Why study culture?
This Sunday I’ll be speaking at the first of three “College Sundays” at Tri-State Fellowship. These Sundays will be designed to evaluate today’s trends through the lens of God’s timeless truth. This Sunday we’ll be looking at the impact of technology in a message called “Rise of the Machines: Real Life in a Virtual World.”
But again: why study culture? Why devote a Sunday morning to a cultural issue? Should God’s people not place sole priority on God’s word?
These are great, thoughtful questions; let’s take a moment to unpack them a bit.
WHAT IS CULTURE?
What exactly is culture, anyway? Trying to define “culture” is a bit like nailing Jell-O to a wall. Even the definition itself will reflect the culture that creates it (!). Kathryn Tanner—a professor from Yale University—refers to culture as “the meaning dimension of social life.” Most social scientists agree. Christian writer Wade Clark Roof says that “culture has to do with making sense out of life and formulating strategies for action” through a series of “ideas and symbols.”
We can synthesize these definitions into something we can work with. Culture answers the question: “What does life mean?” Art, literature, technology, religion—each of these areas offer a set of ideas and symbols that help us answer the question of meaning.
WHY SHOULD CHRISTIANS ENGAGE IN CULTURE
Christianity also offers an answer to the question: “What does life mean?” For Christians, the answer is found in responding to God—a God who reveals Himself through nature, through scripture, through Jesus, and through His Church.
This also means that Christianity is a part of the cultural fabric. There are many different answers to the question: “What does life mean?” But if Christianity offers such a unique answer, why look at other answers at all?
We can offer the following reasons:
- God commands His people to seek the wellbeing of the world we inhabit. When Israel was held captive in Babylon, the natural temptation was to avoid the pagan culture. But God told His people to “seek the good of the city”—to build houses, to settle down. God doesn’t want separatists, He wants missionaries.
- Because culture shapes us in ways we don’t recognize. Proverbs 6:27-28 asks: ‘Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned? Can a man walk on hot coals without his feet being scorched?” The culture we live in is never neutral; its practices will always shape us into its character. The Christian task is to evaluate whether we’re being shaped into God’s character.
- Cultural engagement helps us to “speak in a secular way about God.” The latter phrase comes from the writer Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who believed that Christianity needed to find common language with the culture that surrounds it. In Acts 17, Paul finds himself in Athens, Greece. The city was known for being a major cultural setting—not just for the arts but also for philosophy. Paul bridged the cultural gap by using their poetry to point to His God (Acts 17:27-28). In today’s world, the Bible is no longer a common reference point for dialogue. We need to find new ways of engaging the world around us. The former pope reminded us that “the path of beauty” often leads to “the path of truth.” God’s missionaries can use today’s culture to reveal God’s truth.
HOW CAN WE APPROACH CULTURE?
So how do we evaluate culture? The process is known as cultural exegesis. The word “exegesis” most literally means “to lead out” or “to bring out.” It was used to refer to scholars pouring over the stories of the Bible and “bringing out” a meaning.
Kevin Vanhoozer—a professor from Deerfield Theological Seminary—says the same task lays before us in today’s “cultural texts.”
What are “cultural texts?” Vanhoozer says that these “texts” are “maps and scripts that orient us in life and give us a sense of direction.” In other words, everything we encounter is trying to tell us something. Or, more specifically, everything we encounter is offering an answer to the question: “What does life mean?”
But Vanhoozer goes on to borrow from social science, arguing that these texts have a “thick description.” This means that every text contains multiple layers of meaning. We all know that a film like Saving Private Ryan might have much to say on the theme of sacrifice and patriotism. But it also touches on such themes as loyalty, brotherhood, and the sacredness of life.
Therefore, the task of “cultural exegesis” is twofold:
(1) To “bring out” what culture has to say about a given subject
(2) To compare that message with what God says about the same subject.
Have you ever noticed how often movie heroes (such as the recent Man of Steel) find their way into Christian sermons/books? Maybe it’s because both Hollywood and the Bible agree on the virtues of justice and self-sacrifice.
THE VALUE AND LIMITS OF CULTURAL EXEGESIS
I would agree that we could pay too much attention to culture. But I would argue that there is danger in paying too little. If I elevate culture to the neglect God’s truth, I become culturally accommodated rather than missionally focused. But if I elevate God’s truth to the neglect of culture, God’s mission becomes a moralistic campaign.
God calls His people to surrender every area of their lives to Him. He wants our lives, our relationships, our cell phones, and our social media laid before Him as a “living sacrifice” (Romans 12:1). This Sunday is an act of social engagement, but it is also an act of worship. And so in this—as in all things—we give God the glory.