There is a lot of talk about culture these days, but I’m convinced that most of the people who talk about it have never really given careful thought to what, exactly, culture is.
I have argued elsewhere that the parallel concept to “culture” in the New Testament is not terms related to race or ethnic identity, nor is it terms related to “the world.” Rather, the nearest concept to “culture” in the New Testament is the idea of behavior, conduct, and way of life. While both the terms related to ethnic identity and those related to “the world” demonstrate relationship to the contemporary notion of culture, they do not identify culture itself. Ethnic groups unite around common culture, and the sinful world-system affects unbelieving culture, but these terms are not the same as culture. Rather, behavior-related terms like anastrophē—which describe complete ways of life, conduct, and behavior—most closely identify “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, arts, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (Tylor)1 or “the sum total of ways of living built up by a human community and transmitted from one generation to another” (Newbigin).2
Here are some things to read for background to this argument:
- “Toward a Biblical Understanding of Culture,” Artistic Theologian 1 (2012): 40-56.
- A syllogism on the morality of culture
- Culture and Race
Today I am beginning a series to explore the implications of the idea that “culture” is basically the behavior of a people. Several important implications may be drawn from this conclusion.
First, New Testament authors explain cultural differences between various people groups as differences of belief and value. They highlight differences of belief and religion that produce the behavior and conduct of a people. This is important because it contradicts the idea of cultural neutrality. Since values and beliefs are not neutral (i.e., they are either good or evil), the culture produced from values and beliefs is likewise not neutral. Furthermore, this also contradicts the notion that religion is a component of culture. Rather, culture is a component of religion. So while “behavior”-related terms resemble anthropological and evangelical definitions of culture, the use of such terms in the New Testament should reorient the evangelical understanding of culture such that it is seen as flowing from religious values and worldview. Thus every culture and particular cultural expression must be evaluated based upon what religious values it embodies.