Tuesday, November 13, 2012

What is Culture?


            Early missionaries went out into the world with unbridled enthusiasm to reach the world for Jesus Christ.  However, so many arrived in distant lands and were met with very little success.  Centuries of missionary activity have taught the church the importance of understanding culture before attempting to communicate the gospel.  So what exactly is culture?
            Culture may point to a whole host of things such as entertainment, literature and the arts.  These things are certainly part of culture yet this is not entirely what is meant here.  Carson broadly defines culture as the set of values broadly shared by some subset of the human population.[1]  Carson’s definition is broad indeed!  Tennent quotes Eagleton’s remark that culture includes everything from pig-farming to Picasso, from tilling the soil to splitting the atom.[2]  With such a broad term, how can a missionary hope to understand it?  Expanding our understanding of culture is necessary.
            Cultures are largely patterns acquired in and shared by social groups.  Though not considered at times, generally speaking a culture is large enough to contain subcultures yet is shared by the society at large and in this social group people learn and live out their collective values.[3]  Of particular importance is the fact that cultures are not collections of isolated themes.  Rather, they are holistic, integrated patterns structured in such a way as to meet the basic, yet now necessarily all, needs of those in a particular society.[4]  There are three dimensions of culture around which all cultures shape their understanding of reality: the cognitive, the affective, and the evaluative.  All three dimensions vary from culture to culture.
            The cognitive dimension addresses the perception of time and space.  In terms of time, people in the West have a linear view of time with past, present, and an infinite future whereas African peoples have a more two-dimensional view of time.[5]  Another example of this is the perception of personal, public, social, and intimate space or zones of space.  Americans views of personal space are from actual physical contact to about three feet away.  People from Latin American consider personal space to be smaller.  When two people from these respective cultures engage each other, the American may see the person from Latin America as invading their personal space while the Latin American person might consider the American to be distant or cold when in fact neither intends to be disrespectful towards the other.
            The affective dimension addresses what we feel about a given thing.  Consider the notion of beauty.  For a person from Japan, a garden carefully arranged in such a way as to enhance the viewing experience is beautiful.  For the Western eye, the beauty is in the floral variety and explosion of color on display when the flowers are in bloom.[6]  Both are legitimate positions yet each culture places value on a different aspect of the garden.
            The evaluative dimension focuses on where the culture places allegiances and values.[7]  An excellent example in American news media recently is the idea of marriage.  Whom can a person marry?  In the West who a person can marry is an individual decision whereas in other cultures such as ancient Egypt marriages between brother and sister were common.  In other cultures arranged marriages were and to some extent are still common.  It is interesting to note that this presupposes that what is meant by marriage is a union between a man and woman.
            There are several things to remember when considering the notion of what makes up a culture.  First, culture is complex and ever changing.  In much of the West, there is an attempt to expand or redefine the term marriage.  Though there is a shift in Western culture by a significant number of people and marriage remains defined as being between a man and woman, the issue remains unsettled.  While there is little doubt in the mind of the author as to the correctness of the current definition, Western culture may indeed alter this view in the coming years.  The bottom line is this: culture is not static.[8]
            Next, it is important to grasp a biblical understanding of culture.  When the gospel is shared with diverse people groups, the expression of Christian practice in those people groups will and should look different than in other parts of the world.  The Apostle Paul understood that he could reach more people with the gospel of Jesus Christ if he became like those people (1 Cor. 9:19-22).  He clearly understood that he would not save all of those whom he came in contact with but he used all means at his disposal to save some.  In fact, Paul’s practice is still modeled by missionaries today.[9]
            Finally, while we strive to understand the receiving culture and even to become like those who we seek to reach with the gospel message, we must remember that the gospel challenges and changes every culture.[10]  However, this change is not to be confused with westernization or modernity.  Increasingly there are non-Western sending churches who are engaged in missions around the globe.  Their missionary work does not and should not result in the local culture being molded into the image of the sending culture and neither should the efforts of Western missionaries.  Saving faith in Jesus Christ changes lives and those changes lives lead to changed cultures.[11]  The job of the missionary is to allow the gospel to work in the lives of people.



[1] Carson, D. A. Christ & Culture Revisited. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), 1-2.
[2] Tennent, Timothy C. Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-first Century. (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications, 2010), 168.
[3] Moreau, A. Scott, ed. Evangelical Dictionary of World Missions. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2000), 252-53.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Ibid.
[8] Ott, Craig, Stephen J. Strauss, and with Timothy C. Tennent. Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010), 127.
[9] Winter, Ralph D., and Steven C. Hawthorne, eds. Perspectives on the World Christian Movement: A Reader (4th ed.). (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 1981, 1992, 1999, 2009), 146-48.
[10] Ott, Craig, Stephen J. Strauss, and with Timothy C. Tennent, (127).
[11] Ibid.

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