What Is a Culture?


Since multiplied volumes have been written in the attempt to define culture, offering a description in a single short essay is certainly presumptuous. This apparent presumption is exacerbated by the fact that social scientists (anthropologists, sociologists) and humanists approach the topic quite differently. For a Christian and theologian, this presumptuousness is further underlined by the fact that the Scriptures themselves offer no deliberate or explicit discussion of the subject.

Nevertheless, some of the most heated conversations in contemporary Christendom concern the relationship between Christianity and culture. Those conversations affect virtually every area of church life. The problem is simply too important to dismiss.

Without at least a preliminary description of “culture,” this entire conversation becomes nonsensical. Without a mechanism to distinguish culture from non-culture, the discussion can broaden to include almost anything. Some attempt at limiting the field of enquiry is obligatory for those who wish to pursue this debate.

From a Christian perspective, certain distinctions seem especially important for a correct description of culture. Without these distinctions, discussions of Christianity and culture quickly become confused. These distinctions are two in number.

First, culture is not equivalent to the created order. When God created things like light, seas, stars, birds, beetles, and aardvarks, He was not creating culture. Granted, such things do provide raw materials upon which cultures operate, but by themselves they do not constitute culture. Gefilte fish and lutefisk are aspects of cultures. Carp and cod are not.

Second, culture is not the same thing as “the world” in any biblical sense of that term. Of course, Scripture uses the expression world in a variety of ways. Among other meanings, the term may denote the created order, the mass of humanity, the present age, and systematic human opposition to God. This is not the place for a discursus on worldliness, but the idea of culture does not correspond neatly to any of the above. Participation in a culture is certainly not by itself “worldly” in the biblical sense of the term.

What is culture, then? First and foremost, cultures are humanly invented systems. That does not mean that all humanly invented systems are cultures (though most are parts of some culture or other). What it does mean is that cultures are created by people and that they display order and pattern.

In Genesis one, the creation narrative shows God taking His world from a condition of lesser order to a condition of greater order. As part of that ordering process, God made human beings in His own image and likeness. He invested them with dominion and gave them His blessing to be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it. In other words, God committed to humans the task of bringing yet further order to creation.

Humans are unlike God in that they cannot create ex nihilo. Yet they are like God, and one of the points of likeness is that they do create. They display their creative impulse whenever they wrestle their world from a condition of relatively lesser order into a condition of relatively greater order. This includes not only the natural world, but also the world of their relationships. Ultimately, it even includes their own inner worlds.

They do this because they are image and likeness of God. For people to impose higher order upon more primal order is a God-like activity. When they perform this task well, they have the capacity to image God. In other words, when humans instill the right kind of order, they actually reflect the character and glory of God so that other humans (and other moral beings) glimpse something of the Creator. Working together, humans exercising dominion should be like many glass prisms in a chandelier, each reflecting and refracting God’s character so that the multi-faceted nature of His glory is seen in all its beauty.

Some theologians speak of a cultural mandate. The notion of a mandate, however, seems to be superfluous. While the imperatives of Genesis 1:21 are often misread as commands, the text explicitly calls them blessings. God does not have to command humans to create cultures. He has blessed them with this capacity as part of their being. He has hardwired it into them. Wherever they go, this is what people do. They are fruitful and they do multiply. They fill the earth and subdue it. In that respect, they are doing precisely what God meant them to do—and what they cannot avoid doing. Human beings are inveterate exercisers of dominion.

Of course, not all assertions of dominion are now good. Sin has entered the picture, and in marring individuals, sin also mars the cultures that they create. The effect of sin upon culture is a topic that must never be under-rated. Nevertheless, even the capacity of sinful people to create cultures marred by sin is a gift of God. It is a token of the original blessing that was pronounced upon humanity by a benevolent and glorious Creator.

Cultures, then, are humanly invented systems. What gives rise to those systems? Are certain conditions necessary for the emergence of a culture? The answer is likely yes. People respond by creating cultures when at least three elements are brought together.

The first element is an encounter with the created world. Location in time and space has a powerful influence upon the development of cultures. People living by the sea will necessarily develop different habits and customs than people who live in a desert. Those who dwell in the tropics face different circumstances and challenges than those who live above the fold in the map. Cultures emerge from and are changed by the availability of resources, by the occurrence of natural disasters, and by the passage of time.

The second element is the presence of other people. A solitary individual living in total isolation can hardly be spoken of as having a culture. Such a solitary individual may organize patterns or habits, but until these patterns are touched by the presence of other people, they remain merely idiosyncratic. Being made in God’s image requires a third party, someone to whom God is to be imaged. This is perhaps the most important reason that it was not good for the man to be alone.

