Alongside video games I have a passion for Christian theology and the cross-section of Christianity and contemporary culture. My brother has started asking me theology questions. Occasionally I may post them here. Below is our first exchange.
Prompt: What did culture look like for biblical times and how do we as Christians approach our respective “cultures” today? I know around the globe culture changes dramatically. One thing may be completely “unethical” in Africa while completely normal here.
Christianity and culture happens to be close to my heart, so I’m happy to have this question and discuss it. That said, this is a massive topic so parts of my response will be broad or oversimplified for the sake of brevity. This is certainly a good thing to dialogue about.
I will start by looking at Genesis. From the narrative of God’s creation of man and woman, humanity is given a role to play in creation: “And God 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.'” (Genesis 1:28) Two keys are present here: subdue and have dominion. Subdue suggests that something is wild, untamed, or unrefined. To have dominion means to rule over to uphold order and purpose. This command is often referred to as the “cultural mandate”: God is commissioning humanity to craft culture (e.g., to cultivate) within his good creation. Then the fall happens (Genesis 3) and we watch the downward spiral of the culture humanity creates in the following chapters, culminating in the founding of Babylon (Genesis 11), the city of man.
St. Augustine wrote a profound book in the 5th century titled “The City of God” in which he describes two city in rivalry with one another. One is the city of God; the other is the city of man. Jerusalem and Babylon. This story is present throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation. So we, humanity, are always in a place of building up one of these two cities, acting as good citizens of one of these two cities. Are you promoting God’s good design, rule, and creation, or are you promoting humanity’s pride and self-fulfillment?
That’s the backdrop, very briefly. As for what culture looked like in Bible times, well, you’re looking across 2,000 years, so no one description is going to fit quite right. But you can see the tension I’ve described — city of God versus city of man — evident everywhere. For much of the people groups in the Old Testament you have a multitude of gods, each with its own domain (i.e., the sun, the moon, the harvest, etc.), a king or queen with divine authority, supposedly established by or the incarnation of one of these gods, and a kingdom bent toward appeasing these two powers. For the Egyptians, pharaoh is the sun god in the flesh; for the Assyrians, the conquer and wage war is to be blessed; and so forth. Many of the laws given to the Israelites during their wilderness wandering were given to set them apart from the nations around them so they may better image their God (Yahweh), the one true God above all other gods. Instead, the Israelites emulated the nations around them, adopting their practices, abandoning their God, resulting in their exile and the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem. Daniel and Esther both given snapshots of what Israelite life within Babylon looked like, from different vantage points. These two narratives show what it’s like to try to live as citizens of the city of God while inhabiting the city of man.
Jeremiah writes a letter to the Jewish exiles in Babylon, giving them instruction about how to live, which is informative for us.
“These are the words of the letter that Jeremiah the prophet sent from Jerusalem to the surviving elders of the exiles, and to the priests, the prophets, and all the people, whom Nebuchadnezzar had taken into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon. This was after King Jeconiah and the queen mother, the eunuchs, the officials of Judah and Jerusalem, the craftsmen, and the metal workers had departed from Jerusalem. The letter was sent by the hand of Elasah the son of Shaphan and Gemariah the son of Hilkiah, whom Zedekiah king of Judah sent to Babylon to Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon. It said: “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (Jeremiah 29:1-7)
Add to this instruction Jesus’s words in the New Testament about the greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Mark 12:31). Now we’re ready to talk about contemporary Christians, living under the new covenant. Paul and Peter have plenty to say about living in the world while remaining citizens of God’s kingdom. I won’t cite all of that here but focus on these three: Genesis 1:28, Jeremiah 29:5-6, and Mark 12:31.
Cultures change. Ideas of ethics change. These things may be different depending on where you are on the globe and where you are in history. What one group considers scandalous or honoring another may deem silly or absurd. Our role as Christians is to map these cultural variables to God’s will under Christ’s reign by the Spirit’s guidance.
I once had a conversation along these lines regarding manners. In Texas, you say “ma’am” and “sir.” That’s not optional, at least not as we were raised. To not say “ma’am” or “sir” when speaking to our parents would not be honoring them — it would be defiant, unloving. This wouldn’t map well to instruction given in God’s word about honoring our parents or loving our neighbors. So, to not say “ma’am” or “sir” for us would (probably) be sin. (cf. James 4:17) However, for Amanda to not say “ma’am” or “sir” may not be sin. The expectations for how parents and other people are honored here in Washington are different.
Here’s another example, more hypothetical, and borrowed from C.S. Lewis. A English girl in few clothes in public is likely not very modest (traditionally). Her attire may well be reflecting a cultural idolization of sex, the body, and self-presentation. An island dweller in the Pacific may be in similarly scant dress, but she may be so for the opposite reasons as the English girl: she may be using the few resources her family has for clothing, wearing what’s necessary to protect her skin without overheating, and fitting in with her people so as to not draw attention to herself. In that environment the same attire may be considered modest.
Such is how the Christian must engage with culture. We must seek the welfare of our neighborhoods. (See this video on “shalom.”) We must love our neighbors. We must promote the city of God. But the city of God doesn’t mean all peoples become the same anymore than the Holy Spirit makes all Christians the same. Instead, our differences are magnified in some glorious way. We’re able to flourish with all of our idiosyncrasies somehow now in sync. Christianity is like salt, bringing out the real personality of people; or like light, revealing the true colors of a scene. Salt, if used properly, doesn’t make everything taste the same — it makes everything taste like a better version of itself.
This is the danger in saying Christians must like a certain kind of music, dress a certain way, subscribe to certain political parties, use certain language, and so forth. These are cultural variances. Christianity is always concerned with something more than the surface level. Christianity rarely gives a simple “yes” or “no” but instead asks “why?” Why do you like a certain kind of music? Why do you dress a certain way? Why do you hold certain political ideas? Do those things promote the city of God or the city of man?
Some final reminders.
“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:18)
“He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8)