Understanding Culture

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This entry is a revised version of a post which appeared on RHYTHM, a collaborative blog based out of the young adult community at Windsor Park Baptist Church. 

Culture. It’s everywhere. It is the make up of our world; in our skylines, music, billboards, or food. It’s in the stories we tell ourselves, the narratives we have of success and failure, the thoughts which underpin how we value people, objects, environments, and life in general. 

It can be wonderful; the arts inspire us, the law holds our societies together, the stories we pass down raise our children up. Yet the horrible underbelly of culture can show its perverted ways too; systems which keep people poor, cultural elite snob the rest, hyper-sexualised industries and attitudes which pry on a broken sexuality.

Yet something about it all feels distinctly human. Culture is human. It can be rough and messy, but it's us, it's human. It is who we are.

So what does God think of culture?

This is a deeply important question and perhaps one we neglect to ask very often. For many, culture, tradition—it's a huge part of who they are. A certain tragedy has resulted from colonial forms of Christianity which have taught the false idea that order to follow Jesus, one must give up and leave behind the culture in which they grew up in and through which continue to find identity and make sense of the world. What does God think of that?

For some in the church, the underlying assumption is that culture is bad. Reading Scriptures like the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9) or Paul's binary imagery of the the Spirit and the flesh could led us to understand—or rather misunderstand—that while it is sometimes good, culture is mostly an evil thing. Whether a post-fall consequence, a result of humanity trying to become God, for many culture represents the outworking of society without God. 

The general story goes that while we may have to have culture now, one day 'God's culture,' a spiritual, ethereal, otherworldly reality, will come and take all the bad stuff away, making us into one, united, people. Plato, anyone?

This plays out in the way groups of Christians live their lives in the world; charter schools, religiously segregated neighbourhoods, Christian entertainment because we want to protect ourselves from the pollution of ‘culture’ and the rest of society. Instead, because no human is truly ever without culture, we create our own sub-culture, fit with the latest Christian music, books, movies, and TV.

The other, perhaps more sinister misunderstanding, is that in Jesus there is no culture, that the church can exist in a culture-less vacuum, all her members united together by the good news of Christ into one mono-existence. After all, there is neither 'Jew nor Gentile,’ ‘male and female,’ right? Yet unity within the body does not mean that we all look the same. In fact it’s the opposite: the new humanity of Jesus is a remarkably diverse and multi-cultural community, where all nations and tongues are represented in the multitude (Rev 7:9). Very often, the naivety which suggests the church ‘has no culture’ comes from a blindness harboured by the dominant culture, unable to see how their own forms of worship and church expression so clearly reflect their own culture and worldview.

THE TELOS OF ALL CREATION

When we picture culture like this, not only do we miss out on some of the best things humans have created, but we miss out on something much greater.

The general story goes that while we may have to have culture now, one day 'God's culture,' a spiritual, ethereal, otherworldly reality, will come and take all the bad stuff away, making us into one, united, people. 

What we are miss out on the grander, richer, and deeper understanding of God's great plan, as by his Spirit he redeems and recalls his creation back to the perfection and wonder which he had always intended it to be.

Instead of seeing culture as an evil, human-made construct, what if we saw it as part of the God-given creation? What if we asked ourselves more often, where is the Spirit of God working in this culture here, in this beat-up neighbourhood, in this piece of secular art, in this indigenous way of life? The church does not have the monopoly of the Spirit of God.

The most obvious evidence of God’s interest in culture can be seen in the incarnation. Jesus came as a very certain Palestinian Jew, in a particular Hellenistic (Greek) culture, under a very specific Roman Empire. He embodied his culture, he knew their Scriptures and stories, he learnt from the elders and leaders. 

[U]nity within the body does not mean that we all look the same. In fact it’s the opposite.

And instead of coming to restore the kingdom of his chosen people as Israel imagined, he did something different: he came for all humanity, ushering in his church where Jew and Gentile coexist, where cultures, ethnicities, languages, and all people were not to become the same, but one body of many parts working under Christ. 

At the climax in the Book of Revelation, John recalls the new Jerusalem, descending down onto earth. What is significant about this picture of the new creation. Well for one thing, it’s a city! a human-made object. The new Jerusalem is an embodied and culture-ridden reality, full of roads, walls, gates, music, society, culture, and people. It is good creation, made better. It is perfection, becoming more perfect. We do not return to an Eden, two humans tending a garden, but we are thrust forward into a new reality where all nations praise God in a city; established culture, settlement, and society.

All these things show us that culture is something God is deeply interested in. He does not condemn it, but loves it, celebrates it, and we should too. An instrument of the Spirit's work is culture. It is a tool which he is bringing all of creation home, to himself.

UNDERSTANDING CULTURE

To the title of this article and the ideas of its contents I am indebted to a course which I've just started at college, 'Understanding Culture,' taken by Andrew Picard. It is the beginning of a discussion which attempts to reimagine culture in a freshly theological lens; in a way in which we see it as an instrument of the Spirit of God redeeming creation. God desires us, in fact commands us to work the land, to order the earth, to create under him - we are miraculously invited to participate in the grand drama of creation, with God as the playwright and the world our stage. 

This invigorates our purposes and motivations. It means that God actually wants to use the beautiful and wonderful parts of human culture in his new creation; the paintings, literature, gardening, carving, engineering, and so on.

We are invited to participate in the grand drama of creation, with God as the playwright and the world our stage. For what were we made for in the first place? “To enjoy God, and glorify him forever.”

~

This post initially appeared on RHYTHM, a collaborative blog based out of the young adult community at Windsor Park Baptist Church. You can find the original post here. For further korero or any inquires email me at andrewclarkhoward@gmail.com or find me on Instagram @andrewclarkhoward.