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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9 Responses to What is Culture?

  1. zebranay says:

    An excellent commentary but I have to admit that I was lost with some of the terminology. I looked up orthopathy and it gave me a better understanding of your article. The “student” surpassed this “teacher” long ago!

  2. Keith Call says:

    Can one really derive “a collective expression of transcendent beauty” from a fallen world, interpreted through a fallen mind? Wouldn’t that marvelous world in its purest form lay ahead, somewhere after the return of Christ?

  3. kirinjirafa says:

    I was really hoping to get your definition here (definition please?), but between the two you’ve given I think I would go with the first. I don’t take issue with the concept of cultural norms reflecting our view of God, it’s that as a definition the second one doesn’t seem to be doing a complete enough job, and creates questions, rather than reducing the term it’s defining to it’s simplest essential qualities. The transcendent beauty issue is incidental rather than definitive.

    For instance, everyone has a different style of making bread; bread may be recognizably different coming from Mexico, France, or India, and the difference is very cultural. However, though different bread styles reflect preferences, geographical resources, and history, and although the foods people eat can reflect their view of God, I can’t see an essential element of transcendent beauty specifically present in the difference itself. Does this make sense?

    Then again, maybe I’m leaning too heavily on the idea of culture being a distinguishing set of preferences.

    • kirinjirafa says:

      Sure, it’s fine to say that the best of a culture is seen in what it values, but is its highest set of values the most complete way to define it? That seems like something to include as part of a definition, but lacking if it’s all that is mentioned. It really isn’t a complete picture of American culture to say we value liberty, affluence, and convenience and leave it there, is it?

      I think I would define culture as a people’s collected preferences, practices, and values, because the things that distinguish one group from another or identify its members can all fall into one of those categories; I don’t, however, think I could identify a random person as an American because they like wealth, liberty, and comfort. Put that person in a T-shirt with stars and stripes, and suddenly it’s obvious who they are. The values may be characteristic and may show the best the society has to offer, but the practices are what functionally identifies people.

  4. Seth says:

    Sin definitely hinders our pursuit of the noumenal, but the awe of entering a great cathedral should demonstrate that it is possible to feel at least a tinge of C. S. Lewis’ joy through a society’s united efforts. In other words, there is sin in the builder, designer, and spectator of a great architectural masterpiece, yet beauty still shines through.

    And we could find similar remnants if we walked down other lanes of cultural expression like great music, art, or political structure. Of course, I agree with your final line: in its purest form, it awaits the presence of Christ, but just because the purest form of beauty is beyond our grasp, we shouldn’t give up trying to have any demonstrations of the transcendent.

    • Keith Call says:

      Excellent response, but I’m still wondering about the biblical concept of beauty. Paul the Apostle often journeyed on the bright, sunlit Mediterranean, Homer’s “wine-dark sea,” and never in his scriptures mentions its stunning beauty. He seems wholly preoccupied with the otherworldly “beauty of holiness,” something that his eyes could not see, but his soul clearly perceived.

      • Seth says:

        Paul’s letters are packed pretty tightly without addressing many important topics in life. It is left for us to work out the implications using logic and following the pattern of other parts of Scripture.

  5. Seth says:

    Wherein lies the glory of culture? Is it in mundane differences between two ethnic groups like the way they make bread or does the genius of culture show itself in the way a group conceives of its highest loves, joys, and hates? I opt for the latter. Though even the common practices may also be tinged with a society’s understanding of the highest ideals.

  6. Pingback: Scruton vs. Carson on Culture |

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