Why Culture Matters
God is the author of culture, so it matters – end of story. But since folks expect a bit more from my articles, let me elaborate. I have been thinking the past few days about the many achievements of human culture, and how they all must come to an end at some point.
For example we have the demonic IS forces right now smashing great works of art and architecture from antiquity in the Middle East. (Of course groups like the UN seem more concerned about this than the slaughter of masses of Christians.) One also thinks of all the great works of art, architecture and so on which were destroyed in the various world wars.
Whether deliberately destroyed, or simply succumbing to the wear and tear of time, so many wonderful things are no longer with us, or will one day be no more. I don’t know about you, but I think about these things, and I worry about them.
Perhaps part of this is a deep sense of the tragedy of wasting. I must have inherited this from my parents who went through the Great Depression, and learned of the importance of saving everything and wasting nothing. I am still that way: if I can save a slightly used serviette (napkin) for another meal, I will! (But no, I don’t send used teabags to overseas missionaries!)
But I often reflect on the great works of culture. There are plenty that come to mind, whether Michelangelo’s David, or Handel’s Messiah, or Chartres Cathedral, or a novel by Dostoyevsky, or the cityscape of Venice, or the Leaning Tower of Pisa, or the Taj Mahal, or the Mona Lisa, or the works of Shakespeare, or the Coliseum.
Whether great works of art, or architecture, or poetry, or music, or literature, there are so many incredibly wonderful human creations which can and do reflect on the beauty and creativity of God himself. Tolkien said we are sub-creators, and we can reflect in so many ways the glorious work of our heavenly creator.
In many respects we can say these mirror, at least on a lesser scale, the great creative works of God, whether the Grand Canyon or Swiss Alps or Victoria Falls or the Great Barrier Reef or a majestic sunset. God makes beautiful things, and he has given us the ability to do so as well.
Yet one day all this will be gone. Some of it is already gone, such as the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, or the Lighthouse of Alexandria. But one day this world will come to an end, along with all human creations. So was it all a waste? Has it all been in vain? Is culture of no importance?
I think not, and for at least two main reasons. One, God is the originator and instigator of culture. He gave us a cultural mandate (Genesis 1:27-28). As you know, in the biblical storyline, God began with a garden and ends with a city. God always intended that we should create culture, for his glory.
Creating places where we can live, work, and flourish are part of the original cultural mandate. We are to subdue the earth and create a civilisation wherein we can live in peace and harmony, and bring glory to our Creator. Of course the Fall has radically impacted on all this, but the cultural mandate has not been abolished.
Two, we likely need not worry about all the great losses of culture in this world. If fallen, finite, and sinful man can now turn out the Sistine Chapel or the works of Dickens, just think of what he will be able to generate in the next life. Contrary to the misconceptions of many, heaven will not be static, dull, and boring.
In addition to worshipping and praising God for zillions of years, I don’t doubt that we will again be involved in creating culture for the glory of God. The Eiffel Tower will shrink in comparison to what might be made there. The works of Milton will fade in comparison with what might be written there. The paintings of Rembrandt will seem to be juvenile compared to what might be created there.
Culture then is a God-given gift, meant to be appreciated and enjoyed by us all. Sure, in a fallen world all human culture has been corrupted. Thus the Germanic peoples for example can produce both a Beethoven and a Hitler. Because we are made in God’s image, we can see real beauty, real wonder, and real creativity in human endeavours.
But of course because of the entrance of sin into the world, our whole orientation has been turned away from God and toward self. The image of God has not disappeared in fallen man, but it is greatly tarnished, much like a greatly tarnished mirror does a lousy job of reflecting images. Thus great evil is possible as well.
Christians of all people should be lovers of culture. Christians are not Gnostics. The Gnostics taught that the spirit is good, but the material world is bad. They believed that we should not waste time on anything in this world, and only concentrate on the next.
They wrongly believed that because this world is not going to last forever, it is not worth dealing with. But this world is in a sense going to last forever. We are told that a New Heavens and a New Earth await us. It is not clear whether this will be a whole new earth, or a recreated earth that we currently dwell on.
But we are not Gnostics. We believe that the material world is good, for at least three reasons: God created it; Christ became part of this material world; and one day we will all get a new physical body. So the physical matters, as does human culture. As I just read elsewhere today:
Agreeing with the Gnostics that the physical world is destined for the cosmic rubbish heap, many evangelicals have assumed that the only work which lasts forever is the work of saving souls. Raising families, building cathedrals, reading novels and trimming hedges are only of temporal importance. This is often motivated by an unconscious dualism between creation and redemption, as if God’s purposes for the latter had nothing to do with His original intentions in the former.
