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A syllogism on the morality of culture

  1. All human behavior is moral.
  2. Culture is human behavior.
  3. Therefore, all culture is moral.

For more: “Towards a Biblical Understanding of Culture”

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 Culture, 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 four children. Views posted here are his own and not necessarily those of his employer.

24 Responses to A syllogism on the morality of culture

  1. This, however, does not apply to cultural artifacts:
    1. All cultural artifacts are being created to fulfill a moral (or immoral) purpose.
    2. Once taken from its original context, a cultural artifact can then be used both for moral and immoral purposes.
    3. This ambiguity means artifacts do not have any defined moral meanings attached to them – only human actions do.

    (Example: Aaron’s golden calf was destroyed by Moses, not because it was intrinsically evil but because it would entice Israel to idolatry – as it already had. If it still existed and were to be exhibited in a museum, it could actually serve as a good example of how immoral behaviour leads to detrimental consequences.)

  2. Martin,

    Just guessing here, but there is presumably stores with a name like “Private Pleasures Adult Gifts &etc” near where you live. Experiment: go into one of those stores, buy an “adult gift,” take it home to your wife (presuming marriage here) and use your above argument with her.

  3. Christopher, you haven’t followed the discussions around this which are strewn over this site; Scott has.

    In the case you bring up, there is clearly an intended use for the cultural artifact you can acquire in such stores. Never mind there are Christians who would suggest there is nothing wrong if you use that stuff inside marriage… let’s assume the intended use is indeed morally wrong. I may still be able to turn that to good: my wife may smile at me with a curious look when I give it to here, but say it’s made of latex and she was looking for a piece of latex to repair a costume of hers – she will quickly get the idea and be glad I bought it, cut it up and fix the costume with it.
    You can find such uses in just about any situation you can come up with.

  4. Oh, OK!

    In that case, you could pick up a time-bound cultural expression from the magazine rack in that same store, and then re-purpose it (or “redeem” to use the missional term) as Christmas wrapping paper, or gerbil bedding, or baby wipes!

    As an additional benefit, your purchase would keep that item out of the hands of the perverts who are only pretending to redeem such cultural artifacts. ;)

  5. More or less… just with the calf – I don’t have to follow its originally intended use (veneration) but can put it into a museum. (but be careful when using Playboy as wrapping paper…)

  6. Martin,

    No, I’ve not spent much time in the comments here. I take a look every once in a while when a friend says I should oughta do so.

    Neither have I spent much time in the Babylonian Talmud, nor in the abstruse works of medieval scholasticism, which is to my shame. Usually I’ve treated those works like craft stores: get in, get whatever I’m looking for, and get out before the smell overwhelms me. But I have to admit that your reasoning in your second remark is one of the more brilliant pieces of sophistry I’ve ever seen in my life. Ranks right up there with the rabbis trying to justify visiting distant relatives on a Sabbath Day’s journey.

    Charitably and graciously, I’m hoping that you’re just picking on me, and that your next response would be a variation on the theme “the joke’s on you! If you’d read those comments, you’d have had a good inside-joke type of laugh about my wife dressed up in the latex costume patched with an unmentionable item! Derisive hahaha’s for you!” I would feel much at ease if that were the case.

  7. Sorry – no, I’m serious. The fact that you can use stuff for just about anything once you can choose the context really does suggest it is not morally determined (even if moral intentions are involved, as with some of the examples we’ve been joggling).

  8. I guess if your wife is willing to wear latex costumes around and patch them when they rip using items from the dirty bookstore, then there’s really no reason for you to doubt that pop idioms or rap or gashing oneself with stones or infant sacrifice would be perfectly appropriate for corporate, private, family, fertility, or recreational worship.

  9. Christopher, you are misunderstanding, as you probably guessed. What I am saying is that only human actions can have moral quality, not objects (whether man made or not).

    You are mixing artifacts and actions in your comment – sacrificing infants or gashing yourself with stones clearly are actions, and are therefore morally determined. Rap (as you can read somewhere among hundreds or thousands of comments on the recent rap discussion on this site) is a music form. I deem it inappropriate for worship because of what emotions and attitudes it expresses but I am not saying it is therefore immoral. Inversely, that would mean that any ‘moral’ form (e.g., medieval minnesang) would therefore be automatically appropriate for worship – but we know it’s not that easy.

