Culture is the product of inherited values, which—either explicitly or implicitly—inform and shape the lives of the members of a particular society. An individual culture is produced by ideas developed over time that belong to a subset of the human population. These inherited ideas and values give form to the way members of a particular society interpret and develop their knowledge and attitudes about life. Cultures include traditions and values informed by a worldview and presented in symbolic acts and dispositions. Art, literature, music, architecture, language, and customs are all essential parts of the culture of a particular society.
Culture is a byproduct of the biblical mandate God gave Adam to cultivate the earth (Gen. 1:28). Theologians have often referred to this as the “cultural mandate.” Cultivation produces culture. Productivity, creativity, and development are all ways in which human beings reflect the image of God (Gen. 1:26). At creation, our first parents were to exercise delegated authority by “multiplying and filling the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Accordingly, families are foundational to every culture.
All human beings cultivate by means of their vocations or callings. The work and rest structure embedded into the fabric of human experience is reflective of God’s own work at creation. Though our first parents disobeyed and fell, God’s mandate to work and subdue continues on in human history. Mankind still preserves and cultivates creation by God’s common grace, bringing stewardship principles to bear on the development of society as a whole.
Every culture is shaped and formed by a prevailing spirit—a zeitgeist. Idolatrous worldviews generate immoral cultural practices. In our postmodern society, the media, fashion, advertising, sports, and entertainment industries indoctrinate Western society with the agenda of the sexual revolution. We see idolatrous, culture-producing worldviews also in the popularity of neo-gnostic literature. Atheistic and agnostic scientific theories drive many of our educational institutions. Neo-paganism has resulted in the neo-barbarism of abortion.
Christians are called to live to the glory of God and the benefit of others. One of the chief ways that they do so is by seeking to apply God’s truth to every aspect of the culture in which they live. There is an inseparable connection between the truth of God and the cultivation of society. For instance, the pursuit of beauty in the realm of art, music, and literature is informed by the gospel and the Trinity. However, the Scriptures nowhere teach that Christians will bring about a utopian society in this fallen world. Rather, it explains that believers place their hope in the new heavens and the new earth that Christ has secured by His suffering and resurrection. In this way, a truly Christian worldview takes account of all four stages of redemptive history—creation, fall, redemption, and consummation.
The study of how Christianity and culture have interacted is complex. In the first several centuries of the New Testament church, Christians were severely persecuted by the members of the culture in which they lived. The first centuries of the early church left Christians little room to ask questions about how they could best influence culture. Instead, remaining faithful in the midst of persecution was the overarching goal for believers.
With the Emperor Constantine’s conversion and his Edict of Milan (AD 313), questions arose about the relationship between the Christian and culture. Some Christians continued a separation mind-set—fearing the results of integration—while others sought to influence the Roman culture. Questions about Christ and culture have continued throughout the remaining seventeen hundred years of church history.
When society gives its approval to forms of illicit sexual behavior, that becomes the strongest temptation of all to people who are susceptible to doing what everybody else is doing. That’s why it is the task of the Christian in the twenty-first century to underscore the unique call that God gives to us to be people who are non-conformists to a fallen and pagan culture. We are to seek to live transformed lives and to have our minds informed not by what other people are doing in the secular culture, not by what is deemed acceptable in television episodes or movie scenes of extramarital sex or by homosexual relationships, but we are to have our minds informed by the Word of God. I know of no other antidote for us to heal our sick souls in the midst of this crisis.
The doctrine of the Trinity is not only essential for good theology. Getting the Trinity right is also essential for love, politics, and art. God is an absolute union of three distinct persons. Thus, Scripture teaches that ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:16). Not just that He is loving, but that He is, literally, love. That is, a union of distinct persons. . . . The unity of variety is also a principle of aesthetics. Some works of art have unity—consider the black canvas of the modern art gallery—but no variety. Others have variety—consider the spattered canvas of the paint-flinging abstract expressionist—but no unity. But the greatest works of art, whether painting or music or literature, have ‘a lot to them,’ filled with details and an abundance of elements interesting in their own terms. And yet—as in the multiple melodies of a Bach fugue or the innumerable characters and subplots of a Shakespeare play—they also all come together into a larger whole.