Quite right. The Bible makes it clear that we are to reject Gnosticism and unhelpful dualism, which pits body against soul. God has created both. We are not so much bodies with souls, but souls living in bodies. But God has created both, and we will have both for all eternity.
So if there are any folks out there like me who often think about and care about all the waste in the world, including so many great works of human culture, then take heart. God created culture, and some form of culture will likely be our lot for all of eternity.
17 Replies to “Why Culture Matters”
Well written, Bill. Yes, as you say: God always intended that we should create culture, for His glory … and enjoy it. This is indeed our incredible God!
Thanks Bill. Having just viewed the pictures of destruction of artefacts in Tunisia, I am pleased to read your analysis of the current obsession with destruction of historical edifices and objects. I appreciate our God -given talents of creativity
It’s good to see you dispel the Gnostic myth that only the spiritual matters. In support of your thesis, the Bible also speaks of kings, the traditional patrons of culture, carrying their glory and honour of the nations into the new Jerusalem (Rev. 21:24-26).
Often when I point out to someone something done in the OT the response is “that’s just cultural”.
But as you say “God is the originator and instigator of culture” which is something I’ve wanted to say but did not know how.
Now I can say “Yes” and point them here.
Thank you Bill for this wonderful article. A christian artist friend of mine has been looking for a biblical frame work for her creativity and I will share this with her. I believe that especially the Tolkein quote will do her much good.
I believe culture, good culture that springs out of the root of christian world view is food for the soul like healthy nurrishing food sustains the body. The Lord Jesus Christ himself and his Word the bible are of course our spiritual food, so each sphere of our being is being sustained, each by its own specific fare.
I’d never really thought about the Biblical narrative beginning, as you stated, in a garden and ending with a city. Perhaps a promise, and an anticipation, of the progress to come?
And then I thought about the grammar Paul uses in 2nd Corinthians where he uses the present continuous to describe those “who are being lost” and those “who are being saved”. Even here on fallen Earth, Paul tells us, we are works in progress.
How much more will we be works in progress in Eternity?
And how much more wonderful will the cultural life and output be in the new Kingdom?
Mind-boggling, I think!
Thank you for that, Bill.
Inspiring post, Bill. There is so much detail written in the Bible about the tabernacle and its ornamentation that I know detail and created beauty are important in God’s eyes.
Thanks for this Bill. I needed very much to read this to reset my spiritual ‘compass’. I’m a mid 50’s woman with some minimal creative gifting from God and from childhood I always intended to pursue these talents. But God had a different plan for me, which proved to be a challenging walk, but it has deepened my faith the way no other walk in life could have done.
I have also just taken out my first mortgage two years ago and will need to continue working longer than I would like. I am also now battling the onset of arthritis in my fingers, which makes it painful to hold the calligraphy pen or sketching pencil. I ashamed to admit that I’ve sometimes resented not having the time to do what my hands crave to do, and worried that by the time I have time, my fingers will be useless.
But this kind of thinking is not worthy of one who calls herself a Christian. It shows a complete lack of focus on eternity. I’ve not been setting my sights on things above, but keeping them in the realm of what is passing away. In the next life I will still have a body, but one without arthritic fingers, and I’ll also have a dwelling where the mortgage has already been fully paid up. Perhaps God intends these gifts for later – as just one tiny contribution to a new, eternal heavenly culture, to the glory of God.
Bless you Kerry.
I cringe inwardly when I see works of art, pottery, sculpture, metalwork being destroyed. Each item that is created by an artist, potter, etc is a kind of “birth”—we output from the creative minds that God has blessed us with. So when these items suffer damage or are destroyed completely, it hurts us.
I can’t imagine what the heavenly culture will be like, but I know God has given me a number of creative abilities in this life…I hope He will graciously permit me to continue with them and maybe even find new ones, in the life to come.
Closer at home we see the destruction of God’s work of art, the family unit. Using tax payers money SBS is doing its bit to destroy marriage and family.
Culture is about more than the creation of physical artefacts: It is about the meanings enshrined and represented in those artefacts. What didactic purposes do the material outputs of a culture serve?
Where a culture’s metaphysics have descended into semantic deconstruction and the denial of ultimate meaning, we may expect the resultant material output of that culture to be depressing and meaningless too. The title of Rookmaaker’s book, Modern Art and The Death of Culture surely has some bearing on a biblical appraisal of human culture and civilisations.
We may be iconoclast about the cultures of fallen humanity, but that does not absolve us from responsibility to respond to them with our own quest to express the mind of Heaven through a distinctly Christian global counter-culture.
