Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Understanding Culture

What is happiness? What is love? What is liberty? What is culture? What do all of these questions have in common? They are all hard to answer, because happiness, love, liberty, and culture are all hard to define. Happiness cannot mean any ole thing you want it to mean, but it is possible to at least hint at what happiness is. The same is true for culture . The best definitions for words of this type are those which try not to get too specific.

Many have attempted to put a face on this thing we call culture, but most have failed. Most definitions of culture simply acknowledge the different modes that culture generally tends to express itself in. For example, one of the definitions of culture in Webster’s dictionary is, "artistic and intellectual pursuits and products."1 Surely this has a lot to do with culture, but this is not what culture is. In fact, Culture determines what we consider excellent art to be. Culture does not make art. People make art. But culture is that which informs people of the differences between good and bad art.

Others have defined culture in terms of progress.2 But this definition confuses culture with civilization. Civilization and culture surely cannot be understood without one another, but civilization and culture are not synonymous. Culture affects and changes the shape of civilization.

Before coming to a definition of what culture is, it will be helpful to see some characteristics of it and how it expresses itself. Discussing the many expressions of culture before giving a definition will help us not fall into the trap of a confusing it’s nature from it’s many modes of expression (as seen in Webster’s definition).

Characteristics of Culture

First of all, it is important to point out that culture is not stagnant. Culture is in a constant state of change. One only need read excerpts out of a history book to see the rapid pace at which cultures of entire societies change. No two consecutive generations are ever the same. Evidence for this can even be found in the Bible. One generation the Israelites act like children of God, forty years pass, the world powers shift, and the Israelites find themselves in a completely different cultural context worshiping Baal. Because of it’s fluid nature, many have thought of culture as a spirit. You cannot nail a spirit down. You cannot put a spirit in a test tube. Spirits cannot be confined; they are always on the move.

Culture is not considered a spirit just because of it’s fluidity, but also because of it’s force and power. No one can escape the influence of culture. Even those who seek to rise above the influences of culture cannot achieve complete separation. This is not to say that it is impossible to rise above culture altogether, but rather that complete separation is impossible. Niebuhr even goes so far to say that it is just as impossible to escape the influences of culture as it is to escape the influences of nature.3 Culture, in a sense, is alive.

It is also important to point out that culture does not merely consist of the major cultural norm of a given society. Rather, culture encompasses all of the norms of a given society. This is why we can differentiate between pop culture and Christian culture, secular culture and religious
culture, youth culture and adult culture. These different subcultural groups are to be distinguished from each other, but they are to be seen as parts that make up the whole. One subculture may contradict another, but they are all still to be seen as parts that make up what culture presently is. In the same way, some subcultures may be more influential than others, but this does not mean that those subcultures which bear less influence do not play a part in making culture what it presently is. Subcultures may be likened to different colored strings that are knit together to make a scarf.

Many have considered culture to be a worldview. Although this explanation of culture seems a bit simplistic at the outset, it can be very helpful. It may be better to speak of culture not simply as a worldview, but as a worldview made alive and put to practice. Chuck Colson defines a worldview as "the sum total of our beliefs about the world, the ‘big picture’ that directs our daily decisions and actions."4 Although it may not be entirely accurate to consider worldview to be synonymous with culture, it is accurate to understand that worldviews are that which shape culture. This is why Colson can encourage Christians to "build a culture informed by a biblical worldview."5 One of the most complex attributes of culture is that it creates the very worldview that it is affected by. Culture both creates and is created by worldviews.

"The worldview of a culture defines it’s own criteria for evaluating the way the forms and the people of that culture function."6 The way we perceive reality determines what we do. Knowing this will help us determine why culture expresses itself the way it does. This reality
can be easily seen when comparing and contrasting the differences and similarities between the Premodern (Medieval) era, the Modern era, and the Postmodern era (in Western Civilization).
The major differences in these three era’s primarily have to do with the specific worldviews of each specific era. Surely these differences are evidenced in the arts, moods, fashion, and values prevalent at the time of each specific era, but the specific worldviews of each specific era determined how they expressed themselves in these different ways.

