By Ken Keathley
I have the privilege of serving as the director of The L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture (CFC) here at Southeastern Seminary. We seek to help Christians understand how faith intersects with culture.
What do these terms faith and culture really mean? So often we toss these words around without ever properly defining them. Faith is easier to pin down. Faith is both a noun and a verb; both a body of beliefs and an attitude of trust.
But what do we mean by culture? Culture is one of those terms about which people often have an intuitive idea but not a fully-formed understanding.
What Is Culture? 4 Common Definitions
When we refer to culture, we typically have one of four definitions in mind.
- Common Culture
In this definition, culture is the spirit of the age, or the Zeitgeist. It’s the social air that we breathe, the milieu in which we live, the common ambience we all experience. You could also think of it like the water in which we swim.
Since we are so immersed in our own culture, we have a hard time properly identifying it. As an old Chinese Proverb states, “If you want to know what water is, don’t ask the fish” (from John Stonestreet). Similarly, David Foster Wallace gave a famous speech in which he asked, “Does a fish realize that water is wet?” In other words, rightly identifying our own common cultureis immensely difficult because we are steeped in it ourselves.
So what is our own common culture? Many would agree with Charles Taylor, that we live in a secular age, a culture that has abandoned the transcendent yet is still haunted and yearning for meaning.
- Pop Culture
In this definition, culture is that which presently holds the attention of the populace, whether it be music, movies, fashion or sports. Pop culture is analogous to a wave moving across water; it’s inherently transitory and temporary. Pop culture, by definition, is faddish, trendy and fickle. But it can also be an important expression or indicator of social change or movement. So pop culture, while typically shallow, is not insignificant.
- High Culture
This definition carries the idea of “cultivation.” High culture is the deliberate attempt to promote and foster the best in creativity, beauty and flourishing—whatever those things are understood. If pop culture is untamed wilderness, then high culture is a well-tended garden. In fact, culture comes from “cultura,” Latin for “agriculture.”
- Theological Definition
Culture is what happens when God’s image bearers interact with His creation. When human beings live in the world the result or product is culture. We are culture makers.
In what we do here at the CFC, we employ all four definitions of culture, but we primarily use the theological definition. After all, as believers, this theological understanding of culture distinguishes our work from that of our unbelieving neighbors.
Editor’s Note: Come back next week as Dr. Keathley explains not just what culture is, but how we approach it.