Christian Culture in a Multicultural Age
Excert from Chapter Five — Christian Culture in a Multicultural Age
What is 'Culture'?
We won’t bore you with the fourteen entries under culture in the Dictionary of Philosophy or the countless books by orthodox, neo-orthodox, modernist, pagan, and other scholars on the subject of culture. We’ll simply cut to the chase by quoting the best and most concise definition of culture that we know of, which was given by Henry Van Til (nephew of Dr. Cornelius Van Til): Culture is religion externalized and made explicit. To this insightful definition must be added one of the dictionary’s senses of the word culture: the ideas, customs, skills, arts, etc. of a people that are transferred, communicated, or passed along as in or to succeeding generations…and (let me add) in the public square. Culture, as we understand it, is not simply a matter of personal preferences, or likes and dislikes, but it is a matter of public preferences. The shared space is where we find culture, not in the private and personal space (although it extends there). How things are viewed that occur in the private space is a matter of culture. If you know what somebody does at home and you disapprove of it, that’s an expression of cultural disapproval, but your opinion is not an expression of culture itself. In fact, in such a case, culture influenced you and informed your disapproval. Culture, then, is the publicly explicit expression of a people’s shared religion.
The origin of the word culture come from the Latin for “till” (as in, till the land). The word agriculture literally means the tilling of an agra (“acre” or “field”), thus agriculture denotes the cultivation of land’s latent value so as to make it patent. The Latin word refers to the development of something so as to bring in fruition that which would otherwise remain unmanifested. As understood today, culture is the fruit of worked faith. When a people’s faith is worked upon, culture is the result. For our purposes, then, culture is inseparably bound to religion, which is a specific system of belief. A people’s shared religion, their shared belief system, fills the pool from which they will draw out all the definitions of their public life—their mores, laws, customs, codes, philosophies, ethics, arts, institutions, etc.
Let’s assume a society is made up of individuals and families. These people share certain convictions about life—how they got here, how they know what they know, what they should do. They hold common beliefs about God or no God, about His Son or no Son, about divine revelation or no divine revelation. Whatever it is, this shared set of beliefs about the real things, the ultimate questions, represents their public religion and unites them.
This public religion, then, flows into a pool of definitions from the the society may draw, as needed, the appropriate ones. Through this process, an externalization of the society’s religion takes shape. From this pool of acceptable definitions, a society’s government is formed; it’s schools are established, the arts applied, and the sciences conducted. Plant the seed (religion) in the soil, give it water, and up comes the fruit (culture). Religion moves toward expression in institutions and other cultural entities. Culture always comes from religion, as sure as an onion comes from a bulb planted in soil and watered.
While a culture can trace its life to a religion, it also returns the favor. That is, culture always supports, protects, and furthers the religion that gave it birth. A society’s culture does not remain simply a passive receptor; rather, as it develops, it then serves to protect its mother religion. Every culture eventually says “Don’t ever talk bad about my mother! Don’t you come near her! I’ll kill you if you mess with mom!” Culture always becomes a servant of the birthing religion, and its very raison d’être is to protect, further explicate, and expand the influence and control of the mother religion. Therefore, the underlying purpose of a society’s culture—its legal system, government, schools, arts, sciences, letters—is invariably religious. Although it may not appear so on the surface, every culture serves its religious origin. The laws and institutions of a people will manifestly favor that religion from whence they came. Just as the weary traveler, who’s tired of fast food restaurants, longs to return home and savor momma’s wonderful kitchen, so do cultures long to return home to momma.
If you understand the relationship between religious belief and culture, you’ll understand clearly what’s happening in our world at large. Cultures are by their nature loyal to their source religion. To change a society’s culture, it is only necessary to change its religion. Put another way, no amount of tweaking and adjusting of institutions can bring about a substantive cultural change in any society, because such a change demands a change in that society’s dominant religion. You can try to change a tree that drops bananas by nailing pineapples on the braches, but that won’t make it a pineapple tree. A pineapple tree has to have pineapple religion feeding the pool that’s going to define the fruit. You can paint an onion with bright red paint and green highlights, but the onion will still produce onions even though you call them apples and take big juicy bites out of them. Likewise, those obsessed with monitoring and regulating the cultural fruits often overlook where they come from and the very reason for their appearance.
Why are we surprised at the accelerating violence, the random crime, and the suicide rate among teenagers, and the fact that murder is the leading cause of death among certain categories of teens? Why are we surprised at the despair, the dead look in this generation’s eyes that speaks of a huge vacuum within? Why are we surprised at the despair of parents over the destructive habits their children develop, habits which undermind their own health and well being? Why are we surprised at the hatred that is manifest in all the media, especially in popular television and movies? Banana trees produce bananas, and onion fields produce onions. Why is anybody surprised at the fruit of their culture? Culture is never morally neutral; it always shows its religious bias. Culture is not individually personal; it is the result of shared beliefs. Culture is not passive; it doggedly serves and protects its nurturing religion.