God made humankind to be culture makers, and it matters a great deal what kind of culture we create. Whatever our vocation, whatever domain we are called to, as Christians our work is ultimately to create kingdom culture—culture that reflects the true nature and character of God.
Our charge as creators of culture has been called both the creation mandate and the cultural mandate. It is found in the creation narrative in Genesis 1:26–28,
Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”
At the height of his creative activity, God said, “Let us make man in our image.”
With these words man’s identity is established. Man is made imago Dei—in the image of God. Man was made to rule in God’s stead as vice regent. Or to use a different figure, man was made the steward of God’s household. What God had made was perfect, but it was not finished yet. God is the primary creator; humankind, to use J.R.R. Tolkien’s words, is a “secondary creator.” God made primary creation. Humankind is to make a secondary creation—culture—that reveals and glorifies the Primary Creator and reflects the primary creation. Human beings are to fill the earth with image bearers of God who will, in turn, develop the earth. Like an acorn, creation from the hand of God was perfect and complete in itself, but the potential had to be released by the man and the woman. The acorn is to be nurtured into a mighty oak. God also said, “Let them rule.” With these words man’s purpose is established.
Culture: Worship Externalized
Why are the Genesis scriptures referred to as the cultural mandate? What does it mean to create culture? And what is culture, anyway?
Theologian Henry Van Til states it very clearly and concisely: “Culture is religion externalized.”[i] At its heart, a culture is a manifestation of a people’s cult, i.e. their civic religion. It is a reflection of the god they worship. This understanding stands in contrast to the modern materialist’s assumption that culture is a reflection of a people’s race, or the sum total of their way of living, or their heritage. St. Augustine’s understanding of the nature of culture illuminates the importance of this distinction. According to Augustine, culture is not a reflection of a people’s race, ethnicity, folklore, politics, language, or heritage. Rather it is an outworking of a people’s creed. In other words, culture is the temporal manifestation of a people’s faith. If a culture begins to change, it is not because of fads, fashions, or the passing of time, it is because of a shift in worldview—it is because of a change of faith. Thus, race, ethnicity, folklore, politics, language, or heritage are simply expressions of a deeper paradigm rooted in the covenantal and spiritual matrix of a community’s church and the integrity of its witness.
Augustine spent so much of his life and ministry critiquing the pagan philosophies of the world and exposing the aberrant theologies of the church because he understood only too well that those things matter not only in the realm of eternity determining the spiritual destiny of masses of humanity but also in the realm of the here and now determining the temporal destiny of whole civilizations.
Augustine recognized that a people’s dominant worldview inevitably shapes their world. He understood that culture is a manifestation of man’s worship. It is a reflection of the nature and character of the one worshiped. Or to put it a little differently, culture is a manifestation of a people’s worldview.
The Taliban in Afghanistan created a society that reflected their worship. Likewise, the USA’s popular culture is a reflection of the materialistic ideals of a secular belief system. The modern concept of anthropology, as derived from materialistic thought, sees culture as neutral. In the materialistic paradigm, there is no God; therefore there is no objective truth, everything is relative. This set of assumptions offers no platform or standard by which one person or culture can critique another. No one culture culture is seen as better than another. As such, every culture is valued for what it is. When we see culture as neutral, we are reluctant to critique it. Thus we can’t distinguish between the death camps of Nazi Germany, the hospitals of Mother Theresa’s Sisters of Charity, or the pop culture of contemporary America.
Derived from worship, culture is anything but neutral. Culture stands at the convergence of the spiritual and physical realms. In fact, it can be said that the spiritual realm influences the physical realm at the level of culture. Just as ideas have consequences, so does our worship. The cult leads to the culture. This, in turn, determines the kinds of societies and nations we will build. This is clearly illustrated in society. If a people worships a deity who is capricious and can be bribed, as in Eastern animism, a culture of corruption is established in which bribery is a part of everyday life. This manifests itself in business, in economics, in government, and in judicial systems that are filled with corruption. The result? The material and spiritual impoverishment of a nation.
– from Darrow Miller’s book, LifeWork: Toward a Biblical Theology of What You Do Every Day
[i] Quoted in David Bruce Hegeman, Plowing in Hope: Toward a Biblical Theology of Culture (Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 1999), 15.