Thursday, January 20, 2011

What is God's view of culture?

Today I'd like to begin a series of posts on the biblical view of culture and indigenous arts. I've referenced this topic partially in my series on biblical examples of contextualization, which focused on examples of God using contextualization in the Bible. In this series, I want to focus on how we as Christ's ambassadors should regard cultural expressions in the form of visual arts-- i.e., whether as basically good, sinful, or neutral.
First of all, what exactly is “culture,” as I am referring to it here?  There have probably been hundreds of definitions, so I found one one that works pretty well for me: culture is “the integrated system of learned patterns of ideas, values, behavior, products and institutions characteristic of a society” (Hiebert via Van Rheenen, 1996, p. 81).  Notice that this definition covers everything about a society from ideas to "products," i.e., material culture that includes visual art.  

Now on to what the Bible says about culture.  In Genesis 1:27, we read that "God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them."  God also said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth" (1:28).  We see that humanity is created in the image of God, and being human includes several distinctive faculties: creative, rational, moral, social, linguistic and spiritual faculties.  We also see that God gave humanity three divine commands: procreate, fill the earth and subdue it.  These commands (along with language) are the origin of culture.  So, although God doesn't create individual cultures, he imprints upon all of us the human capacity to corporately form a worldview, social hierarchy and material expressions of what we believe about the world and ourselves.

The more I've read, the more evident it becomes to me that our cultural and/or ethnic background forms a significant part of our core identity, i.e., how we see and express ourselves.  Since most nonwestern cultures are more collectively-minded than those of us in the west, I think it is of utmost importance in missions to recognize cultural identity and expression as a God-given trait (though it is still subject to His commands for submission and obedience).  

Another passage which relates to God's role in cultural identity is found in Acts 17:26-27, where Paul tells the Areopagus in Athens that "from one man [God] made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.  God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us."  This shows that another factor in shaping culture-- geography and environment-- was chosen by God for each ethnic group on earth.  The major impetus to this geographical distribution was the dividing of languages and dispersal from the Tower of Babel, again by the hand of God.  So in summary, both language and geography are major contributing factors to the formation of human culture.

In my next post, I plan to plan to explore the implications of these biblical insights when we're confronted by individuals and cultures who have been shaped by other religions.

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