Forming a Gospel Culture (Part 1)
What is a Gospel culture? It is a good question, and it is likely you have not really heard that phrase before. Perhaps it is more helpful if we start with the word “culture” itself.
It is a word we easily take for granted in our conversation. We speak of various ethnic cultures, ancient culture, high-culture encompassing the arts, and so on, and we even “culture” yogurt.
I Like Kim Ann Zimmermann’s definition in her helpful article “What is Culture” where she states: “Culture is the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, encompassing language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts.”
She also goes on to quote The Center for Advance Research on Language Acquisition which defines culture “as shared patterns of behaviors and interactions, cognitive constructs and understanding that are learned by socialization.”
If we put that in really really simple, uber understandable normal people’s language, we could just say “culture is the way a group, tribe, or nation lives.” Nations, regions, cities, neighborhoods, and even families have cultures.
Culture For Better or Worse
Culture is really neutral, at least it should be. In general, there is nothing inherently moral or immoral about the color and style garments in one culture versus another. So with the style of music, food, and so on.
When we slide into the realm of government and religion, well the morality of the issue really becomes a matter of what ideas are promoted and what is practiced.
The big point here is that culture is ubiquitous. By that I mean, people cannot live without culture; this is because, in the very act of living, we create culture. And create culture we do!
The question that faces all human beings is do we foster a good culture or a bad one? The general ways we live are neutral, the clothes we wear, what we eat, the holidays and traditions we make. But cultures are also driven by ideas, and ideas have consequences. What people believe and hold to be true becomes foundations upon which decisions are made. Those underlying ideas and decisions can have profound impact, for good or evil, on people’s lives. One people group who decides that another is a problem, nuisance, inferior, etc. can lead to infighting, persecution, slavery, and even genocide. The decade of the 1990’s saw this in the Croatian crisis. Today we see reports of Communist China’ repression and forced labor slavery among the ethnic Uyghur people of Western China.
Creating and Growing Culture
The term “culture” descends to us through the French language, originally from Latin “colere” which means to grow or cultivate the earth. There is something inherently intentional in culture. We create traditions, patterns of living, recipes, music, art, sports, entertainment, worship, and tradition; and we do it all by choice. Nevertheless, it is possible to do so without clear goals in mind. As I said above, humans living in a community create culture by default.
Nevertheless, is it possible to create cultures that are unhealthy or toxic for people?—perhaps even unchallenging and mediocre cultures? Yes, it is definitely the case. In cultures where people live off of checks from the state, they tend to become unproductive, unimaginative, and unmotivated. People get paid whether they work or not, and if they work harder, they see no gains. The best life then seems to do the least work for the money one would get paid.
A culture can be created intentionally and on purpose, and with a mind to creating thoughts, rhythms, and traditions that tend toward greater mental, physical, and emotional health. An alcoholic family may have a highly abusive culture until the key drinker turns over a new leaf and commits to personal life change. The whole household is benefitted by it.
Can We Create a Gospel-Centered Culture?
The simple answer is yes—of course, we can. If being human inherently creates culture, then we can create one infused with the truth of the Gospel. But it is not easy. To do so, we must learn the Gospel, not just as a set of ideas, but as a way of life, a lifestyle to be practiced in relationship with each other.
A Gospel culture is really founded upon the two great commandments: (1) to love God, and (2) to love one’s neighbor. () The difficulty that we often encounter is that we are often unaware of how much attention that takes.
The primary ingredient necessary in a Gospel culture is primary attention to our appetites. No, I do not mean just for food (though that is a strong one) but for all our desires as a whole. These are also known in biblical terms as the “passions” or in the New Testament (pathoi) These are the lusts and desires of the heart, the self-serving tendency that abides in all of us.
It is this, “the passions” that always stand in the way of a Gospel culture. A truly loving, merciful, compassionate, patient, other-focused culture cannot be built where our own passions rule. James himself says,
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions1 are yat war within you? 2 You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. 3 You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. (James 4:1–3)
It is for this reason the early Christians also coined a term for the kind of lifestyle and culture where the passions were put in check. They called this “dispassion” or in Greek apatheia.
What is “apatheia”? It has been called many things, but chief among them are “mortification,” the “death to self,” “cross-bearing,” and above all “repentance.”
In our follow up Articles to this one, we will expand on this.