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“When I hear the word ‘culture’ I reach for my pistol,” said the Nazi playwright Hans Johst. I suspect that if our paths had ever crossed, Johst would have shot me on sight. For I am what he would have despised most: a culturist.
I love culture. I love high culture, low culture, and middlebrow culture. I love pop culture, folk culture, and church culture. I love Texas culture, American culture, and the culture of Western civilization. I worry about culture wars and wars on culture. I despise cultural relativism and fret about the decline of culture. I read about the theology of culture and how to transform, redeem, and restore culture. I think about culture. A lot.
One of the areas that I think about most is online media and how Christians can use them to influence the production, consumption, and redemption of culture. The first step in developing a theology of culture is to recognize that our primary responsibility as culturally concerned Christians is not to critique culture (although that is an essential task) or to consume culture (an unavoidable part of being human) but to be creators of culture.
Everyone is familiar with the story in the first chapter of Genesis about how God created man and woman. What we often overlook is the next two things that immediately follow: God blesses mankind—and then puts them to work (Gen. 1:28).
In the Reformed tradition, this command is often referred to as the cultural mandate. As Nancy Pearcey explains in her book, Total Truth:
In Genesis, God gives what we might call the first job description: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it.” The first phrase, “be fruitful and multiply” means to develop the social world: build families, churches, schools, cities, governments, laws. The second phrase, “subdue the earth,” means to harness the natural world: plant crops, build bridges, design computers, compose music. This passage is sometimes called the Cultural Mandate because it tells us that our original purpose was to create cultures, build civilizations—nothing less.
Crops, bridges, computers, and music are all examples of cultural artifacts. Artifacts are any man-made things that are created from artifice (human skill). The range of what is classified under this term is almost endless. Artifacts include everything from stone arrowheads to skyscrapers to Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. Culture, therefore, is simply a collection of various artifacts within a particular grouping of peoples.
In his illuminating book Plowing in Hope, David Bruce Hegeman observes that “culture is the concretization—the rendering in some permanent form—of mankind’s culturative acts.” Unfortunately, the various new media artifacts that we create—blog posts, social networking entries, YouTube videos, etc.—are often treated not as the concretization but rather the emphermeralization of culturative acts.
We now have access to one of the most powerful technologies in the history of mankind. We not only have access to information that was unavailable to Aquinas, Newton, and Einstein, but we possess the ability to communicate instantly with people across the globe. Yet the vast majority of our time is spent reading and writing about ephemera; warm milk has a longer shelf-life than the average blog post.
The medium is partially to blame. As Marshall McLuhan explained, it is the “medium that shapes and controls the scale and form of human association and action.” Although he never saw the rise of Internet culture, the late media critic Neil Postman predicted the situation we find ourselves in with new media forms:
Perhaps you are familiar with the old adage that says: To a man with a hammer, everything looks like a nail. We may extend that truism: To a person with a pencil, everything looks like a sentence. To a person with a TV camera, everything looks like an image. To a person with a computer, everything looks like data. [. . . ] Like language itself, [mediums] predispose us to favor and value certain perspectives and accomplishments.
The writing person favors logical organization and systematic analysis, not proverbs. The telegraphic person values speed, not introspection. The television person values immediacy, not history. And computer people, what shall we say of them? Perhaps we can say that the computer person values information, not knowledge, certainly not wisdom.
Almost every website has an archive of content yet the average new media consumer will never take advantage of this resource. Why? Because we assume that anything that was written in the past (i.e., last week) will be of little relevance today. We accept the absurd notion that the latest news is more necessary for understanding our times than the past. But, to paraphrase the historian Arnold Toynbee, the new media consumer trying to understand the present is like the man with his nose pressed against the mirror trying to see his whole body.
This is not to suggest that online artifacts should never be timely or focused on the latest news. Nor do I want to imply that light-hearted, even trivial efforts are entirely unworthy. But those of us who spend an inordinate amount of time with this medium invariably want to believe that we are not merely wasting our time.
How can we create online artifacts that will be of lasting value? How, in other words, do we prevent the concept of wisdom from vanishing altogether from this medium? That is a key task that Christians need to consider as this medium matures.
Understanding how the medium affects the delivery of the message is only the first step. We also need to consider what category of cultural artifacts we are creating and how that fits our purposes. Journalist Ken Meyers provides a taxonomy of culture that is helpful for this task:
• Folk Culture — artifacts created by a group that shares common ties, such as ethnicity, geography or religion (e.g., fairy tales).
• Popular Culture — artifacts which attempt to appeal to a broad range of groups in a pluralistic society (e.g., romance novels).
• Haute Culture — artifacts which are expressively rich and intentionally created to be elevated above common human works (e.g., Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past)
Christians add artifacts to online folk culture when we debate theology, discuss concerns about our denominations, or share experiences about what it’s like growing up as a child of Korean-born parents. And we engage popular culture when we discuss political opinions, critique movies or music, and explore questions of bioethics.
Unfortunately, it’s more difficult to provide examples of haute culture, since those forms are all but nonexistent in the online realm. The medium is still young, though, and the void will eventually be filled by Christians willing to accept the challenge of elevating the format.
Indeed, we are overdue for a revolution in each of the three areas. Currently, the vast majority of online artifacts by Christians are reactive: commenting on politics, reviewing pop cultural phenomena, sharing links to sermons and news articles. Such tasks are necessary, of course, and all of us engage in such labor to some extent. A select few might even be called to create reactive content exclusively. Yet most of us—and all who are gifted and able—should be attempting to create original cultural artifacts, not merely discussing and sharing what someone else has made.
Finally, we should remember that whether in the Garden or on the web, our culturative work ultimately belongs to the Creator. As the theologian and former Dutch Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper reminds us, “No single piece of our mental world is to be sealed off from the rest and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”
Joe Carter is Web Editor of First Things and the co-author of How to Argue Like Jesus: Learning Persuasion from History's Greatest Communicator. His previous articles for “On the Square” can be found here.
Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth
David Bruce Hegeman, Plowing in Hope
Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology
Ken Myers, All God's Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture
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