Updated: Sep 26, 2018
At Rebel Alliance Media we seek to equip Christians to be able engage culture with a Biblical worldview. This begs the question, “What is culture?” What is this thing that we are supposed to engage? How does one recognize it when they see it?
Before we answer these questions, we need to back up one step and define another closely related term: Religion.
When we talk about religion we are forced to separate it into (at least) two categories:
First, there is formal religion; the churches, mosques, altars, symbols, relics and so forth. This is what people normally picture when they think of the term religion. The visible, tangible things that people practice and worship. The other category is informal religion. This could be described as the stuff that really makes people tick. The things they’re willing to live for, die for, pay for, and reorganize their calendar for. Essentially, their ultimate concern. This is a man’s true religion, regardless of what he says or does formally.
Why is this important in understanding and defining culture? The secularists would have us believe that we live in a non-religious society. But when we understand religion to be much more than empty cathedrals with stained glass windows and see it as it really is, man’s ultimate concerns, it becomes very clear that we actually live in an incredibly religious society. We worship anything from money to sex to man to nature and anything in between. As believers we know that God created mankind as spiritual beings and therefore it is inevitable that people will be shaped by their faith. Even the so-called atheist is living his life according to his ultimate concerns, whatever those are, trying to fill that spiritual void, but exchanging the truth for a lie, worshipping something in creation rather than the creator (Rom. 1:25). Therefore, a proper understanding of religion, as ultimate concern, gives us tremendous insight into the culture and vice-versa.
Henry Van Til famously quipped that culture is simply, “religion externalized” and when we examine the multitude of various cultures around the world we see that this is true. The most significant difference between Canadian from Japanese from American from Spanish from Iranian culture is the fruit of the various major religions that have historically dominated those peoples. To see this more clearly, we will briefly examine three subsections of culture: Law, education and art.
What is law? To push the “culture as religion externalized” idea, we could easily say that law is “religion codified”. Every time a society makes a law they are making a formal statement about what they consider to be important. Outlawing murder, and the subsequent punishments, say something about how you value human life. Outlawing theft says something about how you value private property. All laws are statements of value, belief, and higher principles: Religion.
Laws create the boundaries for what people consider to be fair or just. Fairness and justness cannot be determined through a scientific experiment; therefore, men must base their laws on what they believe is right. Some higher principle they believe to be true for all men (at least within their jurisdiction). So, this idea that, “you can’t legislate morality” must be quickly and finally stamped out of our Christian minds. When we recognize all law as religion codified, we see that the only thing you can legislate is morality. By this we do not mean, of course, that we can create moral men through righteous laws, but we must recognize that there is no neutrality in this area. It is not whether morality will be legislated but which.
So, pay attention to the laws that a society makes for themselves and you will have a better glimpse into their ultimate concerns than you will by examining their formal religious actions or statements. When a historian digs up the long-lost ruins of Canada in 1000 years he will note that while claiming to be a “Christian nation” for many generations we allowed things like abortion, gay marriage, euthanasia, non-gendered birth certificates and more to be codified into law. This gives the historian a much different picture of our ultimate concerns than he might have first thought considering the incredible number of ruined church buildings he dug up.
What is education? How does it relate to culture (religion externalized)? Education is simply the older generation teaching the younger generation what it thinks is of ultimate importance for life. Giving them what they believe to be the essentials for living a successful life (Josh. 1:8). Clearly this involves areas of ultimate concern and therefore we could define education then as “religion transferred”.
For the Christians we would say that for a person to live a successful life they must learn about salvation in Jesus Christ, to fear the Lord, to apply God’s law to all areas of life. This differs from the humanist who might say that self-respect and freedom from the oppression of religion are the most important things our children need to learn. The Marxist might say that serving the state and shaping people into useful workers is the most important thing. Each of them is right according to their system and therefore each will transfer their ultimate concerns to the next generation through education. There is no neutral education. Someone’s idea of the “successful life” is going to be taught. Not whether, but which.
What is art? Art is a more difficult subsection of culture to define because it is so vast and hard to determine exactly what should even be included in the category. So, while it may be hard to define what it is, we can define what art does. Art is “religion symbolized”.
What you see on your television every night is a much better representation of what is important to our society than what you see sitting in your pew on Sunday. British author Norman Douglas once said, “you can tell the ideals of a nation by its advertisements.” He was right, but not only about advertisements, but about all forms of art. Art symbolizes what people hope, dream and believe (ultimate concerns). And because people will always hope, dream and believe, it is not a question of whether people will create art, but what kind of art.
All of this is important to understand for one simple reason. Faith changes culture. And every aspect of our social life is included in our culture; law, education and art being just a sample. Therefore, we need to take a robust, biblical worldview and have it shape and change the ultimate concerns of our own heart and the hearts of all those we encounter. And since we know that a change in ultimate concern inevitably leads to a change in culture we can be confident, that as the nations are discipled (and Jesus says they will be), and their hearts are transformed, their cultures will so follow.
 These basic definitions of law, education and art as religion codified, transferred and symbolized are taken from
Stephen Mansfield, More than Dates and Dead People: Recovering a Christian View of History, 37-44