    Moving from form to an actual composition, a rap song itself is morally neutral since it can be used in both a positive and a negative way.

    To USE of the rap song in worship, however, may then be called morally deficient, since its singing in worship is an activity (usually imposed upon a congregation by the pastor or worship leader) and can have detrimental consequences on the congregants in terms of how they view God.

    Just as the use of a hammer: nothing wrong with it but still it can be used to harm someone and any action involving this object is morally relevant.

  10. Martin,

    Thank you for your response. It is not that I don’t understand your position: I think you’ve too far divorced utility and concreteness from instantiation of culture. Every artifact is an expression and an instantiation of culture: from forks and spoons all the way up to the highest artistic works. It took an action to bring it into existence, and the message of the messenger is still embedded in the medium. Not all communicate in the same way, but all of them communicate, and communication is inherently moral, as you have conceded. Just as some languages are lost to us, so also the meaning of some instantiations of culture is lost to us. This does not mean that they are not forms of communication; and simply because we don’t empirically understand what an artifact meant to its maker doesn’t mean it lacks objective meaning.

    Otherwise, why would it matter that man is created in the image of God?

    Your hammer illustration does not fully encompass the issue: the pornographic murals and household figurines from Pompeii or the decorative architectural elements on Hindu temples will still defile viewers all these years later.

  11. Well put. You are, of course, right in that the maker of an artifact wants to communicate something. As for the hammer, that is probably merely ‘utility’ – he wants to make something that is useful and has a good cost/benefit relationship. For houses, we sadly often find the same to be the case. There is minimal attention given to beauty and the emphasis is on (capital) cost. This says something about values.

    What I am saying is there are three levels, i.e.
    1. the action of creating something, which has moral intent;
    2. the artifact, which has an intended purpose (moral or immoral) – this purpose is what I think you are referring to above as communication;
    3. the actual use of the artifact, which may follow its intended purpose or some other purpose that may be moral or immoral.

    I submit that the possibility of using an artifact in both moral or immoral ways logically precludes the attribution of any moral qualities to this artifact. There are some very obvious examples, such as pornographic images, which reveal the original intent of the maker very clearly. The hammer is probably just as clear. Yet, only human actions have moral qualities (points 1 and 3), not the object itself (point 2).

    Our propensity to sin when being exposed to certain figurines from Pompeii is within us, not within the art itself.

    The artifact ‘communicates’ only in the sense that it is a silent witness of the values of its maker. By the looks of the car, spoon, or house we can conclude something about the preferences and values of its maker(s) – and buyers. Yet, the artifact does not become sinful because its maker created it with sinful intent. One could make a gun or knife with the intent of using it to kill someone. Yet, someone else could use the same weapon for a benign purpose: the knife does not dictate to you how you should use it, even though it will often suggest a specific use that may be sinful. But what you do with it will always remain within your control.

    The context of where/when/how the artifact is used, then does determine the moral outcome – not the qualities of the artifact itself. Even if the artifact tells you something about the morality of its creator (or the act of creating it), this is mere information about an act, but is in itself not an act.

    Does that make more sense?

    As to man being an image of God, that seems to be a mistaken example. We are not ‘artifacts’ in that sense, since we are alive and morally responsible. Artifacts are not.

    And if the cultural meaning of a cultural artifact can get lost over time, doesn’t that mean it may be moral for some but immoral for others who understand its original “embedded meaning”? That, again, would make its moral significance relative.

  12. “Our propensity to sin when being exposed to certain figurines from Pompeii is within us, not within the art itself.”

    So you’d give one to Jesus?
    How are Wesleyan perfectionists supposed to handle your view?
    Are all true artists wasting their time in trying to beautify the world?

    “2. the artifact, which has an intended purpose (moral or immoral) – this purpose is what I think you are referring to above as communication;”

    No, I mean the values that are expressed in the execution of the thing itself. For example, why forks and spoons? Forks and spoons mean that there are at least some level of table manners, which are a value. Why debased figurines? To celebrate debasement. And debasement is catchy, as you are no doubt aware.

    Why was furniture built 200 years ago designed to last so long? And why is furniture like that so rare today, speaking generally?
    The answer is not merely utilitarian, but moral as well.