Juxtaposition with other humans necessarily modifies the way that one touches the natural world. Two people cannot both catch and eat the same small fish. Some adjustment must be made, and out of such adjustments arise concerns for justice, equity, liberty, mercy, sacrifice, and other moral qualities such as those that are summarized in the Second Table of the Law. Consequently, the creation of culture involves more than the ordering of the natural world. It also includes the ordering of social systems.

The encounter with the natural world and the presence of other humans leads to the invention of technologies. These technologies reflect their geographical, temporal, and social locations, but they also alter those locations. Through technologies, humans become capable of manipulating both the natural world and each other. From a cultural point of view, technologies never merely exist. They always change the culture.

The third element in the creation of culture is a shared vision of the nature of reality. This vision must include some understanding of both the immanent and the transcendent orders. It will incorporate unseen actualities and accepted moral verities that are believed to affect the arrangement of both the natural and social world. In short, a culture incarnates and expresses a religion.

Religion affects everything in almost everything about a culture. Art, science, technology, jurisprudence, work, domestic relations: little or nothing is left untouched. Religion becomes the lens through which the whole natural and social worlds are viewed. People groups with different religious perspectives will naturally have different social arrangements, but they will also appropriate the created order differently. The Israelites of the Old Testament, for example, were expected to treat both the land and each other differently than the Canaanites whom they displaced.

In other words, a culture is more than just a system. It is a system of meaning. The various aspects of a culture point beyond themselves to a vision of reality—indeed, a vision of God. A culture is not simply something that is. Rather, a culture signifies. That being so, the significance(s) of any culture is capable of being understood and evaluated.

A culture is a shared phenomenon. A culture will typically contain permutations and variations, but it will also exhibit regularities. The permutations come from differences in interest. The regularities come from shared interests.

In the past, cultures were held together by what is sometimes called the “fabric of society.” This fabric bound the culture together at points of shared interest to prevent it from disintegrating because of diverse interests. For example, the people of a particular region typically shared interests unique to their region, whatever their class might be. The people of the same class typically had interests unique to their class, from whatever region they might hail. One set of interests worked to hold people together even if another set tended to push them apart. The more levels at which individuals shared interests, the stronger a culture was likely to be.

Shared interest, however, is not by itself sufficient to produce a strong culture. Cultures have always required an overarching commitment to a shared metaphysical vision. For the culture to survive and to succeed, participants in the culture had to see reality through this vision. Ultimately, of the three elements that form a culture (the created world, the presence of other people, and a shared understanding of the nature of reality), this was the crucial element. Cultures could and did survive epidemics, famines, invasions, and migrations. They could not survive fundamental shifts in commitment. To change the shared vision is necessarily to change, or even abolish, the culture itself.

If they are to be useful, discussions of Christianity and culture must have some idea of what a culture is. This essay has argued that a culture is a humanly invented system of meaning that responds to at least three elements. The first is an encounter with the natural world. The second is the presence of other people. The third and most important is a religion, for every culture is the incarnation of a religion. Cultures are meaningful, and their meaning can be evaluated. Therefore, any discussion of Christianity and culture must take account of the significance of the cultures that it purports to examine.

Truth and Divine Love Rejected by the World (Translation)
William Cowper (1731-1800)

O Love, of pure and heav’nly birth!
O simple Truth, scarce known on earth!
Whom men resist with stubborn will;
And more perverse and daring still,
Smother and quench, with reas’nings vain,
While error and deception reign.

Whence comes it, that, your pow’r the same
As his on high from whence you came,
Ye rarely find a list’ning ear,
Or heart that makes you welcome here?
—Because ye bring reproach and pain,
Where’er ye visit, in your train.

The world is proud, and cannot bear
The scorn and calumny ye share;
The praise of men the mark they mean,
They fly the place where ye are seen;
Pure Love, with scandal in the rear,
Suits not the vain; it costs too dear.

Then, let the price be what it may,
Though poor, I am prepar’d to pay;
Come shame, come sorrow; spite of tears,
Weakness, and heart-oppressing fears;
One soul, as least, shall not repine,
To give you room; come, reign in mine!

This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.


[Aaron Blumer] I’m not really all that interested in debating it, I guess. I think the matter is pretty clear. But a couple thoughts…
It may be clear to you but that is not cogent for the rest of us.

You can’t really separate the behavior from the nature of the thing that is behaving. If a mindless beast makes a nest it is not really doing the same thing as a human being creating a nest in imitation of the bird’s. The “behavior” is not the same because the behavior includes the thinking behind it. It’s also not the same because being an eternal soul fundamentally alters any activity vs. a souless version of the activity that happens to look the same.
Fundamentally, I don’t disagree. However, the original argument was purely on observable behavior. If there is a distinction that clinches the argument, then it ought to be note or the argument is lacking. The problem is that it is going to be tricky and difficult to establish the discerning between the two similar behaviors because what is different is not as easily observable. Thus, one is forced into make indirect arguments. Then, one must still make the connection with non-observable distinction being connected with the image of God in man. The use of parallelism is easy to believe but it is difficult to prove.

