What do television sitcoms, good coffee, suburban houses, fins on a 1957 Cadillac, and the latest Steven Spielberg blockbuster movie have in common? They all contribute to the “stuff” that anthropologists, sociologists, and other scholars refer to as “culture.” Having some understanding of our own culture—knowing what culture is and how it works—can be both liberating and critically important to our everyday lives as Christians.

Defining Culture

I once thought culture was something one “has”: as when one enjoys going to museums to view fine art or wears “tasteful” clothes or hangs out with “cultured” people who can discuss Emily Dickinson’s poetry or who have actually read Tolstoy’s War and Peace. This is a common but narrow way of thinking about culture. Culture is much broader.

Perhaps you have experienced “culture shock”—that strange, experience of being in a different country, feeling engulfed by a language you can’t speak or understand, being in a totally alien landscape or urban environment, and being generally bewildered that people can possibly live as they do with all their strange habits and customs. Living in a culture radically different from one’s own—experiencing culture shock—aptly illustrates the invisible force culture exerts over our everyday consciousness.

We do not live in a vacuum, but in an environment of visible, man-made things (like machines, clothes, buildings, paintings, and poems) and invisible things (like ideas, beliefs, customs, and languages). This environment is our “culture.” Culture is the things people make, which reflect humanity’s material needs, along with the ideas and the moral dispositions people carry within themselves. Put metaphorically, culture is to people what water is to fish.

The Significance of Culture

Culture is both our friend and helper and our potential nemesis, an invisible dragon that can work to destroy us. It is our friend when we can use its languages to communicate with and to care for one another. It is our friend when it gives us tools to provide for our protection and material needs, like shelter, clothing, and food. Culture is our friend when its tools and concepts help us survive in a threatening world. But because culture is loaded with ideas and beliefs, many of which are morally vicious and destructive, culture can also be our enemy.

If man is an “angel-beast”—a beautiful creature made for good, but with evil at his very core—then the cultures he makes will inevitably carry the effects of his evil. An obvious example is the culture Hitler eventually dominated; people created an atmosphere—a “plausibility”—for believing it was OK to think and to do the unthinkable. Cultural atmospheres of racial and ethnic hatred are birthed by small cadres of individuals whose beliefs gain collective force and thus make violence and human atrocities seem “normal.” The source for such evil is man’s heart, and culture becomes the powerful vehicle for disseminating that evil in the world.

In the abstract, culture is neutral. It is simply the extension of man’s need to survive physically and to cope mentally, psychologically, and spiritually with his identity and meaning. The “stuff” of culture, however, is not neutral. Because man’s moral disposition pervades his ideas, art, and machines, these creations are inevitably colored by the intention of man’s heart. Thus a tool like bow and arrow that man uses to provide food, he also uses to do evil. Thus a beautiful poem or painting can also be saturated with the artist’s rebellion against God and his quest for power or self-aggrandizement.

Culture can work against man in two ways. First, because of its collective nature, culture can create momentum for ideas and beliefs, evil as well as good. When ideas and beliefs gain “cultural momentum,” they grow exponentially in influence and power. For example, homosexuality has become “normal” as it has gained increasingly powerful political favor; homosexual practices that only a few years ago were considered abnormal by American psychological professions are now considered normal. Culturally empowered ideas, even when false and destructive, are easy to believe simply because so many people believe them; they seem “normal.” So, for example, it is easier to believe Mormon doctrines in Salt lake City than in San Francisco or New York City.

Second, culture “acts back” on its human creators in ways difficult to detect. Humans create ideas and machines that take on a life of their own and, in turn, alter human life. We are aware of certain aspects of these cultural creations and unaware of others; for example, we understand generally how different our lives would be without automobiles, and yet we may take for granted the belief that doing things faster is always better. When culture’s powerful ideas, beliefs, and effects remain more or less hidden from us, we take them for granted or assume they are “real” in such a way that we never even think about their origin or how they are affecting us.

The Gospel and Culture

The culture-of-origin for Jesus’ teaching of the gospel was a deeply religious Jewish culture. But the New Testament demonstrates, especially in Luke’s history in Acts, that God intended His merciful promise of salvation to be culturally universal. He intended it to be free from the cultic practices of Jewish religion. Much of the New Testament is about how Paul and the other apostles gleaned the essential gospel from their own Jewish culture, from its religious practices and expectations, and translated its truth into the Greco-Romanized culture of their day. The Apostle Paul had to “dis-enculturate” the gospel.

