cultural. Driving to work is cultural. Talking on a cellphone is cultural. Going to church is cultural. Covenants are cultural (patterned after Hittite treaties). Your Bible is cultural (a product of Gutenberg’s press). The cross is cultural (Roman torture device). No one is culturally neutral. We are all enculturated from infancy to grave. To be human is to be cultural, and when Jesus became man, he became cultural (spoke Aramaic, went to Jewish temples, drank wine, wore sandals, grew a beard).

Engaging Culture

With this definition in place, it becomes quite clear that conservative or liberal views that view “culture” as inherently good or bad are misplaced. There is no thing called “the culture”, rather there are complex cultures and sub-cultures. Therefore, it is foolish for conservatives to approach American culture as something to be defeated, as the domain of the devil, a force outside the Church that must be contended with. While there are cultural behaviors and beliefs that should be rejected, deciding what to reject and to celebrate should be a careful and thoughtful process. Instead, culture is something we engage in, consciously or unconsciously. When the phrase, “engaging culture” is used, it rarely takes the above definition of culture into account. Instead, engagement is seen merely as participation in culture as opposed to refusal to participate in culture. However, as we have observed, that is quite simply impossible. Instead, what we should have in view is a very deliberate, thoughtful, and wise assessment of our own cultural beliefs, behaviors, and use of artifacts.

Culture is complex and can not be rejected or celebrated without some thought or value. The remarkable thing about culture is that it allows society to create, function, and promote human flourishing—civilization. However, every human is responsible for their actions in contributing or detracting from civilization. And our response will be motivated by certain beliefs. At this point it becomes apparent that we need some kind of belief lens or worldview to help us make ethical decisions about our cultural values and assessments. Are they good or bad, right or wrong, constructive or deconstructive, wise or foolish? Do we engage culture as agents of redemption or as consumers of entertainment? Do we engage culture as fearful critics or as uncritical participants? We all engage culture; we have no choice. The question is: “How will we engage culture?

Credemptively Engaging Culture

In a recent article, Westminster professor William Edgar reminds us that one of Paul’s lessons was how culture can be redeemed: “It is never enough simply to decry the evils of the world, and then to offer salvation either as a way of warring against culture or as an escape from the world. In his Mars Hill speech, Paul reminds his listeners of the original purpose of history. God is the maker of the world and everything in it. He is to be worshiped as such.” Edgar suggests that we employ Dick Keyes concept of “near and far idols”. The near idol surrenders God-given cultural dominion to worship at the altar of another god, like power, money, success. The far idol is our actual trust in the near idol, a belief that power, money, or success is reliable or will bring us happiness. Identifying near and far idols is redemptive engagement with culture (or applying the gospel to everyday life). Edgar says also that redemptive engagement happens through redirecting or redefining cultural patterns affected by the Fall, such as Paul’s interaction with Greek philosophy and contemporary efforts, such as Prospect 1, to use art to rebuild New Orleans. We could say that there is external and internal redemptive engagement. The external redeems visible culture, the internal redeems our invisible relationship with culture.

In Culture Making, Andy Crouch has advocated not only the redemption of culture, but also the making of culture–good culture for an infinitely good Creator. Instead of simply condemning, critiquing, consuming, and copying culture, the way forward is to create a good alternative. Otherwise, we are simply left at square one, with very little Christian progress in various cultures. So, instead of bemoaning bad movies, make better ones. Instead of copying contemporary music and inserting Christian lyrics, created new music and contribute to cultural change through innovation and creativity. Draw attention to your creator through superior or innovative cultural action.

I suggest that we engage culture redemptively and creatively (credemptive?!). Instead of choosing between the two, what would it look like for you to bring a redemptive worldview into your workplace, where you bring a gospel perspective upon a problem or person, while also working well to generate new solutions and answers. When you gain success, redemptive engagment calls you to make much of God not of yourself. Instead or bemoaning the failing copier, you take the time to fix it and then use it to make copies of your new ideas to better your company! Instead of bragging that you fixed the seemingly unfixable copier, you remain humble and rejoice in the fact that it is working! Instead of just making new innovative music, make music that gives proceeds to relieve poverty and rest in Christ for your significance, not in your notoriety. Be credemptive!

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