thinking about culture as key to disciple making part 2

In the first post I stated that for one to serve Christ well in a culture other than her own, one should become a student of that culture. In this post we think about the question: What is Culture?

The best place to start is with definitions. According to “The Willowbank Report,” the word ‘culture’ “…means simply the patterned way in which people do things together.” To get a broader definition, we turn to scholar and co-founder of The Gospel Coalition, D. A. Carson, who, in his Christ and Culture Revisited, relied on the widely used definition of Princeton cultural anthropologist Clifford Geertz. Geertz defined culture as

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 life and attitudes towards life. (Carson, p.69)

Symbols were key in the work of Geertz and, as I consider the word ‘symbol,’ I realize my gesture with the tissue (in the previous post) was just that, a simple, living cultural symbol. One that communicated sensitivity because the unknown sniffler and I understood that it was unacceptable in Hungary to sniffle. Having previously observed strangers giving people tissues , I learned that this was generally viewed as an acceptable gesture. This may well have been used, on another occasion, as an open door for conversation.

I think Geertz’s definition also relies on the word ‘historically’ as a kind of fulcrum on which the leverage of culture depends. American author and social activist George Weigel described the importance of history as it is contained in “literature, music, and dance;” … “painting, sculpture, and architecture;” … as well as “theology and ethics and religious ritual;…” Thus history is the basis for the means by which culture is passed down and even changed via “relationships between men and women, young and old, parents and children, teachers and students, the powerful and the powerless.” Hense, according to Weigel, history is culture. At the very least I will agree that ‘history’ is essential to the transmission of culture. To clarify, history, in this context, is not just an academic subject or a book, it is the inter-generational transmission of culture, whether it be from my mentor to me, or from me to my grandson.


Weigel brings specificity to our discussion when cataloging “painting, sculpture, and architecture” and then “theology and ethics and religious ritual.” In the modern (postmodern? is that still a thing?) West, some argue against the value of religion, but Bishop Lesslie Newbigin, a leading thinker on the subject of culture and Christianity, disagrees: “In most human cultures, religion is not a separate activity set apart from the rest of life.” Indeed religion is central to culture.

It would be inappropriate to go further in our exploration of ‘culture’ without considering the work of Richard Niebuhr. He provided a cornerstone for the study of culture in the Christian context over half a century ago (even though many have contended that this cornerstone was not well laid). In the early pages of Christ and Culture we may glean a definition that is embedded in five pages of elaboration: “Culture is…” “…always social”… “…human achievement…” “…a world of values…” “…for the good of man…” and “…is concerned with the temporal and material realization of values.” Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary and missiologist, provides a helpful summation of Niebuhr’s position on culture as “…that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, custom, and any other capacities and habits acquired by man as a member of society.”

Further, Tennent asserted that Niebuhr “inadvertently secularizes culture, creating an unbiblical dichotomy between human cultural activity and Christ.” His assertion is that “Niebuhr’s understanding of culture was constructed on the foundation of secular anthropology.” Tennent later stated that his own “…central concern is whether secular anthropology can really provide an adequate foundation for Christian anthropology to build upon…” Perhaps this is a fair critique of the philosophy behind Niebuhr’s work, but I assert that one should not throw the anthropological baby out with the secular bathwater. Let us not discard research simply because it is ‘secular.’ Tennent stated that “every culture is dynamic, adaptive, and changing.” Thus, while I consider his work extremely helpful, I will not discount Geertz or Niebuhr’s work on the basis of ‘secular’ anthropology. Looking now from definition to roots of the word, we continue with Tennant’s work.

Tennent’s etymological research is helpful: “the English word culture is derived from the Latin verb colere (to cultivate or instruct) and the noun cultus (cultivation or training)….” These Latin roots undergird the importance of the intergenerational passing on of culture. As culture passes from one generation to the next, the natural outcome is change. Some call this progress because it, ostensibly is development for the good of the people. Whether considered progress or not, culture is dynamic, not static.

Finally, I would submit a working definition: Culture is the dynamic collection of beliefs and norms that are passed down (history) and cultivated (development) regarding the language and actions (behavior) of a people. These characteristics distinguish one group from others. That said, how does this line of thinking help us in our mission within God’s Kingdom? That question will be foundational to the next posts in this series.

*This is part two of a series of posts that are the fruit of some work I am doing toward a doctorate in cross cultural ministry.

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Filed under being a disciple, culture, culture > disciple making, disciple making, seeking understanding

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