What is the greatest force on earth today? I would say it is culture. Culture has the greatest impact. When you read in the papers about lists of the most influential people in the world, they’re talking about people who carry the authority to influence and shape culture. When ideas meet with humanity, they create culture.
Culture is the shared story of a people group. People always create culture, it’s how they seek to make sense of the world around them. That’s why culture is always a very sensitive issue, because when you speak about someone’s culture, you’re looking at their shared narrative of how they’ve sought to make sense of the world around them, for better or for worse.
Culture addresses two of life’s most important and profound questions. Two questions that every religion, philosophy and worldview has sought to answer: who am I and how shall I live in this world? Everyone wants to address those two questions at some point. They are about identity, belonging, of how we go about living in the world. It’s very easy to dismiss culture, but it’s very important in the lives of people around us.
We can describe culture as an iceberg. The tip of the iceberg, the bit we see, represents things like products, services or practices: the things people do. But look under the surface and you’ll see the assumptions, the values, things that people share together – that’s the culture.
So if you came to an organisation or event, like our church, you’d instantly notice things. You’d see there’s a lot of food, you’d notice that people say hello, that they are dressed informally, you’d see people from lots of different cultures. You see a lot of things that are on the surface. Those things are important, but that’s not the culture itself.
Beneath the ‘iceberg’ are things like values, religious beliefs, attitudes towards social status, attitudes towards age and class. Beneath the surface, that’s the heart of a culture.
This iceberg metaphor is particularly important; an iceberg sunk the Titanic, but it wasn’t the tip that everyone can see, it was underneath, where the important stuff is actually happening. If there’s damage to the culture, the whole organisation will collapse. Often the easiest thing to do, when people want to change an organisation, is to automatically try and address the ‘tip of the iceberg’. You change the practices, but if you actually want to create real change, you have to address the things that affect culture.
How we look at the culture around us and the extent to which we either reject it, embrace it or engage with it affects the counter-culture that we create ourselves. Jesus often created culture by contrasting the culture around him. In His life, He uses culture-creating language.
“Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matt 20:25-28)
So Jesus is a revolutionary, but he also acts as a reactionary. He comes to the world and sees what is wrong with the culture of society and He contrasts it. Here He shows the disciples that they’ve learnt from the culture around them that power looks a particular way, authority looks a particular way, and He says, “not so with you”. He wants them to do the very opposite of what the culture around them is doing, and in doing this He is creating something brand new, something totally different.
So how should we look at culture around us?
We can think of it as three Cs1: condemning culture, copying culture and critiquing culture.
First, condemning culture. Jesus didn’t do a lot of condemning individuals, but he did a lot of condemning the culture around Him. He condemned the hypocrisy of religion, of oppression, the abuse of power, He often spoke about this. When you see things in the Bible like “this is a wicked and adulterous generation”, Jesus is prophetically identifying what is wrong with the culture. He had to condemn it to make it clear that there is a better way of living.
Recently, I was watching some things about the Holocaust Memorial. People asked very difficult questions about the churches in Europe – why didn’t they rise up and condemn what was happening in the culture at that time? Okay, it’s easy to judge history with hindsight, but we can see that there’s always a time in any society, when the appropriate response to the outside culture is to be clear and to condemn certain things.
A lot of how we have shaped our particular church comes from identifying what is wrong with society around us. It’s necessary to be able to rise up and do that.
We can all look back and see churches that have been on the right or wrong side of history. There were churches that didn’t condemn slavery, for instance, when they should have. They didn’t have the prophetic courage to condemn the culture around them. As a culture of light, we should be able to expose what is wrong with the culture around us and to oppose it when needed.
So condemning is sometimes necessary, but it can go the wrong way if we condemn people instead of the culture. There has to be a bit of a balance in choosing carefully what it is about the culture around us that we are going to denounce. It takes wisdom and humility. But a prophetic church will always have that dimension to it.
It’s never enough to just condemn one aspect of culture, it also means that you have to create the alternative. So if people say that injustice is wrong, there’s a responsibility on those people to demonstrate what the alternative looks like. What does justice look like? Jesus had the audacity and the courage to expose what hell looks like on earth, because He was recreating heaven on earth, He was creating the alternative. So it’s never enough just to protest, the vision has to be embodied, there have to be people living out what the opposite culture looks like.
Another way of approaching culture is copying. Again, this can be inescapable. There are certain laws and guidelines that we have to adopt into our culture. What you don’t want to do is copy the wrong things, or copy in order to fit in.
Before I was a Christian, I remember coming to church and one of the first things that I sussed out was, it seemed like the church was trying to recreate the world. When you’re copying, you’re always a few steps behind anyway, so sometimes there’s no point in people coming to the church and just seeing outdated versions of the world.
But when looking at whether or not you’re going to copy culture, the important scripture is Romans 12: “Do not be transformed to the pattern of the world”. We must never copy the culture of the world in order to fit in with the world. That will always backfire. The culture that we have to offer is unique and distinct.
Thirdly, the last attitude is critiquing or discerning culture. I think this is probably the key attitude that we should have towards the culture around us. There are many ‘necessary evils’ that we have to entangle ourselves with, for example, technology, and the information age.
What we need to have is a critical distance between us and stuff that happens, so that we’re able to challenge the assumptions behind this culture. Critiquing the culture is very important, because what happens with culture is what a lot of sociologists call normalisation; when things happen for a long time, you start to think that it’s normal and okay.
People often forget that William Wilberforce, as a Christian, challenged slavery while it was very normal, everybody was doing it. To critique a culture that is normal requires incredible prophetic courage and insight. It only happens if you’re cultivating that distance. Often we look at culture and think, does it work? If it works, we suddenly think that it’s right, and we want to adopt it. Having a prophetic, discerning spirit towards things, means that we want to see the ultimate outcome of everything, we take a long-term view.
A discerning approach recognises that there is good and evil in every culture. So it doesn’t mean that we just condemn and stay back, but we’re also able, if we critique the culture around us, to affirm what is actually useful and good about the culture around us. There are many small businesses that have a culture in how they deal with their staff and their customers, which is not far from the kingdom. Jesus used this expression when he talked to a man, who he had said had answered wisely; He said, “you are not far from the kingdom”. It’s not the kingdom itself, but when we see things in culture that are not far from the kingdom, we can use and learn from them.
A good example of this is in Acts 17, the apostle Paul uses this quote that many Christians think is from the Bible, it says “In Him we live, we breathe, we move and have our being”. But he’s actually quoting a pagan philosopher, who’s talking about Zeus. He’s taking something from popular culture at the time, and he’s saying “this is not far from the kingdom. It’s not the kingdom itself, but it’s not far”.
Sometimes we need to critique, sometimes we should just condemn, sometimes there are things we should copy. It’s just having the prophetic spirit of knowing which position we should adopt and when.
See also: Culture pt 2: Seasons and Saltiness
 The concept of the three Cs has been borrowed from an article by Andy Crouch in Christianity Today where he talks about ‘Four Postures’: Creating Culture.