To go a step further, many have asserted that a worldview is the product of one’s epistemology (the study of how we know things). D.A. Carson demonstrates how the cultural face of the three eras of Western Civilization reflect the epistemological foundation most prevalent at the time of each specific era.7 One’s view of reality (i.e. worldview), in other words, is dependent upon two things; one’s view of what can be known, and how one is to go about discovering what can be known.

How Culture Expresses Itself

At this juncture it will be helpful to explore the reality of cultural expression and especially how it is driven by the power of worldview. This discussion will simply be an overview of how the cultures of each of the three main eras of Western Civilization were shaped
by the prevailing world view of their own time. We will look at how these cultures have expressed themselves primarily in all aspects of society.8

1). Premodern (Medieval) Worldview and It’s Cultural Expression

The predominant worldview of the Premodern era (300-1500 a.d.) is built upon the premise that nothing can be known apart from the revelation of God. Knowledge starts with God. Thus theology, not natural science, was considered to be the queen of the sciences. Everything predominant in the Premodern era was the product of an epistemology that starts with God. Nothing can be known apart from God’s revelation, and the way we come to know reality is by starting with God’s view of reality revealed in His Word. Premodernity embraces the fact that there is absolute truth, but it looks to God to learn what that absolute truth is.

If Colson is right when he says that a worldview determines the shape of culture, how did the Premodern worldview shape the face of Premodern culture? Because of it’s emphasis on God and the centrality of His Word, almost everything in Premodern culture emphasizes the transcendent. This can be clearly seen in Premodern art. In fact, "the most depicted scene during the middle ages was the crucifixion of Christ."9 The emphasis on the transcendent in Premodern culture also manifested itself in morality. Morals were not something created by humans, rather they were discovered in the Bible.10

The worldview shaping the face of Premodern society was so effective that one of the prevailing characteristics of this era was a government that made absolutely no distinction between church and state. Church (the Pope) was co-regent with the powers that be (the Emporer). The goal of the Empire was Theocracy.11

2). Modern Worldview and It’s Cultural Expression

The Modern Era (approx 1600-1900 a.d.) is built upon the premise that human reasoning is the foundation for all knowledge. The Modern period is considered to have started with Rene Descartes, who set out to find the basis of knowledge by doubting everything. His breakthrough was the fruit of Augustine’s maxim "I think, therefore I am." He found that humans can reason their way to reality. Descartes’ assertion should not be considered heresy (because of the reality of natural revelation), but it did mark the beginning of an era that found epistemological certainty in reason rather than revelation. Thus, Modernity, like Premodernity, embraced the reality of absolute truth, but it leaned upon reason, rather than God’s revelation, to come to that absolute truth.

The quest for knowledge started with man and his ability to reason, rather than with God and His Word. Modernity was motivated by an overly optimistic, yea cocky, view of the abilities of the human mind. Progress therefore, marked the Modern era. Everything, including God and His Word, were subject to the critique of human reason. Gross individualism was the result of Modernities arrogance. Natural science quickly replaced theology as the queen of the sciences.
Because of Modernities emphasis on the human and his ability to reason, almost everything in Modern culture emphasized man and progress.

This can be most clearly seen in Modern art. Rather than art focusing on and elevating the place of the transcendent (as in Premodernity), Modern art emphasized and exalted man and the universal norms of nature. One only need look at a picture of Leonardo Da Vinci’s "Renaissance Man" sculpture (which is fourteen feet tall) to get an idea of the new place man was taking in society.12The Modern worldview also expressed itself in Modern culture through literature. The greatest example of Modern literature was the detective story, where a detective set out to solve mysteries by the sole power of reason.13

The Modern period embraced the reality of morals, but looked to reason to determine what morality is. Modernity even expressed itself in Christian circles. Higher Criticism, for example, as much as it has advanced Biblical studies, is the result of Modernism’s conviction
that all knowing begins with man, not God.14 Another prevailing characteristic of culture in the Modern era was an overwhelming disinterestedness in God. Even those who did believe in God did not consider Him to be intimately involved in the world (Deism). The majority held to philosophical naturalism.15

