Culture, A Place to Start

A while ago I started writing on the misuse of the word “culture”; aiming at understanding how we miss what a true culture is.  I accussed us of falling for the manikin of Vapid Culture, then  I wanted to dial in closer to the real thing by looking at “high” culture and subcultures.  Today I hope to hit on what the real thing is, offer a place to start thinking about culture building, and offer a start of Christian culture.  Off course, this is a blog – not a book – so even if these thoughts are pretty good, they are bound to be over-reaching and insufficient.  Given that, it is only appropriate to place my thoughts in context.

A couple things have sparked my interest in the misconception of culture. The first is my experience at the strange little private school I work at, aka “Flexing Poplars”. Walking into the place is a bit like walking into another world. Hogwarts would be more relateable. When I first started working there a year ago several of the students had heroin problems. One of my favorite students was a 14 year old boy who was working very hard to kick a nasty cocaine problem. Everything I normally assume was exchanged for the opposite, and it has been difficult adjusting without letting the mission become derailed.

What does a place like Flexing Poplars need? It needs more than just motivation, direction, vision, and competence. It needs a culture change. So I have been focusing on using my presence there to affect aculture change, both in and outside of class.

Teaching high school Sunday School has afforded me a means of comparison. The problems there are similar but different, and the discussions between the priests and myself have been on the same motif: culture creation.

The more direct impetus for this rant was a discussion with a group of conservative Christian men (from many denominations) about how Christians should view education. The issue was brought up by a man who has been deliberating over different post-high school options for his daughter, and it bears noting that his daughter was present. During the conversation I noticed that culture and education were sometimes used synonymously, and sometimes antithetically. Now both these terms suffer frequent violence, but the drum of “impacting culture” was beat regularly and unenthusiastically by everyone present.

The man’s main concern was for his daughter’s development; he wants her to be a happy, responsible, and respectable person. His worries were concerning the information she would be fed, and that the conglomeration of ideas, themes, and values present in the media would be absorbed by her. Surely these fears are reasonable, but what is the response? I know people who went to Berkley in the 60’s and are as conservative as they come. There are plenty of people who are media-literate who aren’t enslaved to whatever happens to be channeled on a given week.

The problem is not as simple as where you get your information from. It’s about who you are.

Of course that seems like a tall order: “who you are”. How does one become a good person? This is in fact the question that forms culture.

So I asked the man’s daughter, “What has shaped you into who you are?” This question is beyond the scope of this piece, but it throws into relief where I think we go wrong. Culture isn’t mainly about information, it’s about the vision of the Good Person.

Two sober remarks need to be made about the current state of our culture: American culture was not formed as a Christian culture, and the secular/sacred distinction has neutralized American culture from developing. The founding fathers’ view of the Good Person was largely the Ben Franklin model. Franklin, not a Christian, was working towards human perfection sans God. Ingenuity, hard work, and habits that supported these virtues took the spotlight. Humility and mercy receded. Ben Franklin, who was not meek, has inherited this piece of earth.

The founding fathers were largely deistic in their philosophy, and certainly shows in their politics. They created a government that assumes that God will not be acting within it, and encouraged mankind to prepare to live and govern without His help. Government, then became a space neutral to divinity. Secularism is built into political philosophy.

Christ was baptized. Water has not been the same since. He was nailed to a tree, and they have yet to forget it. He was buried in the earth, and it is hallowed. I may render to Caesar what belongs to him, but he belongs to God. Christ is present, and he is the Good Person. Christianity is about this Good Person and us becoming more and more like Him as we abide in Him. Christianity acknowledges everything as sacred, and the role of humankind is to take the fruits of the earth and, lifting it up to Him, allow Him to exchange it with something holy. Everything is being transformed, nothing is secular.

Living this way is a tall order, and it is one that we cannot do by ourselves. Convinced as we might be of the sacredness of all things, we wake up in the morning feeling removed from the sacred and ignorant of how to continue in the movement of Christ’s transformation of the cosmos. This is because transformation is occurring within us: we are growing and developing. That is, we are developing if we continue.

I’ve found myself asked quite frequently if being a Christian has any impact in our lives. Can it be the case that I can look like everyone else, act like everyone else, and be a perfect Christian because what Christ has done for me has already been done. However, until death, what is there for us to do? Evangelizing doesn’t seem to match many people’s personalities, and those who seem suited to it are often very annoying and counterproductive.

The dilemma is, in other words, either Christ affects my entire life, or He affects only my post-death destination. Personally, I understand this dilemma well, and it points to a deficiency in contemporary Christianity. Why do we have no Christian culture, no development, no hope? How can we read the Bible and not see the concern that God and his authors have for the continual deification of His people?

