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What does it mean to be “culturally affirming”?

I was recently directed to a blog post that rejoiced in the fact that certain segments of conservative evangelicalism were becoming more “culturally affirming.” The specific incident the author cited involved an institution changing its philosophy of music from a more conservative to a more progressive one.

So this got me thinking: what did this author mean by “culturally affirming”?

Well, what is culture? Very simply, culture is the behavior of a people. It is what a group of people do in common. It is habits, customs, arts, and traditions. (For a far more thorough development of this understanding of culture, see this post and this article.)

If culture is human behavior, then Christians must recognize certain biblical realities:

  1. Behavior always results from beliefs and values.
  2. Behavior is always moral or immoral.
  3. The behavior that embodies unbelief is corrupt.
  4. Christian behavior must be holy.

So what, then, does it mean to be “culturally affirming”? What does it mean to affirm behaviors? Which behaviors? Which culture? Did this author mean that the group he has in mind didn’t affirm any behavior before they changed? Or is it that they didn’t affirm the kinds of behaviors he deems worthy?

Do conservative Christians affirm culture? Of course. Conservative Christians affirm all sorts of behaviors that embody and express truth, virtue, and beauty.

Do conservative Christians reject some culture? Of course. Biblical holiness requires discernment and determination concerning which behaviors reflect God’s character and which behaviors do not.

It seems to me that what this author was expressing was not affirmation of culture–all conservative Christians affirm culture.

What this author rejoiced in was people that have chosen to affirm the neutrality (or even goodness) of all culture; they have chosen to affirm, almost uncritically, behaviors (in this case, musical behaviors) that many conservative Christians believe embody values inconsistent with Christian holiness.

It sounds very pious to be an advocate of “cultural affirmation,” but the issue is not whether we will be “culturally affirming” or not. Everyone affirms culture.

The issue is what kinds of behaviors we will affirm. Will we be holy in all our culture as God is holy (1 Peter 1:15), or will we affirm all ways of living inherited from our forefathers (1 Peter 1:18), ignoring those that embody immoral values?

Scott Aniol

About Scott Aniol

Scott Aniol is the founder and Executive Director of Religious Affections Ministries. He is Chair of the Worship Ministry Department at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he teaches courses in ministry, worship, hymnology, aesthetics, culture, and philosophy. He is the author of Worship in Song: A Biblical Approach to Music and Worship, Sound Worship: A Guide to Making Musical Choices in a Noisy World, and By the Waters of Babylon: Worship in a Post-Christian Cutlure, and speaks around the country in churches and conferences. He is an elder in his church in Fort Worth, TX where he resides with his wife and three children.

6 Responses to What does it mean to be “culturally affirming”?

  1. Where is the Biblical impetus for “cultural affirmation”? Same issue with “redeeming the culture.” These concepts are foreign to the Scriptures and likewise should be foreign to God’s people.

  2. Thanks for this post, Scott. I have read that article and the comments that followed on FB. I agree that a possibility is that they are speaking of the neutrality of culture. But perhaps another aspect is that they are speaking of affirming a particular kind of culture, specifically theirs. It also appears that they, too, have rejected certain kinds of culture, while affirming others. So, in a sense, is it not true that they are guilty of the very thing that they accuse you and others (like me) of? Just a thought.

  3. I’m with you in your conclusion, Scott, but I’m not sure that’s a fair reading of your anonymous poster. I’m willing to read him, charitably, as saying that certain portions of fundamentalism are more affirming of culture as a theological category, as a creational good—rather than seeing it as a temporary reality that can be ignored, one we’re just a passin’ through.

    What that means practically, in that poster’s mind, may be more Christians in hipster get-up and more Tweeting of Lecrae lyrics. If so, I’m with you in seeing this kind of “culture affirmation” as problematic. But it’s our own Kevin Bauder who has written that a fundamentalism worth saving is one that “takes the human condition seriously” (http://bit.ly/1DEVmvR). He mentioned cultural life in particular, and I’m sure you wouldn’t disagree.

    So I feel like I’m more affirming of culture—the whole (theological) idea that shared patterns of behavior and meaning were created good by God—than I used to be. But obviously I’m with you in condemning certain of those behavioral patterns. I think your anonymous poster would be, too.

    BTW, I just started listening to your talk on the meaning of culture at that little conference, and already it’s been really helpful, even provocative—especially the comments about εθνος vs. αναστροφη. I need to process this some more, but it initially strikes me favorably.

  4. Unless I am thinking of a different blog post, the author did not actually cite “an institution changing its philosophy of music from a more conservative to a more progressive one.” In fact, the author used the phrase “culturally affirming” as a modifier to describe a generation that he sees emerging.

    While much of your article here contains well-reasoned truth and is valuable in that regard, it seems misleading to base this upon a definition and application of “culturally affirming” that the author did not make in his article. Therefore, statements such as the following seem to be completely misrepresenting what the author is saying:

    “What this author rejoiced in was people that have chosen to affirm the neutrality (or even goodness) of all culture; they have chosen to affirm, almost uncritically, behaviors (in this case, musical behaviors) that many conservative Christians believe embody values inconsistent with Christian holiness.”

    Obviously, I don’t know everything the author meant by his use of “culturally affirming.” If he has clarified further, I have not read it. If you or others have, you are definitely able to speak more knowledgeably, and that clarification would be helpful to those of us who have both his article and this article.

    Scott, thank you for what you are doing to serve Christ and His Church. This small matter is completely insignificant compared to the greater cause we are united in: the gospel of Christ! I appreciate how you’ve worked to that end.

  5. Mark and Kevin, thanks for your input. Fair enough. You may be right about the exact intent of the author.

    However, and this applies especially to Mark’s comment (with which I completely agree), exactly the point I was making was that conservative Christians ARE culturally affirming. We DO affirm LOTS of culture because we affirm the common grace of God, the image of God in man, etc.

    Conservative Christians even affirm culture produced by some pretty terrible people (Mozart, anyone? Beethoven?)

    That’s why I find the author’s comment rather glib. The people or particular issues he has in mind were no less culturally affirming before the changes than after. The issue, rather, is what kinds of culture they affirmed.

    I appreciate the input, though, and I may have read more into the specific situation the author had in mind.

    Thanks, Mark, also for your comments about my talk on culture. It’s an idea I first developed in an article for Artistic Theologian (http://artistictheologian.com/journal/at-volume-1-2012/toward-a-biblical-understanding-of-culture/), I developed it in my dissertation, and it will appear in my upcoming book with Kregel. I’m trying to “get it out there,” because I really do think it’s a much better paradigm than the standard “culture = ethnos” assumptions (unproven) that are common.

    For those interested, here is the talk Mark referred to in which I briefly summarize this idea: https://gbctempe.files.wordpress.com/2015/01/1-scott-aniol.mp3

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