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Thoughts on Culture

October, 2020

Installment 19 of 20, translated from the book Christ Is the Same Yesterday, Today, and Forever: Writings on the Basics of Faith and Doctrine. (Ed. Ari-Pekka Palola, SRK, 2018)

What is Culture?

The concept of culture comes from the Latin word cultura, which means cultivation or tending. Later, the definition of culture expanded to include education such as science and art. In a broad sense, culture indeed includes all that people do to manage their environment and society and to express themselves and their relationship with other people. The Christian doctrine of our church [Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland] states: “God has given man the task to cultivate nature so that its powers might better serve the protection and advancement of life. This work and its results are called culture” (Christian Doctrine, item 100).

The concept of culture underwent changes in the 20th century when popular culture and various subcultures such as youth culture emerged. According to a new definition, “Culture is a system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and artifacts that the members of a society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning” (Plog & Bates).

Culture with its various manifestations is learned in one’s community through interaction with other people. We say that a child is born into some culture and society. The first cultural educators are the child’s parents. Parenthood is a God-given task of rearing that among other things includes a Christian upbringing and the transfer of one’s own cultural heritage. The child adopts lifestyles, values and norms from his or her parents. Things that belong to culture form the basis for functioning both in the home and in society.

The natural tendency of cultures is to strengthen their own cultural heritage and emphasize their own uniqueness. The cultures of the world are not identical. The identities of nations and regions are born through cultural differences. In addition, the culture of a particular nation or region can differentiate into subcultures: high culture, popular culture, rural culture urban culture, customs, food culture and so on.

In our thinking and behavior there is much that we consider natural and take for granted and that we cannot specify or explain. This is our cultural heritage. Culture also includes experiences and emotions that cannot always be expressed in words.

Scope of Religion

Religion is a universal phenomenon. It has always been part of human life. In all peoples and cultures there is some form of religious thinking and behavior. There are an estimated 20,000 religions in the world.

Anthropology professor E. A. Hoebel defined religion as follows: “Religion consists of systems of beliefs, thought and external functions that are fundamental to both primitive and developed cultures. These systems tend to become visible throughout societal constructs, and at times it is difficult to determine where the religious ends and the rest begins. Religion as a phenomenon is so diverse and intertwined with so many elements of culture and so dynamic that it is difficult to outline it within limits that would be wide enough to encompass it in entirety and narrow enough for research.

Religion therefore belongs to human life and culture. It affects people’s interactions, habits, thinking, choices and decisions. In different cultures, religious life includes even very disparate characteristics and phenomena. The religions of the world are different, but their common characteristics include belief in the supernatural and in God or gods as well as considering certain things sacred. In addition, there are five factors that can be found in all religions: beliefs, rituals, emotional experiences, communality and ethics.

Beliefs are religion’s perceptions of e.g. God, the creation of the world and life after death. Rituals refer to religious rites such as prayer, worship and celebrations. Emotional experiences of religion manifest as experiencing the holy, experiences of love and guilt or liberation and calm. Religion creates a sense of belonging. For that reason those who believe the same way usually form their own communities. Religions also provide guidance on how one should live. Ethics is religion’s understanding of right and wrong.

Religions usually interact closely with the surrounding culture and society. Sometimes it is difficult to distinguish between religion and the surrounding culture. Religion can also be used as justification for war or acts of violence; recent examples of this include terrorist acts by various extremist organizations.

The nature of religious activity usually involves some form of communality. Religious behavior conveys, both in word and deed, certain signals, symbols and customs of which the proponents of the religion in question are aware. All religions in the world have created their own art. In many cultures, religion regulates the chronology and annual celebrations.

Faith and Culture

We are living a time of great upheaval in a diverse and pluralistic world – a world in which uncertainty has increased and belief in authority has crumbled. At the same time, various confrontations become stronger and the way of living according to God’s Word is blurred. Marginalization is a real problem. Use of technology grows stronger and stronger and digitalization enables things that change people’s lives. The world is complex and rapidly changing. What should change? What can’t be changed?

The relationship between faith and culture has been much discussed. Religion has not ceased to exist, but rather it remains a major cultural and societal influence. Faith is not culture, although practicing religion may include cultural characteristics. Religion and culture have many similar manifestations. Religion also upkeeps cultural content and meanings. Faith influences people’s concept of humans, worldview, understanding of salvation and life after death as well as a multitude of customs and celebrations.

The Bible is a fundamental work in Western culture. Its impact has transcended national borders and thus laid the foundation for a common European culture. Biblical influences are visible in e.g. the Western calendar, weekly rhythms and church celebrations. Legislation in Western countries has also been traditionally based on teachings of the Bible. In recent decades, however, strong secularization and falling away from the Word of God have driven our society further from its Christian foundation. As a result, religion and culture sometimes mix or merge and sometimes are at odds with one another.

In a believing home, children are raised and guided in a culture in which the childrearing is based on God’s Word. This includes e.g. Christian values, love and truth, diligence, love for one’s neighbor, respect for authority and honesty. Bible-based faith guides one to make the right decisions regardless of cultural background. A child of a believing home is born into and grows up in a cultural heritage in which biblical faith is a significant factor. This shows in the child’s behavior as well.

The cultural landscape of the believing home includes the teaching of the Bible and in addition many other customs and behaviors, such as family traditions. Every person is imprinted with the culture of their own childhood home. A person who has lost faith carries with him or her the cultural heritage of a believing home. Many people consider the growth environment, security and sense of community provided by their childhood home a strong foundation and a valuable matter. Sometimes one hears of other kinds of memories as well. Then it is worth remembering that living faith never advocates isolation, abuse or violence.

