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.

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Book Review - Christ Among the Dragons

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The evangelical world is sailing in new cultural waters. While it can be argued that the fundamentalist movement never got on the boat, evangelicalism at large has been “engaging culture” for years. They have been accustomed to dealing with culture on equal footing—accustomed to hearing and being heard, respecting and being respected. But the waters are troubled. Once unified by common causes (abortion, family values), supported by a political party (the Republicans) and following vocal leaders (Dobson, Fallwell, etc.), they now find themselves fragmented by disagreements, abandoned by the GOP and virtually leaderless. Concurrently, society’s reaction to expressions of the Christian faith has moved from bemused tolerance toward snarling animosity.

Attempting to explain the current situation and provide a roadmap through the current cultural morass to his fellow evangelicals is James Emery White with this book Christ Among the Dragons (IVP, 174 pages plus notes). White is the founder and pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC and professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

Some might ask, “Professor of Culture? Why would we want to learn anything about that?” And other aspects of the book—like the dedication at the end to Billy Graham—might cause some fundamentalists to reject the book out of hand.

But that would be unfortunate.

There is much we can learn from White’s insights. His motif is the medieval mapmakers’ practice of writing “Here be dragons” upon reaching the end of the known world. His thesis is that the Church is navigating previously uncharted waters. How are believers to confront the cultural dragons of our time?

White begins his book with a discussion of society’s abandonment of the concept of truth. His conclusion will (or should) ring true with every fundamentalist:

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Four conceptions of God among the American religious public

The Divine Divide

  1. The authoritative God, who both judges and is closely engaged in the world
  2. The benevolent God, who is “engaged but nonjudgmental”
  3. The critical God, who happens to be judgmental but disengaged
  4. The distant God, who is neither engaged nor judgmental, and could care less about how humans muck about.

HT: Oxgoad

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