In Galatians 2, Paul tells of confronting Peter and convincing him that the religious Law-keeping practices of their Jewish culture were antagonistic to the gospel. We see that Peter had to confront his own deeply ingrained religious habits in order to submit to the truth and implications of a dis-enculturated gospel message. Perhaps it is easy for us to see how Paul and Peter taught that Jewish religious/cultural practices (of diet and festivals, for example) are not required for salvation, but, as Peter found, it is a difficult to see through one’s own cultural habits and preferences; it is difficult to admit that one’s own cultural comfort zone is irrelevant to the gospel’s universal truth. As believers, we must understand the gospel well enough to dis-enculturate it from our own religious culture in order to be able to offer it with clarity to our generation.

The gospel is a simple but profound message. Yet, historically, even its simplicity has been confounded through its entanglement with the culture surrounding it. Over the centuries, alterations and misconstruals of the gospel have clouded the simplicity of its merciful message and have often become embedded in church culture. When we add religiously or culturally to the gospel’s essence, we alter the gospel. And we can add to the gospel without realizing that we are doing so, because cultural assumptions of which we are unaware may underlie “the warp” we put on the gospel. We might alter the gospel to make it more palatable; for example, we might not see ourselves as quite the sinners the gospel says we are. Or we might take into our own hands some important element of receiving God’s grace and, thus, attempt to qualify ourselves for God’s mercy. Bad theology loves to hide in cultural places and habits. Let me cite two examples of how our own technological culture colors the truth of the gospel and Christian living in regards to missions and Bible study.

Missions. We know that missions and evangelistic outreach is still a central task for the church. Today, however, our missions efforts are often deeply colored by the technological and marketing sensibilities that dominate our business culture. Technological and market-oriented thinking produces a mindset that measures most things in terms of efficiency and sales. Time and cost become the primary measurement of success. Can we do it more quickly? Can we do it less expensively? Is it cost-effective? These are the dictates of modern business management. But when these beliefs meet the task of evangelism, a very unbiblical and unloving effect can result. For example, a pastor once told me that he would not support missions giving to Northern Europe, because the average convert there costs $3000 as compared to Korea where the average convert costs only $25. Here, a cost-effective, efficiency measure flowing directly out of the management culture of modern American entrepreneurialism so colors the task of evangelism that the gospel’s motive of love is superseded by a very warped perspective. This attitude, I would argue, is anathema to the spirit of the New Testament, which values honesty and applauds genuine effort motivated by love to reach out to people, whether or not that outreach is “slow.”

Bible study. Since culture colors how we see most everything in life, it follows that it also colors the way we read and interpret the Bible. Because we tend to think as twentieth century technological pragmatism dictates to us, we often want to get to the “practical application” of the Bible before we really understand what it is saying. We often do not remember that several centuries separate us from the age when the New Testament was written. We also forget that the culture in which Paul, Peter, and the other apostles lived and understood the gospel was radically different from our own. These “gaps” in culture between theirs and ours present us with formidable problems in understanding the gospel clearly and then applying its truth and implications for living to our own lives. Yet our pragmatic, technique-oriented, instant-everything culture tells us that serious, contextually- and culturally-sensitive study of the Bible is a waste of time. That kind of study is for “scholars,” and we all know scholars aren’t practical! The problem, of course, is that if we don’t know with reasonable clarity what Paul, Peter, Luke, and John were saying to their respective audiences in context, then we don’t really know what they were saying at all, and no amount of “practical application” is going to get the truth of God into our lives. Our culture can so color our perception and reception of the Bible’s message that we miss its true content, even though we read the Bible fervently, discuss it, and sincerely apply it as best we can to our lives.

Opportunities & Challenges

Coming to know what culture is and how it works in our lives is important because we are so close to it that we often don’t realize its impact on our thinking and doing. The church is more aware of modern, non-Christian philosophy and how it is biased against the biblical worldview than it is about its own cultural assumptions, which are much closer and often more damaging to its life. We know how philosophy and ideas can intimidate and seduce us from the truth of the gospel, but we are often not aware of the ideas and beliefs that lie hidden from us under the cover of our own Christian culture.

Culture thus challenges Christians today in two ways. First, we must face the formidable task of understanding the elements of contemporary culture that distort and obscure the gospel. And second, we must take the positive opportunities that God has created and structured into culture for honoring Him and making His mercy known in a dark world. We can learn how to use culture as an arena for creativity, thinking, and action in which we raise up the gospel and the biblical worldview for people to see an alternative vision of human life. The gospel, rightly understood, has a great explanatory power, able to cut through falseness, triviality, and evil in various cultural forms.