If culture is “how one sees the world”, and we cannot see Christ anywhere in the world, then either Christ is false or we are blind to reality. Fr. Alexander Schmemman offers this definition of a Christian: one who sees Christ in everything and rejoices. The mark of culture is that those who grow it see the world in a mature, developed, and cultivated way, and the mark of Christian culture is that we see Truth in the world, shining in the light of His glory.

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5 thoughts on “Culture, A Place to Start

  1. You should look into anthropology’s discussion of ‘culture’ vs ‘schema’. Your conclusion regarding “Christian culture” sounds more like ‘schema’ than ‘culture’. If I read your thoughts with the word ‘schema’ in mind, I generally agree with you. If I read your thoughts with the word ‘culture’ in mind almost everything in my academic being wants to disagree with you.

  2. That is interesting. I am a bit familiar with the idea of “schema” from my social psychology days. I wonder what that means if my conception of culture is exactly that schema idea.

    Do you think “schema” is the right way to think about this? I object to “schema” for a couple reasons. First, it has tons of Kantian baggage that I reject, and often the amount of Kantian baggage depends on who’s talking. While that seems like a valuable conversation, but I wanted to remove that from this conversation because Kant is thoroughly anti-Incarnational.

    Second, I prefer simpler, more mundane ways of explaining to ones that rely on jargon. And finally, I feel justified following Aristotle, who talks about the “cultured” or “musical” man (μουσικός). While “schema” can be traced to the Greek σχήμα, it just means “scheme” or “plan” for them. So at least I’m not setting a precedent.

    However, I wasn’t thinking much about the concept of “schema” when working through this stuff, so help me out where you can. What does adding (or subbing) this concept in mean?

  3. I think my appreciation for schema comes from my distrust of a “Christian Culture”. As far as my understanding of Great Commission goes, we are to make disciples of all men — i.e. convert people, not society. As a nation (read: ethic group, or language group) becomes Christian, their culture will be transformed. But culture is always being transformed, culture is a living phenomena changing daily.
    Within the Church we maintain our culture, not as the predominant–or even a dominant–force in our decision making, but as a recognizable marker of who we are. When Paul saw the vision of a Macedonian, he knew the man to be Macedonian. Likewise in John’s Revelation he knows there to be persons representing the tribes, tongues, and nations of earth.
    The virtue of speaking of Christian Schema instead of Christian Culture is that culturally Christians world wide are not the same, but, ideally, we hold to the same schema.

  4. As I began these posts by explaining, not only do I distrust talk about “Christian culture”, but I don’t believe that is really culture – just a facade. Thus the call to “transform culture” is bogus, because what “culture” means has nothing to do with people, but with information (“ideas, themes, and values expressed directly or indirectly by the media”). In other word, it cares about the printed page, not the person.

    Yet a person is not a natural person unless they are cultured (in the real sense). They must be developed, initiated into certain practices. These practices are things like reading and writing, athletic contests, etc. They are not “on top” of the natural person, but part of who they are. As John McDowell argues (NOT Josh McD) “second nature” is natural.

    It doesn’t seem to be a realistic depiction to me to separate off culture from people-with-schema (whatever that exactly means) as if once someone is Christian they form a schema that is plug-n-play identical to those of other cultures. The metaphor I am getting is that people are fish, and they acquire a schema internal to them, and culture is whatever ocean they happen to be in. Their environment will dictate behaviors and customs, but in this view they are not part of what kind of fish they are, just what happens to them. Rather I want to say that the kind of fish they are has important interplay with the environment and the line of demarcation between what the fish eats and how it behaves is existent but not decisive.

    Furthermore, when is the schema finished developing within the person? How is the schema developed apart from cultural considerations, like language? The picture I am advocating does not threaten diverse cultures, but in fact gives these distinct cultures an important and reasonable role in human development. I really want to protect Christianity, and Christian culture, from being a culturally specific phenomenon – particularly from being a “Western” phenomenon.

    Again I point to Fr. Michael Oleska’s body of work, which preserves native Alaskan cultural identities while offering Christianity as a fulfillment of the culture, the final security in the developmental vision of mankind.

  5. What do you mean by “they are cultured (in the real sense)”? My understanding of ‘cultured’ is one indicating a general and sufficient command of the social ecology one functions in. Is that synonymous with your meaning? (It might be that we agree and we simply are speaking past eachother.)

    By advocating schema I’m not trying to separate culture and people, but rather suggest a way of speaking of what need be ‘renewed’ or ‘changed’ in the Christian (along the lines of Rom 12.2). Schema theory allows for the process of building schemata within one’s understanding of Reality (and within one’s culture). I point this out to say that a Christian Schema need not be something “plug-and-play”, as you suggest, but rather something grown into. (A process I think similar to acculturation.)

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