Previously we discovered the Great Cultural Mandate from God. In the cultural mandate, found in Genesis 1:8, God commanded us to subdue and have dominion over the earth. Culture grows out of the variety of ways in which mankind fulfills this command to organize the earth. Are you having questions about this concept and how culture impacts worship, discipleship, and mission? Don’t feel alone. I had many questions about that same thing as God brought me through my pilgrimage from attractional thinking to a missional mindset across these past few years. Let’s call a “time-out” and discuss culture.
When Jesus came into the world, he didn’t come as just any man. God gave Jesus a cultural identity because everything in the world exists in the context of culture. Again, culture results from humankind’s efforts to organize the earth as God commanded in the cultural mandate. So culture is not an evil thing. Culture is a “given” whenever we talk about life on earth. Jesus himself was not just a man but a Jewish man. He was not just a Jewish man, but a first-century-native-of-Palestine, born-in-Bethlehem, son-of-Joseph-and-Mary, living-in-Nazareth, working-as-a-carpenter, unmarried Jewish man. All of those elements of his identity on earth are cultural. Obviously, God does not despise culture or see it as an enemy of his mission because when Jesus became a man, he came into the full cultural context God had chosen for him.
How do we know that the cultural context of Jesus was no accident? We know this because Jesus’ cultural characteristics fulfilled many ancient prophecies foretold across centuries by spokesmen of God. In other words, God had been preparing a specific cultural context for Jesus from before the foundation of the earth. God created culture and then used it as a tool to place his Son just where he wanted him!
Cultural context is a powerful force for all of us. This truth is well-illustrated in a funny story told to me by Larry Rice, retired missionary to Venezuela: Larry recounted how an American guest speaker came to the Venezuelan college where Larry was teaching. Since Larry was to be the translator for the guest American, the speaker told him that he planned to begin his address with a joke and shared it with him. Apologetically, Larry pointed out to the speaker that the college students would not understand the joke because the humor did not translate into Venezuelan culture. But the American speaker insisted that his joke was understandable by all and assured Larry that the students would find it funny. So the guest began his speech with Larry translating. Sure enough, when the speaker told the joke, the college students laughed loudly.
“See there,” whispered the American triumphantly to Larry, “I told you the students would get my joke.”
What the speaker did not know was that in his introduction of the speaker, Larry had told the students that the American was going to start by telling a joke. The guest, not understanding the Venezuelan language, was unaware as Larry told the students, “His joke will not make sense to you because it is from American culture. So when I tell you to laugh, just laugh real loud, and we will help this man feel at home.”
As instructed, their fake laughter made the joke appear to be a great hit, though the students could not understand it in their cultural context.
Again, culture is a tool from God to be used to connect people with him. Culture is not a natural enemy of God. Of course, it can be used for evil or good, but it has no inherent quality of good or evil. Francis Shaeffer wrote: “Let me say firmly that there is no such thing as a godly style or an ungodly style. The more one tries to make such a distinction, the more confusing it becomes.”1
Instead of declaring culture as our enemy, the church needs to understand that the gospel can embody cultural context as a means of identification and communication. Christ embodied this truth in his incarnation. He become a man in a specific cultural context so that we could identify with him.
My favorite quote about Christ’s incarnation is from Dorothy Sayers, writing in Christian Letters to a Post Christian World: “For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—he had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile.”2
God in Christ took on the context of culture to communicate his love. Now he is calling his church to do the same. Culture is NOT inherently evil. We must learn to express the gospel through our local culture, whatever that culture is, and whatever it takes.
— Mark Powers
- Shaeffer, Art and the Bible, 76.
- Sayers, Christian Letters to a Post Christian World, page unknown.