Evangelicals today are enamored with culture. Visit any Christian blog or pick up a catalog of recent Christian books, and you will likely find discussions of the cultural mandate, redeeming culture, forming culture, and creating culture.
This matter is of particular concern to conservative Christians. We often find ourselves in the role of cultural critic, expressing concern for the direction of culture around us and its impact upon Christian piety and practice. And yet we often find ourselves at odds with the very Evangelical who say they are concerned about culture.
Perhaps this is due to some fundamental differences in how we understand culture, the church’s relationship to culture, and how one goes about shaping culture. It is to these subjects that I would like to turn in this post.
What is culture? Ironically, although Evangelicals today talk a lot about culture, very few have carefully defined it biblically. Of course, the term is not a biblical one. The idea of culture finds its Latin roots in discussions of agriculture, but it was first employed metaphorically to describe differences between groups of people, similarly to how we use it today, no earlier than 1776. The idea progressed through several different uses over time. It first denoted what Matthew Arnold would call “the best which has been thought and said in the world,”1 what we today might call “high culture.” This is the use utilized in J. Gresham Machen’s Christianity and Culture and T. S. Elliot’s Notes Toward a Definition of Culture. But as early as the mid-nineteenth century, anthropologists began to use the idea to designate all forms of human behavior, not limited to high culture, including what we might today call “folk culture” or “pop culture.” British anthropologist Edward Tylor is credited for the first influential use of the term in this way when in 1871 he defined “culture” as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”2
It is this understanding of culture as the totality of human practices in a society that I would suggest has come to dominate the discussion and that evangelicals today uncritically accept. For example, Lesslie Newbigin defined culture similarly to Tylor as “the sum total of ways of living built up by a human community and transmitted from one generation to another.”3 Likewise, Andy Crouch succinctly defines culture as “What we make of the world.”4 Many evangelicals writing on culture, including D.A. Carson, prefer the definition of anthropologist Clifford Geertz: “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic form by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life.”5
Adopting the anthropologist’s definition of culture isn’t necessarily problematic since it is essentially an anthropological concept. But if we are going to use this idea of culture, then we must ask what ideas in Scripture inform it. Many evangelicals seem to equate the idea of culture with the biblical concept of ethnic identity. For example, one Christian anthropology text explicitly defines the NT term ethnos as “the culture of a people, an ethnic group.”6 Likewise, Mark Driscoll equates “race” and “culture,”7 and Ed Stetzer defines ethnos as “cultural environments.”8 Equating “culture” with “race” leads to a belief in cultural relativism, for to critique a culture would be tantamount to racism. The problem with this is that in Scripture ethnos (and other terms related to ethnic identity such as genos or laos) denote a group of people,9 while “culture” refers to the common practices and behaviors of a group of people. A particular ethnic group often shares a common culture because of their common heritage and values, but these are not equivalent ideas.10
For this reason, I suggest that when looking for concepts in Scripture that parallel anthropological notions of culture, we should consider ideas related to behavior rather than ethnicity. New Testament authors use terms like anastrophē (“way of life,” “conduct”) and ergon (“work, “deeds”) to describe human behavior. If culture, as defined by anthropologists and accepted by evangelicals, is the “ways of living built up by a human community and transmitted from one generation to another,” then it makes the most sense to apply whatever Scripture says about a Christian’s way of living to our discussions of culture. New Testament authors use anastrophē to describe all kinds of behaviors that we commonly associate with our notion of culture, and they admonish Christians to “be holy in all your conduct” [anastrophē], in contrast to the “futile ways” [anastrophēs] inherited from your forefathers” (1 Peter 1:15, 18). They also use ergon, a word specifically denoting human labor (both the act and what it produces),11 as the object of God’s judgment (Rom 2:6) and as an honorable endeavor that can lead unbelievers to “glorify God” (1 Peter 2:12).
From this understanding of culture as the behavior of a people, we may draw a few implications that I have developed in this series.
- New Testament authors explain cultural differences between various people groups as differences of belief and value.
- New Testament authors identify people groups (ethnicities, tribes, nations, etc.) as those of common ancestral heritage who share common culture flowing from common values.
- New Testament authors demand that the culture of Christians be holy, pure, and distinct from the culture of unbelievers.
- New Testament authors proclaim Christianity as a new and distinct people group that shares new values and thus new culture.
- New Testament authors insist that a clear distinction between the culture of believers and unbelievers will have evangelistic impact.
- Where similarities do exist between the behavior of unbelievers and the conduct of believers, such behavior by unbelievers is due to the fact that on that particular issue they are borrowing biblical values.
So, very simply, my argument is that culture is the behavior of a people.
For more on this understanding of topic, see my article in Artistic Theologian, and keep an eye out for my upcoming book with Kregel Publications: By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Culture.
- Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy: An Essay in Political and Social Criticism (London: Smith, Elder, and Co, 1869), viii. [↩]
- Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom (London: John Murray, 1871), 1. [↩]
- Lesslie Newbigin, The Other Side of 1984: Questions for the Churches (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1983), 5. [↩]
- Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008), 22. [↩]
- Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 89. [↩]
- Jenell Williams Paris and Brian M. Howell, Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 23. [↩]
- Mark Driscoll, The Radical Reformission: Reaching Out without Selling Out (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006), 100. [↩]
- Ed Stetzer and David Putman, Breaking the Missional Code: Your Church Can Become a Missionary in Your Community (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 2006), 37–38. [↩]
- Georg Bertram, “ἔθνος,” TDNT 2:364–72; Friedrich Büchsel, “γένος,” TDNT 1:684–85; H. Strathmann, “λαός,” TDNT 4:29–39. [↩]
- Conservative Christians tend to go to the opposite extreme, defining culture as “the world” in the New Testament (kosmos or aiōnl see John 17:14–16, Romans 12:2, 1 John 2:15–17), leading to the conclusion that all culture is hostile to God. This, too, is problematic since these terms describe as set of values that are against God, while “culture” refers primary to a set of behaviors. [↩]
- Georg Bertram, “ἔργον,” TDNT 2:635. [↩]