John Muir said, “We all need beauty as well as bread.” When we see the beauty about us, both in creation and in culture, how it can uplift the human spirit. And God is the author of beauty, I think every time something beautiful is encountered, like the Old Testament, God put those skills and abilities within those people. How it can inspire, yep, like you said Bill, to give glory to our Father. The world is dying, and yet, this morning, I saw the most delicate orb spider’s web from my window-it is a diamond and pearl necklace suspended from the fencing. There is the early onset of Autumn with the most wonderful perfume of leaves and grasses, divine. Little presents for us from God.
For anyone with artistic talents wanting an opportunity to shape our current culture for the better, here is a link to a currently running religious art competition – the Needham Religious Art prize – being promoted here at Mt Gambier at the Riddoch Art Gallery.
From their website: ‘The Needham Religious Art Prize was established in 1998 through the Anglican Parish of Mount Gambier, to encourage artists to interpret or portray an event character, story or truth from the Bible.’
Here is the link – http://www.riddochartgallery.org.au/?page_id=147
Thank you for the interesting article on culture.
I went to Mass today in the beautifully renovated St Mary’s cathedral in Perth WA where an inscription caught my attention and expressed what is in my heart. It said “I have loved O’Lord the beauty of your house and the place where your glory dwelleth” psalm 26-8. It reminded me of the many beautiful churches I have been privileged to visit in my lifetime and which has brought me so much happiness and peace.
Another point about culture. The artificial world of show business can make actors and actresses say and do things to further their careers.When the feminist movement was at its height I was watching an episode of “Ás Time goes By” on TV. Judi Dench punched out a typical feminist line that she wasn’t ready to retire from the business agency she ran and take up crochet as if crochet was so easy and boring that it was just something women did when they weren’t capable of doing anything else. It was supposed to be a joke but I found it profoundly ignorant and insulting. This is because there are many women like myself who love to knit,sew and crochet. They turn out beautiful things which people appreciate and admire. These skills also keep the brain healthy and active working out the patterns. When I go to the Perth Royal Show I always make a beeline for the craft section to admire the beautiful things displayed there.
The irony of the radical feminist movement is that many women no longer have time to enjoy the creative skills traditionally done by them even if they wanted to do them.This is because the radical feminists were so intent on forcing their way into the world of men that all women were economically driven into the workforce mostly to do jobs far more boring and humdrum than housework ever was. At least there they were their own boss. Now,everywhere I go I see tired, overworked, unhappy women juggling work and home. They can’t afford to give up their pay packets but they would be much happier enjoying their homes and children. I don’t see that as progress any more than I see some of the monstrosities of modern sculpture, art and music as adding value to our culture.
Thank you Bill for writing such beautiful and insightful thoughts on culture. This reminded me, many years ago I studied a course on worldview and wrote an essay on ‘Aestethics’ dealing with the nature of art and beauty from a Christian point of view. Thanks God for the beauty of culture because he has made it for us to enjoy and live in it in this temporary world. And we look forward to the beauty of new heaven and new earth as the Lord said in his Word, “I am making all things new.” As pilgrims on earth, we enjoy what God has for us on earth but we don’t belong in this world. We are resident aliens living in exile looking forward to the great heavenly city of the King of Kings. The Lord Jesus gave the apostle John this vision as John described, “I looked again and could hardly believe my eyes. Everything above me was new. Everything below me was new. Everything around me was new because the heaven and earth that had been passed away, and the sea was gone, completely. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, descending out of heaven from God, prepared like a bride on her wedding day, adorned for her husband and for His eyes only (Revelation 21:1-2).
As I reflected what Bill has written, I look forward to that great day when the Lord returns to bring us home – true home in heaven where we truly belong in the kingdom of heaven – unshakable Kingdom and we will see the beauty of all beauties of heaven as John depicted bringing to life that where the city was made of jasper, pure gold, jewel, sapphire, agate, emerald, onyx, carnelian, chrysolite, beryl, topaz, chrysoprase, jacinth, amethyst, pearls… John said, “In the city, I found no temple because the Lord God, the All Powerful, and the Lamb are the temple. And in the city, there is no need for the sun to light the day or moon the night because the resplendent glory of the Lord provides the city with warm, beautiful light and the Lamb illumines every corner of the new Jerusalem… During the day, its gates will not be closed; the darkness of night will never settle in. The glory and grandeur of the nations will be on display there, carried to the holy city by people from every corner of the world. Nothing that defiles or is defiled can enter into its glorious gates. Those who practice sacrilege or deception will never walk its streets. Only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life can enter” (Revelation 21:18-27).
What a beautiful city of the King of kings and Lord of lords and all the redeemed of the Lord whose names are written in heaven will spend eternity with our Lord God Yeshua – Yahweh forever and ever throughout eternity. Amen!