Over the course of my time in the “ministry” (18 years now), I have heard folks use the word culture in many different ways. Often evangelicals refer to “the culture” as a synonym for “the spirit of the age” or anything that is opposed to gospel and church. However, I do not equate culture with “the spirit of the age” because although the spirit of the age is something that influences a culture to a greater or lesser extent, it is not the only influence on a culture, and therefores it is not to be equated with the notion of culture. Indeed, even God’s Word and his church are a part of culture, and they are not to be equated with the spirit of the age. So culture by no means is a comprehensively bad thing. Other times, English speakers may refer to “culture” in such a way as to mean “high culture” such as Rembrandt’s paintings and Beethoven’s music, or “wealthy culture” such as Gucci or Louis Vuitton. However, I am not referring exclusively to high culture or wealthy culture, but also to whatever sectors of culture are excluded by such terms.
Oddly enough, I’ve even heard some talk about how unhelpful it is for certain Christians, theologians, and seminaries to spend so much time talking about culture because it is not even a biblical word. However, my response to that is that the word “culture” is an English word that is used to cover a variety of things that are woven deeply into the fabric of the biblical teaching.
So what am I talking about when I use the word culture? I have in mind something similar to what Niebuhr was talking about (a definition which I provided in the previous installment) but I’d like to provide a more streamlined and well-ordered definition provided by Paul Hiebert. For him, culture is “the more or less integrated systems of beliefs, feelings and values, and their associated patterns of behavior and products shared by a group of people who organize and regulate what they think, feel, and do.”* Indeed, Christians and theologians have more than a little to say about beliefs, feelings, values, symbols, patterns of behavior, and products.
But where does a person begin when setting forth to articulate a theology of culture? I’d like to articulate a basic theology of culture along the lines of the biblical narrative, organizing my thoughts under the rubric “Creation, Fall, Redemption, New Creation.” The present installment will treat Creation and the Fall, leaving Redemption and New Creation for the next installment. [Note: The material in this installment is adapted from my forthcoming book, The Theology & Practice of Mission (B&H, Fall 2011).]
The Bible’s opening narrative tells us about God’s creation, including God’s design for human culture. In the very first chapters, we are told that God created the heavens and the earth. He created out of nothing, he shaped what he created, and he called the work of his hands “good.” At each step along the way, the narrative affirms the goodness of God’s handiwork. Moreover, when God completes his creation by making humanity in his image and likeness, the narrative affirms that God’s creation was “very good” (Gen 1:31).
Humans are the culmination of God’s good creation. They are different from God’s other handiwork. Indeed, the first statement about humans is that God made them in the image and likeness of God, male and female alike. They are like God in many ways, including but not limited to their capacities for spirituality, morality, relationality, language, rationality, and creativity. Man’s likeness to God, Calvin argues, “extends to the whole excellence by which man’s nature towers over all the kinds of living creatures.”** Because of these capacities, God could place the man and woman in the garden to have dominion over God’s good creation (Gen 1:26-27) and to work it and keep it (Gen 2:15).
After having created man, God commands him to “work” the garden, and in so doing to participate with God in his ongoing work of creation and providence. Man is to work the garden, change it, and even enhance it. His work in the garden manifests itself not only in agriculture, but in all types of culture. He may “work the garden” not only by cultivating plant life (agri-culture), but also by cultivating the arts, the sciences, or the public square (culture in general). When man obeys this command to responsibly cultivate the earth, he is pleasing God.
What, then, does the creation narrative contribute to a discussion of culture? First, human culture is part of the physical and material world, which is part of God’s creation before the fall and therefore is not inherently bad. We must not allow ourselves to fall into a form of neo-Gnosticism, treating “spiritual” things as good and “material” things as bad. We may not take a metaphysically dualist view of the creation, with its attendant impulse toward comprehensive cultural separation and withdrawal; to do so is to adopt a hollow and deceptive philosophy, to denigrate God’s good creation, and implicitly to undermine the Incarnation. Second, God gave humans the capacity to create culture and then commanded them to use those capacities. God created humans in his image and likeness, thereby giving them capacities for spirituality, morality, relationality, language, rationality, and creativity. Then he commanded them to use those capacities (e.g. Gen 2:15; Ex 31:1-11).
God’s creation of the world is the opening scene of the Scriptures and constitutes the first major plot movement of the overarching biblical narrative. Immediately after this opening scene, however, Adam and Eve rebelled against God, seeking to set themselves up as autonomous. The effect of this sin for them, and for all of humanity, was disastrous (Rom 1:18-32). Humanity no longer lives in paradise, but instead lives in a world pervaded with sin and its effects. Man’s relationship with God was broken, as well as man’s relationship with himself, with others, and with the rest of the created order.
In Romans 1, Paul describes the result of humanity’s broken relationship with God, pointing out that humans now worship the creature rather than the Creator (Rom 1:25). The image of God in man is now distorted and defaced. However, not only is man alienated from God, he is alienated from others (Rom 1:28-31). Rather than loving his neighbors as himself, he lies, murders, rapes, and otherwise demeans his fellow image-bearers (e.g. Gen 9:6). Further, he is alienated from the created order, as his attempts to “work the garden” are full of frustration and pain (Gen 3:17-18). Finally, he is alienated even from himself, as life becomes meaningless because of his separation from God (Ecc 1:1-11).
The implications of the Fall for a discussion of human culture are massive. Sin defiles everything. Spiritually, humans are idolaters, worshiping God’s gifts instead of worshiping God himself (Col 3:5). Rationally, they have difficulty discerning the truth and they use their capacities to construct vain philosophies (Rom 1:18-21). Creatively, they use their imagination to create and worship idols rather than to worship the living God (Is 40:18-20). Relationally, they use their power to exploit others and serve themselves (Gen 5:8). As a result, any and all human culture is distorted and defaced by sin. No dimension of culture is left unscathed by sin’s pervasive reach.
The Fall and its consequences do not, however, make God’s creation (or, by implication human culture) inherently bad. Even though the world is corrupted by sin, it is still materially good. Recognizing this frees us from false asceticisms and Gnosticisms that view the use and enjoyment of God’s creation as wrong. As Al Wolters puts it, God’s creation remains structurally good, although since the Fall it is directionally corrupt.*** Structure refers to the order of creation, while direction refers to the order of sin and redemption. The directional results of the fall, for human culture, are revealed in such things as poor reasoning in the realm of science, kitsch in the realm of art, and human hatred in the realm of relationships.
Anything in creation can be directed toward God or away from him. It is this direction that distinguishes between the good and the bad, between worship and idolatry, rather than some distinction between spiritual and material. We should note, however, that in spite of the Fall, things are not as bad as they could be. Without common grace and the Spirit’s restraining work, this world would be an utter horror, and because of God’s grace through his Spirit after the Fall, we may continue to produce culture, thereby utilizing our uniquely human capacities.
*Paul Hiebert, Anthropological Insights for Missionaries (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1985), 30.
**John Calvin, The Institutes, I.15.3
***Al Wolters, Creation Regained, 2d ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 87-114.