Defining Culture: Participation

As I discussed in my previous post, our attitude towards culture will influence how we define culture. 

Generally, my attitude towards culture is quite positive. I’m naturally an optimist, so I tend to look for the best in people, situations, and the world around me. Yet as a Christian, I also think there is some ground to have hope for the cultures in which we find ourselves. While sin, death, and brokenness can wreak havoc in countless ways in history and across cultures, I don’t think such cultural trauma comes without glimpses of goodness. I’m convinced that God’s  “good” declared upon the world (Gen. 1:31) echoes forward in time, pulling us ahead with a vision of God’s intent for all cultures. Even today, then, we get glimpses of goodness.

All this to say, I”m not ready to give up on culture. I’ve recently encountered two definitions of culture that inspire my hope. In his book Culture Making, Andy Crouch discusses culture as something that is historically rooted, visible, as well as moldable. We can learn and influence our world if we know the culture. Examining culture can tell us much about the world we live in, but also how we continue to inform and create this culture. In this view we aren’t passive recipients or stationary residents of culture. Rather, our cultural task as citizens is to be culture creators. We help produce the artifacts for our time. We make the culture. Looking at tangible things (i.e. “artifacts”) in the culture can be one way we engage this culture we create. Crouch offers a list of questions that help guide this engagement:
  1. What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world is?
  2. What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world should be?
  3. What does this cultural artifact make possible?
  4. What does this cultural artifact made impossible (or at least very difficult)?
  5. What new forms of culture are created in response to this artifact?

The other definition of culture comes from the wealth of insight in James Davison Hunter’s book, To Change the World. For Hunter, defining culture is complex, not limited to one particular point. A single definition or understanding won’t suffice. He acknowledges the diverse ways culture develops in various parts of history and different places in the world. In doing so, he articulates seven key characteristics that describe the complexity of culture:
  1. Culture is a system of truth claims and moral obligations
  2. Culture is a product of history
  3. Culture is intrinsically dialectical
  4. Culture is a resource and, as such, a form of power
  5. Culture is governed by quality, not quantity
  6. Culture is generated within networks
  7. Culture is neither autonomous nor fully coherent

The word “participation” describes well how I understand our role as humans in the world and in our faith. I find participation a helpful word for how I define culture as well. Culture is composed of the complex areas of our world that continually shape us, both directly and indirectly, but areas that at the same time, we also shape. In this sense, we participate in culture. We aren’t merely passive recipients of culture, but nor are we rulers over culture. In culture, we both create and are created. And as a Christian, Jesus’ prayer for his followers sums up this dynamic well: 
I have given them your word and the culture has hated them, for they are not of the culture any more than I am of the culture. My prayer is not that you take them out of the culture but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the culture, even as I am not of it. Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you sent me into the culture, I have sent them into the culture. For them I sanctify myself, that they too may be truly sanctified (John 17:13-18).