relating to culture part II (what is culture?)

(Relating to culture part II... on the way to thinking about The Golden Compass.)

It's hard to have a good discussion about "Christ" and "Culture" unless you define some terms. Particularly "culture" - what do we mean by the word?

The etymology of the word is helpful. It comes from the Latin word cultura which originally meant “to tend” – referring to agricultural concerns, that is, to care for crops or livestock (though it could even be applied to worship of the gods in the same sense – tending to the god’s needs). We still use the word culture in this sense in bio-science context – “a bacteria culture."

Later it was applied to the tending or caring for humans – specifically the human mind; yielding a definition that encompassed things that cultivated the mind, such as study of knowledge, philosophy, or art. Eventually, world travel and resulting perspective forced the word to become plural - cultures – but also created a distinction of high culture and low cultures – European vs. folk or primitive cultures. Thus to become “cultured” was to be schooled in high culture. The advent of media has created (and legitimized) a category of “universal folk culture” we call popular culture, and the slowly the playing field has been leveled. This allows us to look at culture in its broadest sense, that which humans bring that is not “nature.”

Culture is a "work and world of meaning." This is Kevin Vanhoozer’s definition, in which he means to say that culture is made up works – texts that can be “read” and worlds – the vision projected by those works. Any human creation, habit, idea can be examined as piece of culture.

From that perspective, we can discuss both what culture is and what culture does.

An anthropological perspective provides a classic approach to what culture is. Edward Tylor (1871) wrote that culture is “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, law, art, morals, custom, and any other capacities and habits acquired by man [sic] as a member of society." This perspective would assert that culture is uniquely human; animals do not possess it. This is the distinction between nature and culture. Human culture, however, is arbitrary, based on the system of knowledge that a particular people or ethnic group uses in common. ( a post-modern critique of the anthropological definition would point out that a) cultural groups are not so neatly segmented, isolated, or defined, and b) the viewpoint doesn’t describe the influence of power).

Sociology as a discipline studies the structures in society - such as government - that form an entity distinguishable from the individual. Culture is not that structure, but could be described as software to the hardware of societal structures.

Biblical studies might look at culture from the perspective of the cultural mandate in Genesis 1.28, “be fruitful and multiply.” This is the command given to Adam and Eve to tend and cultivate the garden, and add their unique contribution, the influence and effect of spirit on nature.

What culture does might be summed up in four parts:
a) Culture communicates meaning. Every piece of culture is communicating, and the messages are both explicit and implicit (often even more powerful). Messages could be understood as signs, narrative, discourse, etc.

b) Culture orients. Culture gives us a mental structure to understand and operate in our world. In the past one could say that institutions like church and school provided these necessary frameworks, but today media perhaps represents the largest orientating influence.

c) Culture reproduces itself. We train and pass on culture to our children. Again, in the past this could be seen more as a function of formal education, but is from a variety of sources. Small segments of cultural information that are transferable have been called cultural “memes” (and are not unlike biological genes).

d) Culture cultivates. That is to say, it forms us. This could be related to spiritual formation – understanding how the environment, its habits and messages, build our character and form our convictions.
(ps - I'm doing this from memory, but it completely leans on Vanhoozer, and these four idea at the end are his summary)
Dang. Sorry for the super-long post. I get going.