• Andrew Clark-Howard

Understanding Culture

Updated: Mar 6, 2018

What might it mean to reimagine the way we talk about culture in the church and as believers, and to theologically engage in a topic which has been neglected?

Culture. It is everywhere. It is the make up of our world; in our skylines, music, billboards or food. It is in the stories we tell ourselves, the narratives we have of success and failure, the thoughts which underpin how we value people, objects, environments, and life in general.

It can be wonderful; the arts inspire us, the law holds our societies together, the stories we pass down raise our children up. Yet the underbelly of culture can show its putrid ways too; systems which keep people poor, cultural elite which snob the rest, depraved and hypersexualised industries which pry on sin.

Yet something about it all feels distinctly human. Culture is human. It can be rough and messy, but it's us, it's human. It is who we are.

So what does God think of culture?

This is a deeply important question and perhaps one we neglect to ask very often. For many, culture, tradition - it's a huge part of who they are. What does God think of that?

For the church, I believe the underlying assumption is that culture is bad. Reading Scriptures like the Tower of Babel (Gen 11:1-9) or Paul's imagery of the the Spirit and the flesh could led us to understand, or misunderstand, that while it is sometimes good, culture is mostly an evil thing. Whether a post-fall consequence, or a result of humanity trying to become God, for many, culture represents the outworking of a godless, fallen society.

The general story goes that while we may have to have culture now, one day 'God's culture,' a spiritual, ethereal, otherworldly reality, will come and take all the bad stuff away, making us into one, united, people.

This plays out in the way Christians live their lives in the world; charter schools, religious (and ethnically) segregated neighbourhoods, Christian entertainment - largely, we want to keep away, and especially our kids away, from the pollution and degradation of the rest of society. Instead, because no human is truly ever without culture, we create our own sub-culture, fit with the latest Christian music, books, movies, and TV (see: Pureflix, the 'pure' version of online TV streaming and "#1 producer of all Christian entertainment").

Re-seeing Creation

Now, please don't hear me wrong. This is not another article condemning Christian movies (although God's Not Dead 3, really?), schools or anything like that. I have many friends who grew up in Christian schools or love Christian entertainment, and the sentiment to remain unpolluted by the world is a biblical and tremendously worthwhile effort (James 1:27).

The general story goes that while we may have to have culture now, one day 'God's culture,' a spiritual, ethereal, otherworldly reality, will come and take all the bad stuff away, making us into one, united, people.

But what I fear is that we are missing out on the grander, richer, and deeper understanding of God's great plan, as, by his Spirit, he redeems and recalls his creation back to the perfection and wonder which he had always intended it to be.

Instead of seeing culture as an evil, human-made construct, what if we saw it as part of the God-given creation? What if we asked ourselves more often, where is the Spirit of God working in this culture here, in this beat up neighbourhood, in this piece of secular art, in this indigenous way of life?

Does the church hold a monopoly of the work of the Spirit? Certainly not! Where there is goodness, reconciliation, love, forgiveness - any good or perfect gift - it is from our Father above! (James 1:17.) The rhythm of God is active in all communities whether they know him yet or not.

Did Christ, the Lord of creation, simply come to create a seperate, exclusive society and abandon the rest of his creation? For God so loved the world, that he became one of us, the Word became flesh, incarnate into a very specific culture, time, and place. Jesus, Lord of creation, became a very certain Palestine Jew, in a particular Hellenistic (Greek) culture, under a very specific Roman Empire. He embodied his culture, he knew their Scriptures and stories, he learnt from the elders and leaders.

And instead of coming to save his chosen people Israel, as Israel imagined, he did something very different: he came for all humanity, ushering in his church where Jew and Gentile coexist, where cultures, ethnicities, languages, and all people were not to become the same, but one body of many parts working under Christ (Galatians 2:14-16).

And when we take a look at the rich poetry of Revelation and John recalls the new heavens and the new earth, what do we see? Cities! Things! Culture! Roads, walls, gates, music, i.e. society, culture, people. It is good creation, made better. It is perfection, becoming more perfect. Only in God are these mysteries reality! We will not return to an Edenic ideal, two humans tending a garden, but we are thrust forward into a new, visceral reality where all nations will praise their God in established cultures and settlement, and society; these are good things and God wants to use them! He created them and therefore intended for us to enjoy them.

We are on a trajectory to this new reality, to the day where Jesus comes to make all things right, and in that time, the Spirit is slowly renewing this creation at this moment. The kingdom of God is also now as much as it is not yet. We don't want to subscribe to the idea that there is a clear linear progression of goodness in the world's redemption (World War I or II was enough to shatter the theologians' and others idealistic idea that society and technology equals progress for humanity), but we know that all human history is progressing to a set point in time, and in the meantime, the Spirit is working to prepare it for that.

All these things show us that culture, the world outside church, and the work of the Spirit is something God is deeply interested in. He does not condemn it, but loves it, celebrates it, and we should too. An instrument of the Spirit's work is culture. It is a tool which he is bringing his people home, bringing all of creation home, to himself. Therefore, the way we see culture has to require a total, 180 degree, reimagining.

Understanding Culture

To the title of this article and the ideas of its contents I am indebted to a course which I've just started at college, 'Understanding Culture,' taken by Andrew Picard. It is the beginning of a discussion which attempts to reimagine culture in a freshly theological lens; in a way in which we see it as an instrument of the Spirit of God redeeming creation. God made us, he created us and gave us certain things to do. He desires us, in fact commands us to work the land, to order the earth, to co-create with him - we are invited to participate in the grand drama of creation, with God as the playwright and the world our stage.

Culture is part of that, it is part of the creation which God has always intended for us to enjoy and flourish in. No doubt, this creation and culture is fallen, so we are by no means to blindly endorse it all, but to throw it out neglects so much.

God loves culture! If your culture means a lot to you, if you are struggling to see what God thinks of that, be set free by the power of the gospel, God loves culture!

What does this all mean? It means, in the paintings we paint, we praise Him as we paint; in the literature we read, we praise Him as we read; in the car a mechanic fixes, they praise Him in the fixing; in the garden a gardener plants, they praise Him in the planting; in the carving the carver creates, they praise Him in the carving; reader, do you see what this really means?

We are invited to participate in the grand drama of creation, with God as the playwright and the world our stage.

In the mundane, in the spectacular, in the highbrow and the lowbrow, in all that we may do as humans that we were created to do, we may give thanks and praise the Creator and Lord of all creation through culture and life. And what, dear reader, were we made for in the first place? To enjoy the God, and glorify him forever.

This is just the beginning of the conversation, what do you think? RHYTHM is a place to discuss, chat, and contribute, in the words of Andrew Picard again, "to co-create knowledge, where thinking aloud is allowed." Leave a comment, email us, come chat to me at church. These are the ramblings of my own, new understanding in this area, we are made better and more nuanced by hearing your own thoughts. We'd love to korero with you.

It is our prayer that the church begins to see culture for what it is, the God-given mandate in creation which we are to enjoy and pursue and in so, glorify him. It is part of what it means to be human, and God is the Creator of that machine. We don't have to neglect who we are, but embrace it, putting Christ at the centre and embracing the Spirit's work, explicit or implicit, through it.

How freaking cool is that.

Andrew is currently studying to become a Youth Pastor at Carey Baptist College. He loves coffee and loves to chat - if any of this stirs something inside or you have thoughts to contribute, you can contact him at andrewclarkhoward@gmail.com.

Get involved. Contact us at rhythmbloginfo@gmail.com or check us out on Instagram @rhythmblog. We are RHYTHM. We are His. //

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