What is the common point between Woody Allen and a Cow? Cultural ignorance

The Christian faith has regularly been charged with retreating from culture, or merely using it for evangelistic motivations. Real interest in culture is not a Christian concern, or so it is said. The last decades, however, have seen a formidable growth of cultural engagement on the part of Christians. Many theologians from very diverse denominations have drawn out the implications of some key Biblical passage and concepts. Genesis 1-3, the covenant concept, and God’s cultural mandate given to humankind have all received deeper and far-reaching attention. This renewed interest in cultural analysis is most welcome. However, let me now play the devil, and point to a common mishandling of cultural analysis, or cultural apologetics.

First, let me ask the following question. When I say: “This person has no culture,” what do you think I mean? Think a moment. Certainly I don’t mean that he or her does not live in a “culture.” Nor do I mean, that he/she has no set of beliefs, or that he/she lives outside of any community. Rather, I probably mean that he, or her, has never heard of Woody Allen, never seen a Hitchcock movie, or doesn’t know what “All Along the Watchtower” is (by the way, I’m sure some of you are still convinced it’s a Jimmy Hendrix song!). Or maybe they don’t know much about what’s going on in our society. Maybe they are not even interested in “culture.” The label “no culture” then seems to refer to the unawareness a certain “culture.” So what I am actually saying is that this person does not have the same culture. But there is more to it.

We could well imagine the following dialogue to illustrate the point here. Mr. C. Kane, a renowned New Yorker film critic goes off to the countryside, somewhere in the Midwest (why would he go there, the story does not say). There, he tries to enjoy some peace and tranquility in a most unfamiliar environment. While taking a walk, he meets Mr. Black, a local farmer (how they met, providence does not say). Here is the most peculiar part of their dialogue, which I report in an abbreviated form:

C.K. Would you like to go downtown hear some Miles Davis tonight, there’s a great jazz pub in the city.

Mr. B. Miles who? Miles Jones, the banjo player, from down the street? He ain’t  here at this time. It’s harvest you dummy.

C.K. Well I brought a great movie, it just won the Cannes Film Festival. Maybe we could watch it and I can explain to you the art of filmmaking?

Mr. B. Oh well. Tonight me and my boy we’re going to the fields, and after we’re staying out for a bit looking at the setting sun.

C.K. Maybe later?

Mr. B. It’s gonna be of no use. I don’t own a DvD player anyway.

C.K. I see! Are you one of those recluse Christians who don’t get into “culture”?

Mr. B. No, I’m one of those “grassroots” Christian who’s got plenty of culture around him. Lots of fields and all…

It’s time for us to leave Mr. C. Kane and Mr. Black, to their peculiar dialogue, and come back to our own cozy urban setting. Could we not say that Mr. Black has “no culture”? Certainly he does not know much, does he? He’s just a simple farmer after all. You might well be right.

But, if I can speak on the behalf of Mr. Black, I could ask: can you tell the difference between bilberries (yes! it is a word, check up Wikipedia!) and blueberries? Do you know the signs of the sky and the path of the mountain? Can you even name the trees, and the flowers? You know about Woody Allen, but do you know how to milk a cow? You could at this point well reply, “Wait a minute there, you cannot compare knowing about Woody Allen and a milking a cow! One is far more relevant and important to us! Moreover they use a milking machine now!” Granted, we use milking machines. But why would Woody Allen (or, as a matter of fact, any famous filmmaker) be more important than milking a cow? After all, don’t we hold that God’s creation is a work of art, and that it is an expression of God’s “absolute culture.” Do we not hold that all of God’s creation is included under the cultural mandate? Could we be in danger of utterly forgetting the importance of “cultivation,” to the expense of our restricted definition of “culture” and “cultural apologetics.” It would seem so. Of course none of us would confess that we actually think that “culture” is more important than “cultivation.” But is it really the case, and have we not lost God’s fullness of culture-diversity?

I would like now to clear out a possible misunderstanding. Let me put that as clearly as possible, in a very short sentence. I am not saying that cultural apologetics, when focusing on “high” culture, is either unnecessary or unfounded (now it’s printed!). Let me say something else. I think that there is a need for reclaiming culture in all its forms, which necessitates some form of training, which already exist.[1] One think of First Things, or Critique., or many other internet resources. However, and this is my central point, in most of those excellent resources, culture is approached from “above,” and the ignorance of this “high” culture requires a special training: “culture for dummies,” could we say.[2] Steel, in both articles,[3] mentions several great resources for doing cultural apologetics. But all of those resources focus on specific themes like entertainment, music, painting, architecture and sculpture, social sciences, cinema, technology and modern communication. Those resources thus represent only one part of cultural apologetics, the part concerned with the common sense meaning given to “culture.” Steel is by no means the only one presenting a one-sided view of cultural apologetics and of culture. The entries for “culture,” and “cultural apologetics” in the New Dictionary of Christian Apologetics do not mention any element related to the “cultivation” aspect of human culture. “Cultivation” has fallen into cultural oblivion.

This observation does not demand that we all change our specific cultural focus, but demands an awareness of the situation. It also begs the question of whether or not “cultivation” really belongs to cultural apologetics in the first place. I think that the idea of integrating the “cultivation” idea to our cultural apologetics sounds out-of-line because it is something we have lost. We need to get used to “cultivation” again, we need to see its glory, its relevance and necessity for human life, and, even more importantly, its necessity for a full worship of God.

Let me now confess. Yes, I come from the countryside. Am I prejudiced? Obviously, yes, I am. But this does not rule out my observations. We can very much conclude that our cultural diversity should include as many aspects of cultures as possible. This cultural diversity lives up to the whole beauty of God’s artistic creation.

Then, what could we do to recover “cultivation” as a part of our apologetic endeavor? For starters, we should all develop our awareness of God’s own cultural diversity, and recognize that we ordinarily use “culture” as referring to what we know. Some have pointed to the need of “cultural training,” and that is well. But we should also do likewise for “cultivation,” and present a “cultivation 101” course for cultural apologists. God’s beauty in creation is a holistic beauty, and integrates those two essential parts.

The Oxford English Dictionary underlines that “culture” and “cultivation” belong to the same family as another term we know well: worship.[4] This directs us to the wonderful association of culture and cultivation that constitutes the worship of God. It demands the cultivation of our culture(s), for the most glorious and beautiful worship of the Creator God.

Word count: 1568.

[1] Let me quote David John Seel’s conclusion: “Should we then consider abandoning the task of cultural reflection altogether and simply read the Bible? While this sounds pious, it is finally impious. We all live inescapably within a cultural context-it sets the terms for the taken-for-granted reality of daily life. Faithfulness to Christ means that we cannot afford to leave our culture unexamined. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom; applying wisdom in our day is the end of lordship.” [“Culture for Dummies: Ten Resources Christians Need for Understanding Today’s World.” Christianity Today 41/5 (Apr 28, 1997): 66-67], page 67.

[2] This reference to David John Seel’s two articles is by no means done to stigmatize him, but merely wants to awaken us to the danger of over-focusing on one aspect of what “Culture” is. Moreover I do not disagree on the substance of his articles. I merely question the restricted view of the content.

[3] David John Seel, “Culture for Dummies.” op. cit., and “Culture for Dummies 2.0.” Comment (March 2008)38-41.

[4] The Oxford English Dictionary. This will not be obvious to the English reader, but if we look at the French translation of those three words the connection becomes much clearer: culture (for “culture”), cultiver (for “to cultivate”), cultivation (for “cultivation”), and culte (for worship). Note that the Latin cultus is one of the etymological roots of the English “to cultivate,”