  13. You’ve gotta help me now: Are you really saying that a chair that does not last 200 years is an immoral creation? Is sitting on it then always an immoral act?

  14. You don’t think there is a moral distinction between a culture that produces multi-century chairs vs. less-than-a-decade chairs? You don’t think something has been lost when another culture takes shoddy craftsmanship as normative? Something important?

    Something as important as, say, the tendency to consider that someone may still be using this chair beyond one’s own lifetime, for example?

  15. Shoddy craftsmanship tells me something about the underlying culture, yes. Yet it does not mean there is anything sinful about that chair.

  16. From what I understand, morality is binary – either sinful or not. It it’s neutral, it’s amoral.
    The chair is amoral. Sitting down on it is moral. Making it to a poor standard may be moral or immoral; we can discuss. I think that depends on the cultural context and the intended market for the chair etc.
    So, nothing sinful or moral about that chair itself, even though it may be a reflection of the moral state of the society that produced it. But again, a corrupt society does not produce immoral artifacts. At best, it might produce artifacts immorally.

  17. Morality is binary. Interesting. That takes the difficulty out of parsing things I guess.

    No example could convince you of an artifact with the quality of morality?

    Just curious: how did you come to this conclusion?

  18. Chris, my reasoning should have become fairly clear throughout the above. An artifact is not a moral agent. It is instrumental in moral actions of moral beings who can commit both moral and immoral acts using the same artifact. So this implies the objects themselves are neutral; it depends on what we do with them.
    Now there is significance in how an artifact is made, what it depicts, etc. Yet, that is a representation only, not an act. Think about music (without lyrics): music can express/signify a range of emotions and states of mind. Yet, non of these emotions (whether anger, fear, joy…) are morally determined. They only take on moral significance in a given context. The emotions by themselves are morally neutral. So likewise, an artifact that represents emotions is neutral.
    Take a book: Hitler had a clear (immoral) purpose in writing Mein Kampf. Yet, the book itself can be used both ways by the reader: he can read it and agree with Hitler or he can understand where Hitler went wrong, and reject the message as erroneous. There is a step in-between the communicator and the receiver of communication – and that is often an artifact. Communication can be fuzzy (e.g., emotions) or propositional, as in speech, a book, or a song. Yet, the recorded speech itself is neither moral nor immoral; it merely transmits the information. And even the information can take on moral or immoral meaning depending on the context. One example we used in the rap discussion was playing an up-beat song during a funeral. An otherwise quite acceptable song can then deeply offend those who are experiencing deep loss.
    Another example is acting: an actor can speak the exact same words as some ISIS commander ordering the execution of prisoners, yet nobody will deem that immoral – only the original act was, and that is what the actor is representing (but not repeating). It really depends on the context.

  19. I refer you to Genesis 1:31. Your position only works if you assume that you’re apprehending the thing as the thing itself. The problem is that man is an interpreting being, and that interpretation is affected by depravity. So in a sense, you would be right if and only if God had not already interpreted everything that He made, as well as the things that we, whose creativity is derived from His, make. You are trying to say that there is no normative interpretation of the goodness of things: I can’t decide if that is more deistic or atheistic, but I can’t go there.

  20. No, Gen 1:31 isn’t about moral goodness; it’s about the beauty and ideal functioning of the world that God created initially – see
    The Hebrew word used for ‘good’ – tov – can denote moral goodness, usefulness, or beauty. As it is applied to creation as a whole, it must be used in the third sense in Genesis, given that moral goodness only applies to moral beings and not all creation is practically useful.
    God never declared things morally good or morally bad (or if you have an example for that, please provide it).

  21. “or”

    I think you meant “and”

    It does not really help your case when you say that the lexical range of a Hebrew word can include EITHER my argued position OR your argued position. You could not argue that the author meant one category to the exclusion of the others without his expressly saying so. “And by ‘good’ I mean beautiful ONLY” or something like that. That’s not how language works. There is “denotation” and there is “connotation,” and lexical range affects both.

    So then, Genesis 1:31.

  22. As I wrote, given that moral goodness only applies to moral beings and not all creation is practically useful. This means the third meaning, beauty, applies here. So gen 1:31 does not help your cause.

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