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Culture and the Biblical Story – Part 2 of 3

Editor’s note: This post is part 2 of 3 in a Primer on Cultural Engagement. Read part 1 here.

Culture is part of God’s good world, and Christians’ instinct should never be to see culture in itself as a deformation of God’s pattern for life. Certainly, the Bible offers warnings to flee from “the world,” to not be conformed to the world (Rom. 12:2), to receive the Spirit of Christ and not the spirit of the world (I Cor. 2:12), and to not love the things of the world (I John 2:15). In fact, Jesus says that he has chosen and called his people “out of the world” (John 15:19), and Christians’ true citizenship is not in this world but in heaven (Phil. 3:20).

Many Christians have taken these descriptions of the world to be injunctions against participating in any form of culture amongst our neighbors and communities outside the church—as if such a thing were even possible! In so doing, they equate “culture” with the popular spirit of the age, something definite that we can resist or reject. But as we have argued, this misses the point that our entire existence is cultural, and we share in the forms and patterns of life with those around us whether we realize it or not.

Still, this instinct to be on guard against the dominant culture around us, which throughout history has often been hostile to God’s truth, raises an important second point about culture and cultural engagement. Though culture is God’s good gift to humanity, because of sin and the fall it not only provides great opportunity for us to image God well, but also great power to obscure his image by our sinful cultural expression.

If the question of proper Christian cultural engagement inquires about how we are to live among the cultural values and patterns of life around us, then we need to turn to Christian scripture to consider what it says about the blessings and dangers of human culture.

Scriptural Clues to Culture

Culture appears throughout scripture. We see culture in the patterns for building the tabernacle God gave the Israelites, and the ways he equipped artisans by his Spirit to create it (Ex. 31:1-11). In a literal sense, the Lord’s Supper is cultural celebration in that it is a ritual of remembrance, but also in that the wine and bread are things that humans must cultivate from naturally occurring things. The Psalms, as poetic verses of worship, are culture. The crowd of people gathered around the throne of the Lamb at the end of days, from every “nation, tribe, people, and language,” is a multitude characterized by culture (Rev. 7:9). Culture is assumed throughout the entire biblical story as something natural as well as something we bear clear moral responsibility toward.

We see that specifically in the first chapter of the Bible, in which God creates humanity and instructs them to “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it” (Gen. 1:27-29). These are cultural tasks, and, as many have pointed out, convey that humanity was created to image God through their cultural labor. In fact, some biblical scholars such as Gordon Wenham and William Dumbrell offer strong evidence for seeing the language used to describe Adam’s God-given tasks in the garden to “work it and watch over it,” as conveying imagery of worship, as the Levitical priests did before God in the tabernacle. Through culture we are able to reveal and magnify God in the ways for which we were created.

Indeed, culture is even not something that is limited to this present life. For in the life to come, in the New Heavens and Earth, God’s people will inhabit a cultural existence in an eternal heavenly city (Rev. 21:1-4), worshipping the Lord’s name through language and feast (Rev. 19:9), and they will even be given new names inscribed upon stone (Rev. 2:17). Each of these reveal that culture is part of our destiny as God’s new humanity in his fully redeemed creation.

Two Paths

But as the biblical narrative illustrates, we ought not to think of culture as something that is always good. Just as there are two paths, one of wisdom and one of folly, so there are two ways of cultural labor (Prov. 1-2). Sin and the fall in the biblical narrative reveal that culture is now used by humanity to slander God’s image, destroy his creation, and oppress other people, and not merely create good things.

Early in the biblical narrative, Cain and Abel both brought the fruit of their cultural labor to the Lord, one on God’s terms and the other on his own terms. God rejected Cain’s offering, and in a fit of jealousy Cain killed his brother (Gen. 4:1-8). Culture has served as both the driver and mechanism of sin and violence ever since. Israel was given laws by God to pattern their cultural life after his ways. But time and again they followed the way of folly rather than the path of wisdom, erecting idols, forsaking justice, and bringing shame on God’s name.

Dutch theologian Klaas Schilder offers some helpful imagery when he says that all humanity inhabits the same cultural workshop of God’s creation. By our human nature given to us by God, we all have the same tools and work with the same raw materials of creation. But while some create masterpieces by the power of God’s Spirit, fallen humanity creates only idols.

Certainly, this does not mean that non-Christians produce no culture that serves the common good or exhibits great beauty. Indeed, as Paul reminds us in Acts 17:22-31 in his speech to the Athenians, culture can often point towards God’s truth even if those who form it do not know God as he has revealed himself or love him for who he is.

The point to stress in all of this is that culture is something that can be formed in godly wisdom or sinful folly. The Bible neither portrays culture as an absolute good nor as a polluting evil, but rather as an extension of our hearts, reflecting what we worship. This is one of the most important scriptural clues to cultural engagement.

Conclusion

On the nature of culture and our relationship to it, the Bible presents a tension. We are made for a cultural existence, and yet culture is the very way we perpetuate sin and deface God’s image. How then should we think about our cultural callings in the actual particulars of our own lives?

In the next post I will offer a way of thinking about culture in relation to God’s overarching work in history, as well as in relation to our present place in this story. My aim is to help us hold this tension together by thinking through the cultural callings and priorities we ought to have in this time. These callings and priorities provide a way of culturally inhabiting time and place as we pursue the path of wisdom and reject the way of folly.

If you want to explore culture and Christian worldview in more depth, then consider our new course Introduction to Biblical Worldview with John Stonestreet.

Dennis Greeson is Dean of the BibleMesh Institute and Research Fellow in Public Theology for The Land Center for Cultural Engagement. He teaches and writes on theology, culture, and public square issues.