"Culture is all of these things: paintings (whether finger paintings or the Sistine Chapel), omelets, chairs, snow angels. It is what human beings make of the world. It always bears the stamp of our creativity, our God-given desire to make something more than we were given."
-Andy Crouch, Culture Making
Culture is often talked about, but we routinely fail to consider what exactly it is. Many of us have attitudes about culture, especially when we use the word by itself without attaching the more calming label Christian in front of it. Christian culture is one thing (safe, positive, encouraging... sounds like a Christian radio tagline), but culture in general? That sounds a little worldly, right?
Andy Crouch, Christian writer and cultural guru, tackles this issue in his book Culture Making. Drawing upon other Christian cultural critics, Crouch succinctly defines culture as what we make of the world. Therefore, we need to remember primarily--before treating it like it's a four letter word--that culture is fundamentally about how we shape our environment.
Culture is happening all the time: traditions, worldviews, language nuances, art, architecture. Though I have personally been aware of various global cultures because of my travels, my recent marriage to my Salvadorian wife has brought this beautiful dilemma to the forefront. We both bring distinct cultures (the way that generations have formed history and worldview in our respective home countries) into contact with each other, and you know what? A new culture has begun to form in our own home--a strange and wonderful amalgamation of Spanglish, latino variations of nearly everything we eat, and endless conversations about the complex ways we see our environments.
Culture is not inherently bad. In fact, it is completely biblical.
"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth" (Genesis 1:1).
"Then God said, 'Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth'" (Genesis 1:26).
God initiated culture: He created out of nothing (ex nihilo). Then, out of His great grace, He offered the same ministry of cultivation to humanity, a key part in what it means to be made in the image of God. Additionally, if you look back in Genesis, you'll notice God taking stock of His creation, noting that it was good. Unfortunately, humanity fell from grace, and today all of creation is infected with the negative effects of the Fall. However, when we speak of culture, we shouldn't really be using the language of good and bad. All culture has evidence of original goodness, but all culture also has susceptibility to fallenness. Therefore, let us consider how we might discover vestiges of original goodness in the corrupted cultural artifacts that we engage with around us.
Furthermore, in his book, Crouch outlines four common gestures (reactions) to culture that Christians have had traditionally and warns his readers not to let those gestures turn into long-term postures:
Condemning Culture: Fundamentalist Withdrawal
This is a flat-out rejection of non-Christian culture.
Critiquing Culture: Evangelical Engagement
This is an intellectual engagement or dialogue with non-Christian culture to build bridges with others about philosophy and worldview.
Copying Culture: The Jesus Movement and CCM
This exploded in the '70s through the '90s with the Contemporary Christian Music industry (CCM) and is still alive in many ways. It basically was a cool, Christian version of everything non-Christians made.
Consuming Culture: Evangelicalism's Present Tense
Today, many Christians, rejecting the third gesture, non-critically consume all culture in the name of religious liberty.
Crouch notes that there is a place for all of these gestures but goes on to share the two most biblical postures that Christians are called to: to be creators and cultivators: "we are artists and gardeners."
We are called not merely to critique or engage with culture; all of us are artists ourselves. We should be adding to culture with the grace and love of Jesus. No matter your artistic expression, you have the ability to create in your field of gifting. And we can also gracefully find hints of original goodness in all of creation and point others to the perfecter of all culture: Jesus Christ.
[One other great resource I'd recommend is Tim Keller's lecture on writing from a Christian worldview which is as much a tool for how to interact with culture biblically as it is a tool for writers.]