“Culture” is one of those pesky, paradoxical concepts. Everyone knows what it means as long as they don’t have to define it. It’s a difficult word to define because it is multivocal—it labels many divergent phenomena and suggests relationships among seemingly unrelated items. We know intuitively what “culture” is, and we live within its bounds every moment; yet we never see clearly the morphing reality the word identifies.
One definition that many anthropologists (and even more anthropology texts) still use as a starting point is E. B. Tylor’s from 1871. He defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, morals, law, custom, and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”1 This provides a helpful, albeit vague, scope. Taken in tandem with Clifford Geertz’s later definition, a picture begins to emerge:
Culture is best seen not as complexes of concrete behavior patterns—customs, usages, traditions, habit clusters—as has, by and large, been the case up to now, but as a set of control mechanisms—plans, recipes, rules, instructions (what computer engineers call “programs”) for the governing of behavior.2
In the same work, Geertz develops the definition and includes his famous observation that “man is an animal suspended in webs of significance which he himself has created. I take culture to be those webs.”3
Having worked with such notions, anthropologists understood that “culture” and “cultures” are not things in the sense that they are discretely defined, bordered, and unchanging. We can’t point to an artifact and say, “There is culture.” The artifact is, rather, a part of culture, meaningful only within the context of the whole. As much as the analytical concepts of “culture” and “cultures” are helpful, they are still abstractions—ideas in our heads. More recent definitions allow for messiness: “Cultures are, after all, collective, untidy assemblages, authenticated by belief and agreement, focused only in crisis, systematized after the fact.”4 Culture “then is not something given but something to be gradually and gropingly discovered.”5
For anthropologists, culture flows out of the “needs of common humanity.”6 It is an adaptive response to the task of living. Culture is then a complex, dynamic system of patterns of action and interactions that a loosely bounded group of people share in a particular environment. Culture is a system of symbols, and their meanings are shared by a group of people that allows them to interpret experience. Neither the system nor the meanings are fixed, yet they are patterned. The boundaries are not clear, yet they are binding. The components of the system and the people who embody them interact and compete with one another within that system. Meanings and patterns are negotiated, contested, and constantly yet subtly in flux. Culture is both the product and, in many ways, the producer of people.
The term “culture” as used in the vernacular is not very helpful analytically. For the nonspecialist, culture serves as an explanation (in effect, “That’s just their culture”). But for the anthropologist, culture is the thing that needs to be explained. Throughout history, there has been a complex relationship between believers and their societies. Even in the West, the relationship between the Christian and culture is full of ambivalence. Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic Christ and Culture (Harper & Row, 1956) explores the varying relationships.
Cultures may be thought of as “Christian” in some sense (in that they are neither Muslim nor Buddhist, for example), but this is misleading. People, not cultures, are Christian—individual believers in relationship with the living God in Christ Jesus. America may be described as “Christian” (though this is less and less accurate), yet much of our American culture runs counter to biblical ideals. It is arguable just how beneficial it is for the individual in a faith-relationship with the Creator to be living in a tenuously tepid Christian milieu such as ours.
Our churches are products of place and time. Today, with their impressive buildings, elaborate programs, and swelling budgets, our churches look very unlike the Christian church of the first centuries. Our church institutions are “cultural,” situated in a context. Neither the context nor the church has looked this way before, and we may quickly find ourselves in a much different context. We should also expect our church institutions to look much different in the future. But these institutions are not our faith. We serve the One who transcends our space and time (our culture). Perhaps the church on earth will no longer be a potent force within our cultural context. That is not inherently a spiritual tragedy—we have no guarantees that our church institutions will continue on. The church, to be sure, will continue with or without the sanction of culture. The church is not an institution. It is a community of believers, called and gathered by the Spirit of God.
Culture is made up of people. We create it, maintain it, justify it, and modify it. Each time you follow the expectations of your culture, you are maintaining it. Each time you challenge it, stray to the fringes, or go against the expected mores, you are modifying it. We remain in a kind of dialogue with our cultures (a dialectal relationship) in which we are both producer and product of culture. At times, we feel it is a one-sided conversation, but the social processes are such that voices, even minority voices, impact the trajectory.
Our culture seems to be getting more hostile (less sympathetic, or less defaulted) toward Christianity. As the church becomes “less useful” to our culture, we should expect it to become more marginalized. But do we want it to be useful to the culture? Do we want it to be used? There has never been a comfortable relationship between Christianity and culture. It seems the church has as much to lose as to gain by any of these cultural endorsements. Power structures within specific cultures have readily and often coopted religion for their own nefarious purposes. The Christian church on earth, at different times, has been oblivious to this, has cooperated with it, and has even instigated it.
We don’t, however, need our culture’s blessing to be Christian. In the United States, we should not expect our neighbors to be like us nor to worship like us. Our nation is built upon the fundamental disconnect between our constitutionally protected religious pluralism and the exclusionary claims of Christianity. We should always view our greater culture with skepticism. As Christians discuss culture changes—for example, the legalization of homosexual marriage and the push for LGBTQ affirmation—we need to remember that just a generation ago the sin of divorce and remarriage was a cultural taboo. It has now moved to the acceptable. Society’s tolerance for sin should not be near as much concern for Christians as their own tolerance for the sin their culture has sanctioned. Regardless of the cultural context, we must continue to do the work God has given us to do. For some of us, that means organizing to influence culture by pressing for public policies, voting against propositions, and protesting bad politics. For others of us, it means remembering that our interaction with the antagonistic, non-Christian fellow citizen is with “our neighbor” whom we are called to serve.
There is no “context-less” Christian faith. The Christian faith is lived within a cultural milieu with its idiosyncrasies, biases, opportunities, and limitations. Christians can fight against it or succumb to its constraints, but the Christian is never free from its bounds. It is easy to mistake the comfortable claims and assumptions of our own culture for universal truths. We do well to not trust our culture but rather to test it—to become aware of those local features that would claim to be ultimate. Our faith is ultimately a connection between individuals and the living God. Our cultures provide a framework, a language, a location for living that relationship, but we must not confuse one with the other.
Jack M. Schultz (PhD, University of Oklahoma) is a lifelong Lutheran and professor of anthropology at Concordia University, Irvine, where he continues to research the interplay of religion and culture. An active member of the American Anthropological Association, he has multiple publications in the field of anthropology of religion, including The Seminole Baptist Churches of Oklahoma: Maintaining a Traditional Community (University of Oklahoma Press, 2008).
This article originally appeared in the January/February 2009 issue of Modern Reformation.
- Edward Burnett Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy, Religion, Art, and Custom (1871; repr. New York: Gordon Press, 1974), 1.
- Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York: Basic Books, 1973), 44.
- Geertz, 5.
- Barbara Myerhoff, Number Our Days (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1978), 10.
- Edward Sapir, Philip Sapir, Regna Darnell, and Judith T. Irvine, The Collected Works of Edward Sapir, 4 Ethnology (The Hague: Walter de Gruyter, 1994), 310.
- Sapir et al., 204.