The term culture has been so over-used and ambiguously applied that it has become a very slippery piece of lingo. We speak of urban culture, sub-culture, business culture, organizational culture, arts culture, gay culture, multi-culturalism and on and on, to the point that we are not sure what we mean, and are therefore uncertain about how biblical faith relates to this catch-all concept.
Cultivation of a Social Ideal
The original and primary definitions of culture, a word derived from cultivation, have been almost forgotten. The Latin verb colere, from which we derive the term, refers to tilling the ground in order to grow things. Older dictionaries, therefore, render the noun culture as a ‘state of being cultivated’ or ‘a type of civilization.’ Here, the state of being which is cultivated in individuals essentially forms or creates a type of civilization that grows as a result of this intellectual and moral tilling. Traditionally then, an educated, mature and civilized person was considered ‘cultured,’ cultivated in terms of a particular ideal.
Culture as Religion Externalized
A person’s ideal state of being is thus a profoundly religious question and we retain this basic association in our use of the related term cult to refer to a system of religious belief. Culture has consequently been accurately described as ‘religion externalized,’[i] or more simply, applied beliefs. Go to Saudi Arabia and you will experience Islamic culture, specifically manifest by its law and education. Go to certain parts of India and you will witness Hindu culture with its integral mythology and the resulting caste system. Come to the West and you now witness humanistic culture with strong remnants of Christianity in people’s language, literature, beliefs and other cultural artefacts, like architecture.
Civilizations (the communal development and application of beliefs) or cultures rise and fall as beliefs take concrete shape, then under various stresses, collapse and fall. The widespread capture of the West by the humanistic cult of state-sponsored polytheism (philosophical pluralism) sociologically expressed as multi-culturalism, concurrent with the evident encroachment of an opportunistic Islam, is producing radical decay and social collapse, from economic meltdown to family fragmentation, and the rioting and anarchy increasingly seen in our cities. It is in the midst of all this that Christians must ask how they are to relate the gospel of the kingdom to the decaying culture of our age.
Culture is inescapably prejudiced
The first step in responding to this question is to recognise our context: that no culture can be neutral. It is impossible for any social order to be neutral – that is, neither one thing nor another. Every civilization is and will be inescapably committed, through the spheres and institutions of family, academy, law, art, and government, to a religious or cultural consensus, be it humanistic, Islamic, Hindu, Christian or any other. Someone’s morality will be legislated, someone’s philosophy taught in schools, someone’s vision of beauty and reality idealised in art. The illusory idea of a neutral order or prejudice-free space for an equal toleration of all views (or gods) is a myth utilized only to facilitate the establishment of a new intolerance.
Cultural Conflict and Persecution
The removal of one prejudice (the Christian concept of marriage for example) does not lead to a neutral approach to marriage but rather a considered prejudice against the Christian conception of the family as the new cultural norm, one very evident in our time. Simply put, the idea that one can cultivate a prejudice-free civilization, one without real value commitments, is a dangerous lie that has been used by secular humanism as a precursor to the marginalization and persecution of Christianity. Political scientists and historians understand that dissent in any civilization can only be tolerated to a certain degree, beyond which that social order dooms itself – which is why treason has always been considered a serious crime. Ever since Christianity began, in the shadow of the Roman Empire, pagan governments have correctly recognized and feared the cultural and social transformation that mass conversions would produce. However, once cruelty and mass executions are resorted to, such suppression is almost certainly too late to salvage the pagan social order, whether democratic or dictatorial, fascist or communist. We are gradually seeing in Asia, Africa and South America, Christian cultures beginning to emerge, despite the suppression and persecution of believers in many of these contexts.
Cultivating the Culture of Christ
Applied biblical faith inescapably transforms those who embrace and are influenced by it and this has far-reaching consequences for family, vocation, law, art, state and therefore, culture. All Christians are called to spread the culture of Christ to all creation. It is interesting that the Lord Jesus Christ likens himself to a farmer planting and cultivating the seed of the kingdom of God throughout the world (Matt. 13:1-30). He sends out his church as bearers of the imperishable seed of his word (1 Pt 1:23) and he equates the results of our sowing faithfully to the reaping of a harvest (John 4:35-38), the transformation of people’s lives, and finally the regeneration of all creation (Col. 1:20; Rom. 8:19). The gospel of the kingdom clearly concerns our state of being. We are either regenerate, redeemed people in Jesus Christ, or we are lost in the kingdom of darkness – there is no neutral position. The Christian state of being, like the mustard seed, grows and creates a type of civilization, which spreads to impact all those around it, as leaven transforms the whole loaf. Wherever God is served, worshipped and glorified, there the kingdom of God is. Wherever God’s children are faithful in preaching the gospel and pursuing the cultural mandate, to apply God’s truth to every area of life, civilizations and cultures are recreated. We are God’s new humanity in Jesus Christ and wherever God’s people are, by the power and mighty working of his Spirit, the culture of Christ inescapably flourishes around them.
[i] Henry R. Van Til, The Calvinistic Concept of Culture (Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1959), 200.