4 Approaches to Culture
1. Cultural Anthropology
This is the most purely academic approach. Cultural anthropology is “the description, interpretation, and analysis of similarities and differences in human cultures” (Howell and Paris: 2019, 4). Anthropology has four subsets: archeology, linguistics, physical or biological and cultural. “Cultural anthropologists use the culture concept to understand human individuals and groups,…” primarily in six areas: family, education, power, religion, art, and economics (10). Missiologists must be adept at cultural anthropology. Anthropologists and missionaries seem to have a love/hate relationship with each other’s disciplines.
2. Cultural Engagement
“Engage” means “to participate” or “to become involved in.” At its best cultural engagement can be a faithful witness; at its worst becomes cultural warfare or complete capitulation.
Richard Niebuhr described these various approaches to cultural engagement in his famous taxonomy: (1) Christ against Culture; (2) Christ of Culture; (3) Christ above Culture. (The last of these he expressed as three nuanced, mediating positions as synthesis, paradox, and transformation.)
Inaugurated eschatology may also give us some insight. Presently the Christian is in exile, standing in the public square. At times the Christian is a moderating influence, and at other times a prophetic voice. We could think of biblical examples such as Daniel, Esther, Joseph and Nehemiah.
3. Cultural Apologetics
In this approach, the believer uses aspects of culture and particular cultural artifacts to point people to God and defend the faith. Paul Gould explains it this way:
“The main point of contrast…has to do with the kinds of evidence utilized in making a case for Christianity. For the traditional apologist, academic sources, such as philosophy, science, and history, are prioritized in providing evidence for arguments. But for the cultural apologist, cultural artifacts—illustrations from the world of music, art, sports, entertainment, social relations, and politics—are paramount.”
Some traditionalist apologist have raised concerns about cultural apologetics, fearing that this tactic will lead to the abandonment of the usual task of building a solid foundation for belief in Christianity. All you’re doing, a critic might say, is using cultural illustrations and abandoning evidences for the resurrection.
Gould disagrees. Cultural apologists are still providing evidences for belief in Christianity; they’re just using cultural artifacts to make the presentation more winsome. (For example, a cultural apologist could use the existence of “cancel culture” to highlight that, at our core, most of us actually do believe in a transcendent moral truth, a set of rights and wrongs that apply at all times. The apologist is using this cultural trend to point to historic Christian truths.)
4. Culture Making
In Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, Andy Crouch argues that we should do exactly that: play God. We should recognize that because we are divine image bearers we are therefore inherent creators and culture makers in all spheres of life.
All of us have spheres of power. Whether you are an executive or a janitor, a teacher or stay-at-home parent, you have a sphere of power, or influence, or people in your community. Power is indeed hazardous to a fallen race. But when we submit our respective power structures under Christ’s lordship, those spheres of influence can be redeemed. Building off of the theological definition of culture, Crouch contends that we should thoughtfully, deliberately endeavor to advance the Kingdom of God by evangelism, vocation and promoting human flourishing.
In other words, we don’t just understand or critique culture; we make a better culture.
In what we do here at the CFC, we explore all four approaches to culture. But we will primarily use the culture making approach. We want to equip you to grow in your faith and to go out into all spheres of life as a Christ-honoring witness and agent of cultural change.