More Notes Towards the Definition of Culture – Mark Snoeberger
The second workshop session I attended was presented by Mark Snoeberger. The following is a summary of the presentation.
Dr. Mark Snoeberger has served as Director of Library Services at DBTS since 1997, and as a part-time instructor at DBTS since 1999. Prior to coming on staff at DBTS, he served for three years as an assistant pastor. He received his M.Div. and Th.M. degrees from DBTS in 1999 and 2001, respectively. Dr. Snoeberger earned the Ph.D. in systematic theology in 2008 from Baptist Bible Seminary in Clarks Summit, PA. He provides pulpit supply for area churches on an active basis and teaches in the Inter-City Bible Institute. He and his wife, Heather, have two sons, Jonathan and David.
In 1949. T. S. Eliot published a small tome entitled Notes Towards the Definition of Culture, a book that he deemed a necessary response to the disturbing trend in the literature of his day to redefine the term culture. The book failed, and the term culture has been almost completely redefined away from Eliot’s conception of the term. Snoeberger would like to suggest that something important was lost when the term culture was redefined. He will seek to define the term culture and to identify some of the apologetical implications that this definition has for a healthy theology of contextualization.
Etymology usually is not productive in determining meaning. However, we can see some interesting details of the term culture that linger today and perhaps should be resurrected.
The etymology of culture finds commonality in the concept of shared values; what a society values most highly, it cultivates most fully.
Culture as Sacred Cultivation: T. S. Eliot
Eliot focussed on the development of the most sacred elements of society. Failure by men to add refinement to society was not viewed as “low” or “popular” culture, but non-culture, resulting in anarchy.
Religion and culture cannot exist apart from one another. Culture is the incarnation of a religion of a people. The underlying religion, however, is not necessarily monolithic since culture is a shared phenomenon. Some contributions are Christian, some non-Christian, and some borrowed from a Christian worldview.
This symbiosis of religions and culture is central to a definition of culture. Once it is lost, culture is viewed as neutral, and worldliness floods culture, and Christianity itself loses significance.
The idea of culture as sacred cultivation has been largely forgotten since Eliot, although it still exists in part from time to time. See, for instance, Roy Clouser’s The Myth of Religious Neutrality.
Culture as Neutral Mutuality: Edward Tylor
Eliot was concerned about the definition of culture that came from secular anthropology that viewed religion as a part of culture rather than culture being a product of religion. Culture was then devoid of religious reference. Culture is merely a vehicle that can be adapted in many ways. Edward Tylor is the seminal voice in this redefinition of culture. Others include Clyde Kluckhohn, Louise Damen, and Clifford Geertz.
The definitions of these men are not so much wrong as they are incomplete. They focus on practices in a way that divorces them from their religious underpinnings. To suggest the superiority of cultural practices of one culture over those of another is in this model impossible at best and immoral at worst. Cultures are different from one another, but there is no universal standard by which superiority may be measured.
A Mediating Position: Culture as Expressed Values/Worldviews
Other definitions stand between these polar positions, including those of Geert Hofstede, A. L. Kroeber, and Edgar Schein. These definitions concede the influence of worldviews, but nonetheless exhibit reluctance to explicitly describe these worldviews or identify these underpinnings as morally right or wrong.
Niebuhr’s “Christ of culture” model has dominated most of the discussion in modern missiology since it has deep roots in Protestant liberalism. Cultural “authority” does not submit and adapt to Christ’s authority; rather, Christ submits to culture. Culture is merely a vessel for Christ and Christians to communicate to the world, and we must adapt the gospel accordingly to fit culture. Examples would be Charles Kraft and Eugene Nida. This emphasis was reflected in “incarnational missions” in which the Gospel “takes on the flesh” of the culture to which it is being presented, purged of any value judgment.
Thankfully, this anthropological view of culture and contextualization has not marked all of evangelical missions. Much work has been done to isolate values and worldviews as the locus of cultural expressions. Nevertheless, there still seems to be nagging preference for elements of neutrality in expressions of culture. Examples would be Gailyn VanRheenen, Harvie Conn, and Michael Horton.
This lagging preference for neutrality probably is due to an inadequate emphasis on the extensiveness and intensiveness of human depravity and a correspondingly inflated view of either human ability or common grace. The assumption seems to be that culture is good but is stained by sin rather than that “the whole world lies in the power of the evil one” (1 John 5.19).
The NT term that most closely embodies the idea of culture in Scripture is the word world, and specifically the underlying Greek term kosmos. The word appears to us as a whole created realm in need of redemption, but particular emphasis is placed on the moral agents in the world who are blameworthy for its condition. The world has been taken over by the evil one and rests under his power. Friendship with the world is strictly forbidden. The goal of the believer in the world is to escape its corruption.
The world, however, is rarely considered in terms of evil deeds that can be evaluated strictly on their own criteria. It produces a certain kind of speech and course of life, but appears primarily as a philosophical viewpoint that result in certain deeds.
We are obliged to make use of certain resources resident in the world without completely capitulating to them (1 Cor 7.31). There is still some form of “good” in the world. Sinners do “good” things. Here is the great tension of contextualization. How can we discern what features of this world we can use, and at what point do we cross Paul’s line by illicitly making “full use” of them (1 Cor 7.31). How extensive are the effects of common grace?
The answer is not simple. It would seem that the distrust that the NT authors exhibit toward culture overwhelmingly outstrips the few concessions that they make to cultural practice. Paul clearly proposes that we curtain legitimate practices to the preservation of orthodoxy. Paul preferred a regulative principles to a normative one, not only in worship, but in all of life. Paul seemed to err on the side of safety.
This seems to be the pattern Scripture provides in our interaction with culture. In Paul’s words, the greatest concern in cultural questions is whether engaging culture in any specific matter renders us susceptible to “philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the word, rather than according to Christ” (Col 2.8).
The question of cultural engagement must always be answered by means of discernment. We must ask “Why?” at every level of engagement and on the basis of this answer determining the merit/demerit of a given instance of acculturation.
Culture can never be limited to specific practices. Instead, culture should be regarded as a regional expression of mankind’s relative success in fulfilling the dominion mandate. It is never wholly successful, but by God’s common grace, it is always partly successful. It is the believer’s responsibility to winnow out what is destructive to that goal and eschew it, and to glean what is productive to that goal and bring it into captivity to the obedience of Christ. This is accomplished not by casting about for elusive Bible verses that condemn or condone specific practices, but by discerning carefully the values, motives, and worldviews that bring those practices into common use.
There is an unhealthy form of contextualization that is accelerating in fundamentalism today. It behooves us to give due consideration to the Whats? and Whys? of contextualization to ensure that the clambering pursuit of conformity to the world does not become an end unto itself.