3). Postmodern Worldview and It’s Cultural Expression

The Postmodern era (approx 1900-present) is considered the result of the humbling of the Modern era. Postmodernity, like Modernity, puts all of the weight of epistemological certainty on the individual and his reason. But, Postmodernity, unlike Modernity, has an utterly negative view of the abilities of the human mind. The Postmodern mind embraces the fact that everyone is shaped by his/her own individual context, which distorts his/her view of reality. Therefore, it is impossible to be absolutely sure of what is right and what is wrong. Rather than speaking of right and wrong, Postmoderns prefers to speak of preference and perspective.

The only absolute truth embraced by Postmoderns is that there is no absolute truth. Certainty simply cannot be attained, therefore despair and a sense of being lost mark the path of Postmodernity. Postmodern culture, with it’s emphasis on uncertainty, tends to express itself in blurring the lines of reality. It strives toward eclecticism. It celebrates diversity. It loves to call traditional understandings of what is right and wrong into question.

The expressions of Postmodern culture, because it is the direct antithesis of Modernity, are easily detected. Postmodern art is best represented in the collage, because it presents many diverse incongruent pictures. The collage seeks to break all of the rules of art set up by
Modernsism.16 Many of the art forms of Postmodernism do not merely break the rules of good art, they call into question the nature of what art is.

Postmodern culture also expresses itself in science. For example, Thomas Kuhn states that "our understanding of reality will always be derivative, via the paradigms that constitute our most up-to-date science."17 Scientific discovery, therefore, does not reflect aboslute truth, rather it reflects the presuppositions (of how to go about making scientific discovery) of the scientist.

Postmodernism even calls traditional understandings of morality into question. The only morality prevalent in Postmodern culture is that which says that we should not push our ideas of what is right and wrong on others, and that we should not call other’s ideas of right and wrong into question. This idea of morality can even be seen is some of the more extreme branches of the Emergent Church. For example, Rob Bell, in his book Velvet Elvis, states that if we have a gospel agenda when talking to non-believers, we cannot truly love them. Thus states Bell, "We have to surrender our agendas."18

Gene Edward Veith, Jr. explains just how far the Postmodern worldview has effected our society in his discussion on TV talk shows.

"Talk shows interview interesting people, such as ‘self-mutilators’ and ‘adopted people who are sexually attracted to their natural siblings’ (actual listing for one week’s Maury Povich show). On TV these people are warmly accepted by the host and the studio
audience, except for a few who are unattractively ‘judgmental.’ The guests seem so, so normal."19

This is a reality in our present day Postmodern culture. What else could be expected from a culture that exults in our inability, as humans, to come to absolute truth.

Gathering the Evidence

It will not be helpful, for the purposes of this paper, to critique what is right and wrong about each of the three Culture’s discussed. Suffice it to say that each culture brings both good and bad to the table. Before attempting a definition of culture, it will be helpful to make some observations about our discussion on the changing cultures of Western Civilization.

1. Colson was right when he said that the worldview of a particular culture determines the actions of that culture. What we believe truly does effect what we do.

2. Culture affects all aspects of society at large. Each culture discussed revealed itself in the arts, morality, sciences, values, religion, etc.

3. No one can escape the influence of culture. This is primarily the case because culture affects absolutely every aspect of society. Scientists, philosophers, preachers, and teachers, everyone is effected by culture (as can be clearly seen from the overview of Western Civilization above).

Toward a definition of this thing we call Culture

In light of our study, what is culture? Leslie Newbigin comes close to the idea of culture when he defines it as such:

"By the word culture we have to understand the sum total of ways of living developed by a group of human beings and handed on from generation to generation. Central to culture is language. The language of a people provides the means by which they express their way of perceiving things and of coping with them. Around that center one would have to group their visual and musical arts, their technologies, their law, and their social and political organization. And one must also include in culture, and as fundamental to any culture, a set of beliefs, experiences, and practices that seek to grasp and express the ultimate nature of things, that which gives shape and meaning to life, that which claims final loyalty. I am speaking, obviously, about religion."20

Newbigin’s definition emphasizes some very important things. He emphasizes the all encompassing effect culture has on society, but he does not emphasize the fluid nature of culture. Culture, to Newbigin is that which is "handed on from generation to generation." But, cultures change from generation to generation. As said before, no two consecutive generations have ever had identical cultural climates.

