What is culture?

Ken Myers, host of the MARS HILL AUDIO Journal, shares his thoughts on some of the basic issues the Journal seeks to address. Click Subscribe above to order a subscription to the Journal!

  • Description
    The word “culture” can be used in many different senses, and thinking clearly about cultural matters requires some initial clarity about how the word is being used.

    Most anthropologists and sociologists define a culture as a way of life informed by and perpetuating a set of assumptions or beliefs concerning life’s meaning. Anthropologist Clifford Geertz, for example, offers a typical definition of culture as “an historically transmitted pattern of meanings embodied in symbols, a system of inherited conceptions expressed in symbolic forms by means of which men communicate, perpetuate, and develop their knowledge about and attitudes to life.”

    A culture is a system or network of abstractions (beliefs or attitudes) as well as specific things (e.g., books, songs, buildings, schools), which are sustained by conventional practices and institutions. Just as a garden is an ecosystem that includes soil, plants, insects, rainfall, patterns of sunlight, the effects of heat and cold, and weeding and fertilizing procedures, so a culture is a complex whole comprising elements that interact and influence one another. Human cultures are more complex, since they also include beliefs, ideas, and the spiritual aspects of human personhood. But those intangible elements are only sustained by taking form. Cultures may be said to be inherently incarnational, the spirit necessarily taking flesh for a culture to be present.

    Cultures take shape in space (through artifacts and practices) and also in time, through the transmission and perpetuation of a kind of legacy or inheritance. Missiologist Lesslie Newbigin writes that a culture is “the sum total of ways of living developed by a group of human beings and handed on from generation to generation.” Cultures may be said to exist for the sake of passing on from one generation to the next a vision of life well lived, a set of loyalties, a body of wisdom. Cultures cultivate the hearts, the minds, and the embodied actions of their current and their future members. They convey explicit beliefs through teaching and ritual, but at a more subtle level they convey a way of being in the world that renders some beliefs more plausible than others.

    Speaking more theologically, we may think of culture as what we make of Creation. Cultural artifacts from primitive tools to fine art are manufactured from the physical stuff of Creation. Such artifacts—together with the institutions, practices, and beliefs that call them forth—are often expressions of what we make of Creation in a figurative sense. Forms of cultural expression contain and convey assumptions about what kinds of beings we think we are and what we believe about the world that we inhabit.

    What is most fundamentally cultivated by a culture is a posture or orientation to Creation, and thus to the Creator. This gives us a standard by which to evaluate cultural forms: Do they represent well the kinds of creatures we are and the kind of world in which God has placed us?