Culture: what is it?
What is culture? Is it a good thing or a bad thing? And where does culture fit in the gospel?
These are questions that all Christians need to think about carefully, but it becomes a much more obvious issue in a church such as ours: a Chinese church set in an Australian culture. It’s more obvious for us because we see the cultural gaps when we relate to people around us – and we wonder how to think Christian-ly about it.
1. What makes up culture?
Culture is quite a complex thing to define, because it’s made up of a number of different elements. Some of these elements are very obvious (such as language, or foods), and some are hidden and can only be discerned through careful observation (such as values and worldview).
Missionaries have thought longest and hardest about culture, since they have been forced to deal with it when bringing the gospel to other peoples. Here is a diagram showing the different components of culture:
From this diagram you can see that culture is made up of:
- behaviours – the things that are done (eg. what language is spoken, what foods are eaten, how you greet people in the street)
- beliefs – the things that are known to be true (eg. if you work hard you will succeed)
- values – the things that are important (eg. friends are dear, time is short)
- worldview – things that are ultimately real (eg. only physical things exist)
While behaviours are the most obvious, culture actually goes much deeper than mere behaviours. At the hidden heart of a culture is its values and worldview. A people group may even shed some of its old behaviours as time changes and they mix with people from other cultures, but the values and worldview that remain at its heart do not often change.
Furthermore, while a people group may talk about how things are done, and openly discuss their beliefs, the values and worldview of a culture are often held without being questioned. They are simply assumed by everyone in that people group as the structure of reality in which they operate.
2. Is culture good? bad? or neutral?
Culture is something that naturally arises when groups of people come and live together. As they do so, they begin to do things the same way, refer to things using the same words, and think about things the same way. Not everything will be the same, mind you! But there will be enough similarities across all the people in that group that will, after enough time has passed, make them distinct from other groups of people.
They will adopt behaviours, beliefs, values and a worldview that is similar to one another – it just makes living together easier if everyone speaks the same language, has the same view of time, and knows how to treat one another!
Is culture good, bad, or neutral? In Genesis there doesn’t seem to be enough time between the creation of the first couple, and the fall for culture to develop, so it’s really hard to answer this question with any certainty (Gen 2-3)! However, there are some clues in the Bible about culture…
- In Genesis 4 (after Cain kills Abel) you have a description of different cultures emerging, each of which seem to have developed some speciality in tradecraft. Jabal is the father of those who live in tents and raise livestock (Gen 4:20); Jubal becomes the father of those who play the harp and flute (Gen 4:21); and Tubal-Cain forges tools of iron and bronze (Gen 4:22). These cultural products are don’t seem to be held up as necessarily evil, though they are certianly surrounded by accounts of fracticide and revenge-killings!
- Then in Revelation 21:24 while John describes the wonder of the New Jerusalem, we have a curious reference that "the kings of the earth will bring their splendor into it". Perhaps a hint that there are some things of human culture that will in fact live on in the new creation itself.
- In Genesis 11:1-9 God does frustrate the language of the tower-builders at Babel. They are trying to make a name for themselves, and God takes away their ability to communicate.
- Throughout the Old Testament, ‘the nations’ are generally seen negatively, compared to the nation of Israel – though God’s intention is to ultimately bless the nations through Isarel (Gen 12:1-3).
- While Genesis 11 holds the scattering of the nations, it’s interesting that before that incident you already have the ‘table of nations’ in Genesis 10. The creation of different nations doesn’t seem to be a result of the judgment in Genesis 11.
- And even though language is confused in Genesis 11, it’s interesting that in Revelation 7:9 there is a great multitude of people from different tribes and nations, but significantly, who use different languages, standing before the throne and praising him.
In all of this I’m trying to highlight that there may be some ambivalence in the Bible about culture… Yes, human cultures can be used as an expression of people’s independence from God. You can think of some elements of culture as being how a group of tend to express their rejection God’s rule (eg. building idols). However there are some parts of human culture that I think are neutral (eg. farming). And yet other parts of human cultures (eg. language) can also be used to express people’s love to God.
Think of human culture as being like a magnifying glass. A magnifying glass can be used by a humble student of God’s creation to examine the intricate structure of leaves and beetles. Yet a magnifyinig glass can also be used by a snotty-nosed kid to focus the sun’s rays to a point, and burn ants on a path! And just like a magnifying glass, human culture can be used to express our independence of God, or our devotion to God.
3. What to do with culture
There will be things that need to be critiqued and challenged about the behaviours, beliefs, values and worldviews of all cultures. When a Chinese person comes to Christ, they must start to live under God’s rule. This means testing their behaviour, beliefs, values and worldview to God, and submitting it to God. And this Chinese person will discover that some behaviours will need to change (eg. no longer stealing MP3s) - but others will likely not (eg. speaking Cantonese, eating chicken feet). And the same too for beliefs, values and worldview.
The good thing about a Chinese church in an Aussie culture (such as ours) is that we are prompted to think about culture, and so have to think carefully what aspects of our behaviours, beliefs, values and worldview we need to transform. It’s a lot harder for Aussie churches in an Aussie culture to do this, because the tendency is for culture to go unquestioned (especially one’s values and worldview). But all Christians need to do this.
There’s more to say about culture (particularly ABC culture). But here are three conclusions so far:
- culture is deeper than we think and is made up of many components (and so it takes discipline to critique one’s own culture);
- cultures can be used to express our sinfulness (and so we must critique culture);
- cultures can also be used to express our love for God (and so the point is not to erase culture).
[ PS: is there such a thing as a Christian culture that all Christians everywhere should adopt? ]
Categories: Chinese culture