A Theology for Hipsters (Part 35): A Theology of Culture (Part 2)

Culture Defined

The 19th century author Matthew Arnold defined culture as, “the pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world.”[1] T.S. Elliot defined it by saying, “simply as that which makes life worth living.”[2] These definitions tend to be idealistic (if even close to correct) and lack any awareness of how the world actually is. They also seem narrowly focused on the self. Ken Myers, a Christian cultural commentator, defines culture with more descriptive language, and less ideal. He writes:

[Culture is] a dynamic pattern, an ever-changing matrix of objects, artifacts, sounds, institutions, philosophies, fashions, enthusiasms, myths, prejudices, relationships, attitudes, tastes, rituals, habits, colors and loves, all embodied in individual people, in groups and collectives and associations of people (many of whom do not know they are associated), in books, in buildings, in the use of time and space, in wars, in jokes, and in food.[3]

Myer’s definition is certainly more detailed than the other two, but it hardly defines what “culture” is, exactly. It more or less just tells us what some of the pieces of culture are. John Frame, on the other hand, offers a definition that I am inclined to take and work with. Frame borrows from the writing of Henry Van Til when he says, “Culture…is religion externalized.”[4] It is this idea of “culture as religion” that interests me as a working definition.

What Frame writes is that all things are, in some sense, a religious expression. He points out that all cultures involve values. “Culture always includes evaluation, a common understanding, not only of what is, but also of what is good and right.”[5] Both Elliot and Arnold agree with Frame by making definitions that clearly posses evaluative judgments. Frame simply spells it out more accurately than they. From this idea of “value” Frame turns to religion. He writes:

When we talk about values and ideals, we are talking religion. In the broad sense, a person’s religion is what grips his heart most strongly, what motivates him most deeply. It is the value that transcends all other values.[6]

For Frame the presence of value in a culture connects it to religion, by nature of the very definition, broadly speaking, of religion. This definition coincides with more precise definitions offered by various sociologists, like that of Robert Redfield’s “shared understanding made manifest in act and artifact.”[7] In each definition the assignment of value is present as it relates to act and artifact, and we can see the rationale for Frame’s expression of culture as “religion externalized.”[8]

Since the Fall, of course, religion has been corrupted and turned into idolatry and culture too bears the marks of it. So culture, as religion externalized, can be either an exercise of faith in God or of denial of God. As Frame states, “Everything in culture expresses and communicates a religious conviction: either faith in the true God, or denial of Him.”[9] As Frame continues his thought flow he realizes that this reality may compel some Christians to think that all culture is sinful, after all, the entire human race is sinful and they are the creators of culture.[10] Such an assumption, however, would not be Biblical or true. The common mistake that Christians make here, that many legalistic churches make, is that culture = worldliness.


[1] Matthew Arnold, “An Essay on Political and Social Culture,” in Culture and Anarchy. New York: Macmillan, 1882. xi.

[2] T.S. Elliot, “Notes Toward the Definition of Culture,” in Christianity and Culture. New   York: Harcourt, 1968. 100.

[3] Ken Myers, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes.Wheaton: Crossway, 1989. 34.

[4] John M. Frame, “What is Culture?” in Reformed Perspective Magazine. 9.11. March 2007. Online at www.monergism.com/christandculture /Frame-what-is-culture.html

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Quoted in Richard A. Shweder, Why Do Men Barbecue? Recipes for Cultural Psychology. Cambrige: Harvard UP, 2003. 10. Other useful, and technical, definitions include Clifford Geertz’s, “The cultural concept denotes an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic form by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes towards life.” Quoted in D.A. Carson, Christ and Culture Revisited. Grand   Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008. 2. This is the definition thatCarson makes most use of in his analysis.

[8] Of course, as Carsonpoints out, there are some who are “suspicious of the entire concept of culture” precisely because it involves metaphysics and bears the marks of a metanarrative. Christ and Culture Revisited. 2-3.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Frame has a very compelling and interesting discussion on the distinction between Creation and Culture. Creation is what God does, Culture is what we make with God’s creation. Or rather, as Frame states, Creation is what God does by Himself, while culture is what God does through us (since, after all, God is sovereign over all things).

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