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Sun Jun 16, 2013
by Josh Mcpherson
Redefining Culture and Engagement, Part 1
When we think of "culture," very often our thoughts drift to the Box Office or the Voting Booth, betraying a superficial understanding of just what culture is. Contrary to popular perspectives, culture is not relegated to the realm of the popular or political. Nor is it merely that aspect of human living which most of us cannot reach, located too "high" for the mundane taste of ordinary men—opera, expensive art, and fine wines. Culture is more than the ideals of politics and a product of the arts.
What Is Culture?
What then is culture? Culture is the shared beliefs, behaviors, and artifacts of a particular group of people who share a common language. If this seems all-encompassing, that’s because it is. Robert Redfield helpfully defined culture as "act and artifact," denoting the behavioral and concrete dimensions of culture. Culture encompasses what we do and what we make. For instance, culture is expressed through the activity of voting and the creation of a digital voting device. Cultural critic Ken Myers defines culture concisely as "what we make of the world." This double-entendre refers to the activity of making artifacts, as well as our beliefs about what and how we make it. This is a helpful aphorism. Culture is conceptual and concrete, idea and artifact. It is the lyrics and the music of the songs we sing, the beliefs and the books we create. To summarize, culture is act, artifact, and assessment or belief.
Jesus Is Cultural
Culture is everywhere interwoven in everything for everyone. Your attire, your values, and your behaviors—artifact, assessment, and action. Wearing flip-flops is cultural. Driving to work is cultural. Talking on a cell phone is cultural. Going to church is cultural. Covenants are cultural (patterned after Hittite treaties). Your Bible is cultural (a product of Gutenberg's press). The cross is cultural (Roman torture device). No one is culturally neutral. We are all enculturated from infancy to grave. To be human is to be cultural, and when Jesus became man, he became cultural. Jesus spoke Aramaic, went to Jewish temples, drank wine, wore sandals, and grew a beard.
We Are Cultural
To bring this home, let’s think about some cultural practices. When English-speaking American women wake up in the morning and choose to brush their teeth, they pick up a cultural artifact, engage in a cultural act, and may make a cultural assessment—extra white teeth will make you more attractive than not-so-white teeth. This entire process, from act to assessment, is cultural. There are many cultures that find this whole process of toothbrushing amusing. However, those cultures have equally curious actions, artifacts, and assessments. For instance, village Shan Tai speaking women wake up and put a towel on their head and a pipe in their mouth. Their assessment of this act is that it is feminine. Can you picture Angelina Jolie with a towel on her head and a pipe in her mouth?!
The Relativity of Culture
To some degree, culture is relative. In some cultures women brush their teeth a lot, and in other cultures women smoke pipes a lot. Both are considered feminine, expressing a relative femininity. However, Christians claim that there are some things that are not relative, that there are trans-cultural truths that are always true no matter what culture we live in. Let's hope wearing a towel and smoking a pipe is not one of them! With a better understanding of culture in place, we can think more carefully about our “engagement” with it. We can be wise, discerning disciples who live out the lordship of Jesus through the power of the gospel in our own cultures. To be continued.