Podcast Episode 4: What is Culture and Should We Make It?


It has been quite a while since I’ve recorded a new podcast, and I hope that you haven’t fallen into despair while waiting for this episode. This time we are focusing on culture, something that we think about often, and something that I think is very important. I hope this episode is useful and helpful as you think about your own culture and how you can be a positive influence on those in your community.

Notes: many thoughts were influenced by Dr. Timothy Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York, NY, USA. To see what he had to say about this same idea, you can view his talk at the Q Ideas conference on YouTube.


Podcast Transcript:

This is Jonathan, and this is The Bosnia Project Podcast. We have taken quite a while to get back into recording podcasts — last time I spoke to you, I was in the US, it was July, and I was in the middle of a long visit to my home country, enjoying time with family and with all of you. We are going to try to make podcasts a more regular thing, but it has been busy.

The team has arrived, and the new ministry year has begun.

We have a new team of six women and myself, kicking off the year now. We are getting ready, making plans, and putting things together for a great year of work with young people here in Mostar. We have English classes slated for the month of October, there is a new church in town that we are working with, we will have a big academic seminar at the end of the month, and a service project. There is a lot going on, and having a team of seven is a lot different than having two or three, which is what we had the past two years here.

All of this we are planning, always mindful of the fact that we are all foreigners reaching out to people who are part of another culture. And because of this reality, I think about this thing called culture a lot. And that’s what we are going to talk about today in this podcast.

What is culture and how does it affect us, and why should we care about it, why should we think about it, especially if we are people who want to impact the world and the culture around us, for good.

The big question: how does culture affect us?

Doing what I do, culture affects me all the time. I live in a culture where I am the foreigner. Every day, there’s a reminder that I don’t really belong, or that I do things differently. Different things are important to me.

Being present in a foreign culture has helped me see my own culture more clearly. I can see how the things I believe are heavily influenced by the culture I grew up in. And as I talk with people every day about eternity and the meaning of life in general, it is very clear that our opinions are all shaped by the cultures we know.

The big idea: It is necessary to understand culture in order to be a productive and effective citizen of this earth.

You could say that trying to observe your own culture is like a fish trying to observe water. You’re always in it so it can be hard to see it.

The purpose of this is to show why someone should care about culture, and to show why it is something we should be thinking about as we go through life on this earth.

How do we observe culture? How do we say “this is an example of my culture?”

Culture is a set of obligations, expectations, and customs that gives a group of people purpose and meaning. It is a set of judgments about the world, judgments about what is good and what is bad.

That’s a definition that can seem really dense or hard to unpack. What are our expectations? What are our customs? We just sort of do things. We don’t really think about what they are. We just say things — we don’t think about how we say them.

One of the easiest ways to think about is to think about the things you do to spend time with someone. Say you have a friend that you met recently. How would you spend time with them? If you have a friend in the US, you might go and do lots of things together that are fun, things you don’t normally do unless you’re with someone else. You’ll go to movies together or go to baseball games together. You go out to eat together — that’s a big one.

Where I live, you don’t share food together as often. If you’ve got a friend that you want to spend time with, you wouldn’t really go eat lunch together. This is interesting, because for Americans I think eating lunch together is the most common way we spend time with our acquaintances and friends outside of our family, especially for adults. But for people where I live, in general you would not do that. There are several reasons, but I think the main thing is that eating is a necessity — which seems to make it kind of an “impure” thing to do with someone else that you supposedly enjoy spending time with. If there’s someone you enjoy spending time with, in this culture you have to go visit them at their home and bring a gift, like chocolates and a bottle of wine, and then they will make you coffee. Or, like most people, you go out with them and sit at a cafe and drink coffee together, and you sit for about two hours. You don’t really talk about much, but you sit there — and people here do this every day. They don’t really spend money together — that’s something you reserve for your family. But you spend your time together — something I think we might reserve for our families in the culture where I grew up.

A lot of ppl will even meet together with a friend here and just walk thru town together, if they are good friends- and not even spend money on coffee. Instead of sitting down they just spend the time talking and walking, watching the ppl they pass and talking about nothing in particular. I remember doing that with ppl a lot here before I had children.

Now there’s lots of ways that, as a foreigner, I could get confused and misjudge the culture. I can work and work and work, and as a member of US culture, that’s like my cultural idol — I’m doing my “job” that I came here to do. But then I’ve got friends that keep saying to me, come drink coffee with me! Sit, relax, spend some time… If I don’t do that, then I’m communicating that I don’t care about them. But if I invite them to lunch, I might be communicating again that I don’t care about spending time with them even as I invite them to do something that for me would be culturally appropriate.

In the culture where I live, it’s common for someone to introduce themselves by listing out several of their professional accomplishments. We may do this in the US, but the way people do it here is different. You are identified with your job in a way that is completely different from the way people do it in the US.

