Culture – More Than Creation
If the word culture is to be useful, it must define something. It must name and describe a discrete phenomenon in the world. A useful definition must limit its subject, so that we could easily say what is not culture.
The problem with many definitions found in Evangelical literature is that they seem to include everything. If everything in the created order is an instance of culture, then we may as well scrap the word, and speak plainly of creation.
Culture is not the created order. Time, space, and matter are not culture, and Genesis 1 and 2 are not the account of God creating culture. The creation is used in creating culture, but it is not culture itself.
Culture is not the world, as the Bible variously uses the term to mean the created order, mankind, the age we are in, or the system of thought and habit that opposes God.
As Christians dependent upon Scripture for our understanding of reality, we face a real difficulty in defining culture precisely. Scripture does not contain the word. The English word culture is used in its modern sense from the 19th century. We’re then in the dilemma of either reading into Scripture a modern but false construct, or of locating in Scripture a real phenomenon, one which Scripture names differently.
What Scripture does describe is what man does. Man is a meaning-making creature. He orders his world to incarnate and symbolize his understanding of the meaning of reality. In Genesis 1, God turns chaos into order. Man, made in God’s image, is told to extend this work throughout the world, turning what is less ordered into something more ordered and meaningful. Humans do this because they are like God. They do not create as He creates, but they do take the raw unordered creation and shape it into systems of meaningful order. They do this not only to the physical world, but to the life of the mind, to matters intellectual and moral.
This phenomenon is culture-making. Humans make cultures. A culture grows out of a cultus (religion). The people share the same vision of what is behind and beyond this world. They agree on what the world is, on what man is, and on who are deities ruling over all. They agree on the moral order that should govern life. In short, a culture incarnates and expresses a religion. Everything in a culture is affected by the religion: art, science, jurisprudence, economics, politics and social etiquette. Religion is the lens through which all of life is viewed and understood. The group of people sharing a location, sharing this religion, then shape their world so as to cultivate their idea of reality.
The account of the Tower of Babel reveals a time when mankind had one culture, spoke one language, and was intent of symbolizing their one idolatrous religion with a Tower. God’s scattering of the nations was both judgement and mercy. In the diversifying of language (and therefore of religion and culture), God “determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (Acts 17:26-27)
The call of Abram is the beginning of God creating a culture for Himself, from which will come the redemption of all other cultures.
Cultures are humanly created systems of meaning. They are systems of meaning growing out of a cultus, that in turn cultivate a shared sentiment about reality.
About David de Bruyn
David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.