Monday, September 22, 2008

What Does "Culture" Mean?

Several weeks ago, I mentioned an assignment: Next month, I'm supposed to speak to a group of older, life-long Christians on the subject of "Christianity and Culture."

I know, this deserves a series of lessons. But I haven't been asked to do that. Just one talk for about 40 minutes.

By the way, last month's presentation on "The Sovereignty of God" came out better than I thought it would. Just one more sign of grace. But back to "Christianity and Culture."

I'm starting with the notion that I know what "Christianity" means. But what about culture? I have to confess I felt a little embarrassed when I first started thinking about that question because, for all the times I've confidently referred to culture (and they are many), I don't think I've ever reflected much on what it means exactly. I had ideas. But they were vague. (Turns out, there's a good reason they were vague. Stay with me here).

So I decided to look up culture in a good dictionary, comparing the definitions, reading about the word's etymology, listing synonyms, etc. Here's a bit of what I found.

I went to the massive, multi-volume Oxford English Dictionary and discovered that, apparently, culture comes from the Latin cultus, a word that was used to speak of what we today call agriculture, the work of farming. And, if there's one picture that's most often associated with culture, it's the picture of a plow tilling the soil (as a means of cultivating a field for the sake of producing a crop).

From there, it must have been a series of steps that led to what people usually mean today when they speak of culture: it is what cultivates a society, making that group of people who they are, ordered and productive (like rows of plants in a field, producing a crop). The Oxford Thesaurus says that synonyms for culture include customs, lifestyle, and way of life.

So you see why my initial thoughts were so vague. According to one definition that showed up in the British Journal of Sociology (vol. 14, 1963) nowadays culture means

the whole complex of learned behavior, the traditions and techniques and the material possessions, the language and other symbols of some body of people. Got it?

Here's a similar definition--which is sort of tongue-in-cheek--from a really fine book on the topic called All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture, by Kenneth A Myers. He says that culture is

a dynamic pattern, an ever-changing matrix of objects, artifacts, sounds, institutions, philosophies, fashions, enthusiasms, myths, prejudices, relationships, attitudes, tastes, rituals, habits, colors, and loves, all embodied in individual people, in groups and collectives and associations of people (many of whom don't know they are associated), in books, in buildings, in the use of time and space, in wars, in jokes, and in food.

So I have a bit of a problem. In my presentation I want to give some kind of definition, a meaningful description of culture. But it's a word that, as currently used, means something like environment or atmosphere.

Before delving into the question of how Christians should think about, respond to, and even shape culture, how 'bout a short, simple definition? Or some kind of analogy? Any thoughts? I'd appreciate hearing what you think.


Royce Ogle said...

American Culture? The prevailing trend of the majority of American citizens toward greed, selfeshness, and indulgence.

Perhaps no other society has had more and appreciated it less. We are a people offended by the word "NO". American culture is almost entirely egocentric and no price is too high and no act too low to satisfy the appetites of the body.

Not pretty huh?


Arlene Kasselman said...

Frank, I found myself in a similar situation when I taught Life On the Vine last year. Kenneson devotes quite a substantial portion in the introductory chapters of that book to the discussion of culture. It is a popular level book and so may be worth you looking at.

However, the tension is this: when one reduces the definition of culture one looses something is like trying to give a snappy definition to "worldview" - tricky.

The way I usually choose to speak of culture is with the metaphor of water. I like to say, "this is the water in which we swim." And then flesh out the explanation of symbols, meaning, language, worldview, myths, rituals, connections etc.

You are such a gifted word-smith that I have no doubt you will land on the perfect explanation.

James said...

I liked this post - it is a great question and your findings are quite interesting. It seems that through the years the meaning of "culture" has become broader almost to the point where it means too much and therefore not really anything at all.

Dee Andrews said...

Frank -

I like your two paragraphs starting with the one about the root word in Latin being "cultus." I think you should start with those two paragraphs in talking about Christianity & Culture.

Those two paragraphs show the source from which all of our ideas today come. They also give us a good introduction into talking about more specific things when thinking of culture and how it is related to Christianity.

Then, if you want, you can turn your focus to whatever "American" culture is (which seems to me to be ever changing, and particularly so in this age of rapidly changing technology).

My thoughts this bright, cool Friday afternoon. For what they're worth!