Also, you are overlooking some very modern viewpoints here. The latest thinking in psychology and behavioral studies is that all thought and behavior are chemically based. This is a type of reductionism that reduces thoughts to biochemical pathways with behavior being genetically based. If one follows this increasingly popular line of thinking, then your argument evaporates because a genetically determined biochemical pathway in a bird’s brain is not significantly different in kind from a genetically determined biochemical pathway in a human brain. This is quite interesting to me and I, for one, think that Christians need better answers to give a skeptical world than the stand-pat answers of a 19th century worldview.

Furthermore, Aaron, would you please comment on my points regarding parallelism and homology? Either deny them or grant them. I don’t mind answering your ideas but I would like for you to deal with my points occasionally instead of constantly raise new ones.

You say that creation in God’s image is about the spiritual side and then deny that creativity has anything to do with His image.
Aaron, let’s be precise. I did NOT “deny that creativity has anything to do with His image.” I am saying that we don’t know if “creativity has anything to do with His image” until you can establish the connection between man’s creativity and God’s image bearing. Furthermore, we don’t know how the fall has affected God’s image in man as well as man’s creativity. Similarities, as in the homology argument, do not necessarily prove relationship. I would be rather be intellectually honest and say that “I don’t know” rather than enter into speculation built upon speculation. Too often, we accept and find logical what fits our own worldview. It’s more about preserving the system (i.e. worldview) than pursuing the truth.

I think we’re getting confused on some terminology here. When I say “creativity” I am talking about what a spirit does.
Okay, I’m will to listen and learn. How do you know that human creativity (and I assume you are speaking of human creativity) is a spiritual activity? I know that God’s Spirit was instrumental in creation but man cannot speak things into existence in essentially the same way. This is akin to Word of Faith teaching per Kenneth Hagin and Kenneth Copeland. The common everyday meaning of creativity is the ability or process of producing something new, innovative, or original. It has no special spiritual significance until one begins to philosophize and spiritualize the meaning. We are agreed that both God and man have the ability to produce or increase order in the universe but can you connect this specifically as a spiritual activity?

Not sure but it seems likely that Kevin would also not define creativity as something a beast or machine can do. So soul/spirit are assumed in the term.
It is interesting that you would mention machines. Man has shown much creativity in scientific knowledge as well as the humanities. Science is far from the cold, impassionate, intellectual quest that is popular myth. Science is based on orderliness and replication. With the coming of Chaos Theory, it appeared at first that randomness lay behind the orderliness until orderliness behind the orderliness appeared. Computer programs modeling dynamic chaotic processes plot beautiful images showing deterministic order in the process. Are the computers creativity?

It’s far from obvious—as you seem to assume—that this creative ability and desire could come from anywhere but God’s image in us, since humans alone posses this ability/drive.
Don’t assume! Do humans alone possess creativity? Perhaps creativity resides in our God-given intellectual abilities. Are intelligence and spirituality synonymous? Are they related? Is intelligence part of bearing God’s image? How do we know? After all, angels and demons both evidence intelligence.

the original argument was purely on observable behavior.
I think you read that into it.

When you write something short, you have to make some assumptions. It was a pretty safe assumption that readers would view human beings as creatures of both body and spirit who do what they do as an expression of mind.

Views expressed are always my own and not my employer's, my church's, my family's, my neighbors', or my pets'. The house plants have authorized me to speak for them, however, and they always agree with me.

[Aaron Blumer]
the original argument was purely on observable behavior.
I think you read that into it.

When you write something short, you have to make some assumptions.
Did you mean to say that you make assumptions in writing something short? Or, did you mean that one must make assumptions in reading something that is short? I don’t know that I agree. Clear writing should preclude the reader making assumptions because one cannot count on his making the right assumption. And the writer ought not make assumptions either than perhaps that the reader has sufficient intelligence and knowledge for following the argument.

It was a pretty safe assumption that readers would view human beings as creatures of both body and spirit who do what they do as an expression of mind.
What? It’s best not to assume because we don’t read another’s thoughts. You contradict yourself. I did not read into it. The article only spoke of behavior, not thoughts behind the behavior. If my observation, not assumption, is wrong then it is provable from the article. I did not assume and I did not read into it. I merely noted how the argument was stated—purely behavioral terms.

Furthermore, I don’t understand the the following: “It was a pretty safe assumption that readers would view human beings as creatures of both body and spirit who do what they do as an expression of mind.” Are you equating “spirit” and “an expression of mind?” What “spirit” is your reference? Man’s “spirit?” Is man’s “spirit” the same as his mind? These are fine sounding words signifying nothing.

Now, Aaron, why don’t you answer my main points instead of finding some obscure, insignificant phrase to challenge?