What is Culture?

Tim Keller’s praise for D. A. Carson’s new book on culture demonstrates the importance of the term in question:

“There is no more crucial issue facing us today than the relationship of the church and the gospel to contemporary culture.”

Defining culture is like defining love. It’s an abstract term that can potentially cover so many aspects of life that it nearly loses its meaning by referring to everything. Carson confirms that on page one with a “fairly plastic” definition that could be paraphrased as the likes and dislikes of any group.

Many conservative evangelicals agree with Carson’s plasticity. A few weeks back I had the privilege of eating lunch with a president of a conservative evangelical seminary, and he agreed that culture should be defined by default as a neutral term for an ethnic group’s basic actions.

But then another group of observers would prefer to define culture something like, an ethnic group’s highest ideals; a collective expression of transcendent beauty. These glasses would be worn by writers such as Roger Kimball, Roger Scruton, and Kevin Bauder. Recently, David de Bruyn has written a helpful book for pastors arguing implicitly for this definition of culture.

The difference between the two definitions is that one categorizes and the other cuts. One is sterile and the other is loaded. The first is like a neutral zone in the culture wars, “No weapons here.” The second takes a definite stand by claiming that a group’s basic actions and beliefs are either moving us nearer to orthopathy, inhibiting us from reaching orthopathy, or even prohibiting any concourse with the category of orthopathy.

If culture is whatever a group likes then it is not necessarily always positive or negative. Cultural expressions could in theory be neutral. The post-modern mood then steps in swaying us to think that any given aesthetic choice is actually positive simply because it is not immediately clear that it is negative. Based on and at the same time supporting this conclusion, evangelicals may now cling to a kind of Sola Scriptura that practically has little authority over cultural forms.

The first definition has the inherent problem of allowing for a denuded principle of the authority of Scripture whereby cultural forms such as music, art, and architecture are given nearly free passes. I say “free” because, from this perspective, any artistic expression can at least be a statement about man’s depravity and thus become a worthy cultural demonstration.

But the second definition raises problems too since it leaves us with no word to describe the daily practices of any given group. Does the song “Happy Birthday” really communicate transcendent beauty? We need terms to talk about the day-to-day activities of life, and “culture” seems like a pretty good word. Ken Myers used high, low, and folk culture as three categories in his excellent book, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes. Those categories allow us to still keep the edge on the blade of “culture” so that it may cut into musical style, etc. What may not be allowed is a definition of culture that removes an objective basis for critiquing cultural forms.

If culture is a positive term—an expression of transcendent beauty—then it is also rooted in the character of God which means our artistic demonstrations (as expressions of our highest ideals) should be evaluated in terms of the relationship to the divine attributes.

So, I agree with Keller that the relationship of the church to culture is one of vital importance. Vital because our culture is the most visible illustration of our conception of God.

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