There’s just lots of these little things that are different here. As a foreigner, it’s easy to see them, but how do you observe these kinds of peculiarities in your own culture?

How do you observe your own culture? Go and eat BBQ!

Growing up in Roswell, a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, my wife grew up with a BBQ restaurant called Slopes. Slopes has several locations around the metro area now, but I’m sure 25 years ago there were just one or two of these restaurants, and they serve the best pulled pork, the best bbq sauce, and when you go inside, it’s like sitting down on someone’s back porch and chowing down on dinner in the deep south. The dining room is filled with all kinds of southern cultural artifacts.

  • Framed portrait of John Wayne
  • John Wayne calendar
  • Sign that says “Raised on sweet tea and Jesus”
  • Thermometer from Royal Crown cola
  • Ceiling fans
  • Old carpenter’s tools
  • Rocking chairs
  • A wooden roster
  • A wooden pig
  • A washboard
  • A framed drawing of Mark Richt
  • Confederate money framed on the wall

The purpose of this is to make you, the listener, care about culture, and to show why it is something we should be thinking about as we go through life on this earth.

Culture is a set of obligations, expectations, and customs that gives a group of people purpose and meaning. It is a set of judgments about the world, judgments about what is good and what is bad.

A lot of people instinctively think that they don’t have a culture. I mean, there are obviously many different ways to do things, but many of us are never confronted with any different kinds of ways of doing things — we just sort of think that the way we do things is the way that things are done. Other people have culture; we don’t really. But as you look around the room at one of the culture establishments in your community — like an old BBQ restaurant, for example — you can take note of things displayed prominently and think to yourself about why these things were placed on the walls. What kind of judgments, what kind of attitudes, expectations, customs, would cause people to put these things in a public place so that they could be seen? And why do they feel that these are things customers would like to see, while they are eating?

We don’t think about these things, and that’s why many of us have the impression that we aren’t really part of a culture. But the truth is that we are, and all these preferences, expectations, customs — they all come together to create the cultural world we live inside of. It’s hard to get up outside of one’s culture, but it can be done. It takes a lot of observation, maybe some traveling, some self-awareness. But understanding that we are ourselves influenced by a culture opens us up to understand the world more completely. It opens us up to see just how much there is out there that we don’t know about the world yet.

The restaurant was a great example of the culture I grew up in. As you listen to this list that I just read about culture, and think about it, it is obvious that the things displayed in the restaurant imply some judgments about things in the world that are good and bad. The tools symbolise the american ideal of hard work and self-sufficiency. The John Wayne calendar represents a reverence for old times, old movie stars — the good old days. So does the Royal Crown thermometer. The flags represent something. The rocking chairs represent something. The money represents something.

All people are involved in making culture

So what difference does it make if you understand that you have a culture and that you are influenced by it?

Well, maybe if you understand that, then you understand more easily that there are other ways of looking at things.

Culture is always a statement about what is good, right, or true about reality.

Should Christians try to make culture?

Unavoidably Christians will be involved in making culture

The question is, what kind of culture will christians be involved in making? Will they do it well or not?

There are 2 problems, I think, relating to Christians and culture.

The first problem is that most Christians are not thoughtful about making culture.

It is very important that Christians get a nuanced understanding of the mixed nature of all culture and cultural artifacts

Every human being is made in the image of God. Every human is sinful. Therefore cultural artifacts are always mixed. Romans 1:20. Every person who makes culture in some way makes culture that makes statements that are somehow imperfect. You’ve got to be able to appreciate the good in everything and at the same time see the shortcomings. Be nontriumphalistic about everything.

The second problem is that Christians are too wrapped up in this earthly cultural battle, even as they are not aware that that’s what they are involved in.

Our Christian activities need to both defy and resonate with the general culture, because the battle here between left and right, urban and suburban, or whatever — that’s not our ultimate concern. If you follow Jesus, you are a citizen of another kingdom, and this kingdom, with its culture, is not the ultimate thing. There is something else that is ultimate.

So the point is not that culture is bad — it’s that we are suppose to be aware that the culture that exists around us is ultimately not our own. We are part of a heavenly kingdom, if we follow Jesus, with its own distinct culture, and we ought to move and exist in the general culture kind of like living in a foreign country. We are affected by the culture, but it ultimately is not our own. Battle for control of it is not a battle of good vs evil, as many would have us believe — it is a battle between two very worldly sides vying for control of something else that is very tainted and mixed.

The conclusion is that we are free to be the best members of these earthly cultures because we are ultimately members of our own heavenly culture.

We are free from our cultural assumptions, in a way that we wouldn’t be normally. We are free from the cultural battle that is playing out in front of us. But, because of the culture we are bound to, we have an obligation to work for the peace and justice of the cultures where we live. We work for the flourishing of these places where we are, move in to the cities and towns, build houses there, work jobs, and contribute in a way that will allow for cultural renewal and reconciliation. This is our calling, for those who are Christians.

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