What is culture?
That question is very simple on the surface. We hear the word all the time. The term is common and is used in many different ways.
But when you stop to think about the definition, it can be more complex. I recently started a new course as a student to “change” my doctoral degree. Our first assignment was to read a couple of books (actually three, but I am just starting the third one) and develop a cogent definition of culture that will work for our church and the community. Thus, the definition must be broad enough so as not to isolate one particular aspect, but I have found that we can consider culture too broadly as well.
But the exercise is worthy. And as I enter into the third week, I am beginning to narrow down a reasonable definition. I like Robert Redfield’s definition: “shared understandings made manifest in act and artifact.” But I believe it may be missing one element – belief. However, our beliefs lead to action, so his definition may still be very valid. In any event, his definition will inform mine.
The reason I mention culture is because if we are to live in the world, not of it (fotonni), then we must consider what we should think of the world. One of the books we have read so far is Niebuhr’s book Christ and Culture. It is not an easy read, but the premise is basically clear.
Niebuhr defines five “types” (or views) of considering the interaction of Christ (and thus Christians) and culture. Without further explanation here, the five types are:
- Christ Against Culture
- The Christ of Culture
- Christ Above Culture
- Christ and Culture in Paradox
- Christ the Transformer of Culture
Niebuhr devotes a chapter to each type and presents a case for certain individuals from history (both from the New Testament and up through the centuries). But the reality is that the types are too simplified. Most of the types have some level of value (The Christ of Culture is dangerous), and depending upon certain situations, it is possible to agree with multiple possibilities.
I have been aware of these categories for years, but I had never read Niebuhr’s book. I always considered myself as a believer in the Christ as the Transformer of Culture. But again, I did not know the full details.
And yet, after reading the book, and Niebuhr’s explanation of each type, I fit that type best. As I think about this blog, for instance, I not only think of the idea of being in, not of, but the byline for the logo of “Turn Your World Around.”
That byline is all about transformation. Of course, it is not you or me that can turn the world around; it is Christ living in and through us. Jesus said that we are the light of the world (Matthew 5.14), but that is not because we are light, it is because Jesus, as the true light of the world (John 8.12) is living in and through us.
And that leads me to a question that I am taking very seriously right now. In a podcast I heard on Saturday, the guest spoke of the idea of us making a difference in the world related to various issues, of which 2020 alone has many from which to choose. But in the midst of his statement, I drew out the following question:
Am I in the world for God or am I in God for the world?
See, we can be fotonni whichever way we answer that question. But if we are in the world for God, then we are often (or mainly) exercising our own power or authority. We may find ourselves doing good things, and doing them for God, but we are missing out on the greater good – being with God.
I have said many times that God wants us. To make that personal, God wants me. He does not want my money or my time or my abilities or anything else from me more than He wants me. If I give God money or time or service, etc., but I do not give Him me, then I am missing out on something great. But if I give myself to God, then He gets all of those other things, but He also gets what is most important.
That is, Jesus (God) did not die for my (or your) money or time or service. He died for me. He died for you. That is what is most important. The other is good, but it is not most important. And again, if He gets me (and you) then He gets what we have and what we can offer Him as well (which is all because of His grace anyway).
So, as we consider living in the world, not of it, it is important to consider how we understand culture. Without understanding it, we cannot affect it. More likely, if we do not take time to understand culture (not defining the word here, but actually observing culture), it will likely impact us – far more than we know.
But before we sell out to live fotonni, we must ensure that we first take time for God. We must first let Him have us. We must be in God before we can serve Him faithfully in the world. Personally, I know where I need to be, and lately, I have not been there, even if I thought I was.
So, ask yourself, are you in the world for God (which is ok, but not enough) or are you in God for the world?
Which answer is true for you? Which do you want to be true? If you need to change, what will you do about it?