The notion of ‘culture’ has fascinated me ever since I first got my hands on Lesslie Newbigin’s The Gospel in a Pluralist Society in which he lays out his vision for engaging Western culture for the Gospel. It was around the time that the whole emergent church thing was still a thing and it seemed like everyone was talking about the shift to “postmodern” culture and what that meant. In middle of that conversation I started to realize that ‘culture’ was an important issue for evangelism, discipleship, and just ministry in general.
As I went on to read more about the issue, I found that almost everybody in the theological literature agrees that if you’re going to do ministry, then you have to understand cultural context you’re set in. Whether it’s modern culture, postmodern culture, indigenous cultures, or church cultures, ‘culture’ is everywhere and ever-so-important. Of course, this raises the issue of what exactly we mean by the term ‘culture’.
Seems like something we ought to have nailed down if we’re going to be talking about it so much.
Now I’ve had my own working definition of it for some time. The problem I’ve found is that, depending on the publication, author, or discipline you’re reading, everybody seems to have their own definition of it, many which seem to be at odds with each other.
This is why I was so pleased when I found that in first pages of his insightful little work Modern Culture, Roger Scruton helpfully lays out three different senses of the term ‘culture’ that are typically used today:
- Common – The first is what might be called ‘common’ culture. It takes its cues from Herder, whose notion of kultur indicated the unique spirit of a nation or people as opposed to zivilization which could be shared with various other nations. This, apparently, was taken up and developed by the German romantics who pointed to the idea that culture is what shapes and is found in the various songs, art, traditions of a nation. In this view, it is what is common to all the people in a nation or tribe. This means that nobody, “however ill-educated, is deprived of culture, since culture and social membership is the same idea.” (pg. 1) It is this interpretation that most of the early anthropologists and sociologists of our day work with.
- High – The second is what might be called ‘high’ culture and takes its roots in a more classical understanding that is linked to the idea of culture as cultivation and virtue. It is not common to all, but must be acquired through education, which usually requires some intellect, as well as leisure and resources for study. To have culture on this view is the province of the few and the well-educated. It comes with a knowledge of the broad literary canon, an appreciation of the right sorts of music and the arts. Culture, in this view, is a sort of moral-technical expertise. This idea has been championed by literary critics such as Matthew Arnold, and later by T.S. Eliot, and of course, Scruton himself. In fact, the book as a whole should be seen as a defense of high culture. (pp. 1-2)
- Pop– Scruton says that a third sort of culture has emerged recently from the battles between the two. As we noted, the idea of common culture is usually attached to a tribe or a nation, a set, identifiable grouping of people whose culture can be identified and is generally shared. One of main characteristics of the modern/postmodern world which we inhabit is the breakdown of the various tribes associated with ‘traditional society.’ (pg. 2) There are no uncontested practices, thought patterns, songs, and narratives which can be appealed to without a sense of irony. That being said, humans still have need for a sort of solid and stable identity-shaping environment just as the traditional societies gave. It is in this situation that what might be termed ‘popular’ culture emerges, as a sort of tertium quid, a third thing, both like and unlike both of the prior conceptions. Pop culture is the province of ‘cultural studies’ programs in college and is thought of by its defenders as an equally valid ‘culture of the people’. Essentially pop culture is what’s involved when the notion of high culture as something that is a feature of “choice, taste, and leisure” in the sense of cultivation is merged with the common such as pop art and entertainment. (pp. 2-3) As Scruton notes, “Any activity or artefact is considered cultural, if it is an identity-forming product of social interaction.” (pg. 3)
Of course, Scruton looks upon this last development with dismay, and, as mentioned earlier, in the rest of the work will launch a defense of high culture against any relativistic, postmodern deconstructions, or anti-elitist protests of the equal validity of popular culture.That doesn’t concern me at this point.
For Christians and ministers of the Gospel in particular, there are a number of theses I would like to simply list for reflection, without much additional comment.
- While these categories are not air-tight, uncontested, or always easily-distinguishable, it’s good to have some baseline working definitions to think with, especially when you’re reading about cultural engagement. It’s helpful to know what your author is dealing with because prescriptions for one category don’t always carry into the others.
- Christians should be engaged with culture at all levels. Common, high, or pop, there is no level or layer that can be ignored by ministers of the Gospel. Anything that is forming our people for good or ill, is our concern.
- Accordingly, effective ministers will become students of the common culture of the communities they inhabit.
- Depending on the type of congregation, or minister, they should also try be serious, not merely cursory, students of both the high and pop culture that our people draw on for their social-identity construction. (I emphasize ‘try’ because pastors have a lot on their plate already.)
- Preaching that both affirms and critiques in light of the Gospel needs to be alert to both the unconsciously formative, and consciously chosen elements of cultural formation. Sometimes it is the common cultural assumptions that are most difficult to expose, simply because they are assumptions.
As always, there’s more to say, but I don’t want to say it right now, so maybe I’ll say it later. Or maybe you should say it in the comments. Knock yourself out.
Soli Deo Gloria
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