Defining Culture: Attitudes

I spend a lot of time talking about and reflecting on culture and faith. Over a ⅓ of the posts on this blog are labeled “culture.” I have a Masters degree in Christianity and Culture. I direct an urban discipleship program oriented around cultural engagement. To say culture interests me is definitely an understatement.

Yet rarely do I pause to examine what exactly culture is.

Over the past several months as I’ve continued to read and reflect on Christianity and culture, I’ve tried to also focus on developing a framework for what culture actually is. Yet such a project quickly reveals just how malleable the concept is. Factors ranging from geography to politics, to the arts, among many other things, all combine to create what we loosely call culture. So while I feel far from grasping a clear definition of culture, there have been interesting insights along the way. I’ll share one now, and then a few more in the next post or two.

First, I find that the attitude from which a definition of culture is presented will have significant impact on how culture is actually defined. This is particularly evident when culture is discussed among Christians. For some, culture simply refers to all that is foreign, other, or even evil in the world. Culture, therefore, is meant to be feared and avoided, or at best, tolerated. The best Christians can hope for is to create and sustain some sort of parallel culture. This is often impetus behind the various forms of “Christian culture” we encounter. I remain convinced that the presence of a Christian subculture, while normal and good in some cases, can be one of the more insidious barriers to Christians faithfully living in the world.

On the other hand, others only see the good in culture, optimistic that everyone possesses the best intentions for society. Absent is any sense of critical evaluation of ways culture reflects values contrary to Christian faithfulness. If a Christian subculture is a danger for the pessimists, cultural optimists can risk losing any definitive qualities of Christian faith and practice.

One more alternative is the reality that some people have no attitude towards culture, unaware of culture’s influence in shaping who they are as people. Culture, if thought of at all, is simply a neutral aspect of life in the world, and definitely irrelevant for faith. The result, however, is human identity can change at a whim, dependent on current cultural interests and values. Ignorance isn’t bliss; ignorance is just a false sense that human identity exists independent of experience in the world.

Christians across historical and denominational have displayed these attitudes in different ways to various degrees. And I’ve noticed, which I’ll explore next, how such attitudes can direct how we define culture itself. 

What's your attitude towards culture?


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