Conjuring up a definition of culture is nearly impossible, but this should not keep us from attempting one. Culture is a worldview with lungs, hands, and feet. Culture is a worldview, or better, a set of worldviews set alive and put to practice. To be more specific, culture is the effect, product, and (as strange as it may be) creation of the ever changing sum total of all of the worldviews of a given group, society, or period of time putting themselves to practice by influencing absolutely every person and part of society.

1. Random House Webster’s College Dictionary (New York: Random House, 1991), 330.

2. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1956), 31-32.

3. Ibid., 39.

4. Charles Colson, and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live (Wheaton: Tyndale House Publishers Inc., 1999), 14.

5. Ibid., 302

6. Charles H. Kraft, Christianity In Culture: A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-Cultural Perspective (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 1979), 92.

7. D.A. Carson, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 87-116.

8. Because of the size of this paper, the following discussion will be nothing more than a survey. Not every aspect or expression of culture will be discussed. The discussion will include only enough to give an idea of how worldviews shape culture and the way it expresses itself.

9. James Emery White, Serious Times: Making Your Life Matter in an Urgent Day (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 20.

10. Ibid., 20.

11. Ibid., 20-21.

12. Ibid., 22-23.

13. Stanley Grenz, A Primer on Postmodernism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1996), 30.

14. Thomas Oden, After Modernity...What? (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1990),110-120.

15. Carson, 95.

16. Grenz, 26.

17. D.A.Carson, The Gagging of God (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), 88-89.

18. Rob Bell, Velvet Elvis (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005), 167.

19. Gene Edward Veith Jr., Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1994), 123.

20. Leslie Newbigin, Foolishness to the Greeks: The Gospel and Western Culture (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 3.


Pastor Luke said...

An excellent paper! I really enjoyed reading it.

2 questions.

1. What affect does regeneration have on ones position before culture? Does it liberate, or merely work within?

2. Have you speculated on the organic nature of culture in terms of "the prince of the power of the air," and what implications that may have?


Pastor Luke said...


One more thought in regard of my second question: what has "common grace" to do with the organic life of culture?


Jimmy Snowden said...

There are about 40 different ways to go about answering these questions. I would like it if you would attempt an answer.

Question 1: I don't understand your first question. Are you asking how regenerated people affect culture, or are you asking how a persons relationship with culture changes upon being regenerated?

2. Every culture has good and bad aspects to it. This is an evidence of common grace. Every culture has those things in it which bring about good. One of the most evident aspects of culture is how it unify's the group. They fight the same battles and have the same goals. It creates community. This surely can be seen in todays postmodern society. Everyone agrees that no one is right, and only those who disagree do not join the party.

I definitely see Satan's influence on culture. Each culture, it seems, is a big over reaction. It is a truth taken too far (as can be seen in my paper). Each culture is driven by a (set of) distorted Biblical truth(s)/worldview(s), and surely Satan masquerades as an angel of light. No culture can just hold to Biblical truth.

For example, in the Renaissance we see a rising emphasis on nature and man. This was needed, because nature and man were nerely neglected in the premodern era. And God makes a big deal out of nature and man in the Bible. The Renaissance started out as a celebration of what God has made, but the celebration did not last long (at all), because men started worshiping God's creation--man and his ability to reason, and kicked God out of the picture. It started out so good, but culture is driven along by Satanic influence, no doubt about it.

It's implications: Don't get too excited if culture starts swinging our way--it will get distorted, because this world is full of men (and women) who are influenced by their sin-sick, demonic selves.

Not necessarily sure if this answers your question much. Please, Your thoughts.