There are many qualities in modern culture that distance people from faith. The concept of right and wrong is disappearing. Instruction contrary to the Bible and new ways of acting and behaving are confusing. The concept of sin nowadays is based on one’s own reason and interpretations. Abnormal phenomena and customs gradually begin to seem acceptable when they are repeated often enough. The wrong kind of thinking has strongly infiltrated different areas of culture. An overemphasis on entertainment value and on sexuality are commonplace. Entertainment culture has become a sustainer, purveyor and producer of lusts and desires.

A distorted culture reflects a concept of humans and the correct way of living that are contrary to God’s Word. This changes a person’s values and affects the person’s concept of faith and the meaning of life. It is important to remember that accepting that which is wrong is not true tolerance. Faith is a question of what is most important in life.

Meeting of Cultures

In a global world, cultural influences spread and different cultures meet. Ease of travel, increasing migration and the development of technology have contributed to the spread of cultures. Meanwhile, cultures have also become more similar as the same celebrities, trends and music styles are familiar in different parts of the world. When cultures mix, a new common culture is created.

There is, however, still prejudice and fear toward foreign and strange cultures. We have not avoided culture clashes. The world is divided on the basis of religion into different cultural circles, and clashes between these continue to seem inevitable.

Cultural anthropology’s task is to study human communities and culture. One of its research findings is that cultures are self-centered, self-loving and contemptuous of otherness. We often make the mistake of evaluating other peoples and their customs through our own values, customs and attitudes. It is also common for us to evaluate people from different regions of our own country from our own point of view. Many times we are blinded and held captive by our own prejudices and attitudes.

In recent times we have evaluated the attitude of the dominant culture [in Finland] in relation to the Laestadian revival movement. It is also necessary to assess how Laestadians view other people. Are we in a habit of generalizing and labeling others and speaking in a demeaning and offensive manner? We must continuously learn to tolerate and respect differences. This, however, does not mean giving up or compromising the foundations of one’s faith. Faith is inalienable, a matter of the heart.

Faith Unites People from Different Cultures

The law of the Ten Commandments was the foundation of life already for the people of Israel in the Old Testament times. While the Old Testament societal laws and those that regulated worship were bound to the culture and situation, the law of the Ten Commandments is timeless. It remains the same regardless of era, place or culture, for it expresses God’s will.

God reveals Himself and His will in e.g. the fates of nations. God also wants to reveal His plan of salvation to all nations (Mark 16:15; Luke 24:47). The gospel belongs to all peoples and language and cultural groups. The gospel unites people from different cultural backgrounds: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).

Everyone can appreciate and respect their own culture. A believer, however, is willing to give up characteristics and customs of his or her own culture that are contrary to faith and a good conscience. We may ponder what things belong to culture and what things are part of God’s salvation plan.

Occasionally one hears demands to reform “Laestadian culture.” By this some may mean that it would be time to change the old-fashioned way of thinking for a more modern perception of faith. It would suit the human mind to make the old biblical faith more modern and more suitable and acceptable to modern people and easier for human reason to comprehend. The Apostle Paul, however, warned against the misleading teachings of the last days and exhorted everyone to adhere to that which they have learned of God’s Word (1 Tim. 4; 2 Tim. 3). Faith is not just certain habits, words, behavior or belonging to a certain community, but rather it is a question of faith of the heart and of a personal gift given by God.

In a changing time there is yet something that has always been and to which one can still cling: God’s Word and the living faith based on it. It is a heritage that will not tarnish, stain or wither away.

Love Not the World

It is important for a believer to remember that we live in the world but we are not of the world (John 17:16). The world refers to both God’s creation as well as forces opposing God and humankind that has rejected God. In the world there are simultaneously two kingdoms; God’s Spirit reigns in one and the enemy of souls in the other. The Bible warns against loving the world that has fallen away from God (1 John 2:15–16). Every human lives with two portions, and within each believer there is a constant battle between God’s Spirit and the person’s own flesh. This leads to many conflicts and falls.

In all eras the surrounding world with its various cultural phenomena and values has also affected believers’ lives. Even today many people ponder the relationship between faith and culture: which things relate to faith and which are culture-related. The mindset and customs based on Christian instruction have largely given way while a worldly way of living has become more widespread. More and more people live their lives in a way that deviates from the Bible’s teachings.

We live in a time in which the meaning of a person’s life is based on the person’s opinions and experiences. An easy, pleasureful, self-centered life has become many people’s main goal. Technology has made our lives easier and created new ways of doing things. Science has been able to explain an increasing number of phenomena with human reason. Human reason and wisdom are gifts from God. Reason is not the opposite of faith, but it must be subordinate to faith. Matters of faith cannot be explained by human wisdom.

We can use our God-given gifts for our own and others’ enjoyment in many different ways and enjoy the many things that enrich life. One person gladly becomes refreshed with good music, either listening to or playing music. Another enjoys exercise and nature. For some, writing is a natural way to express their thoughts. Many are energized by reading good books. We are different, and our interests vary.

Drawing the line between good and unsuitable hobbies is sometimes difficult. Even believers may have conflicting opinions about what is suitable. The enemy of souls attempts to cast doubt on the Word of God and its significance and in this way to cause a person to fall away from faith. Casting doubt or questioning things fits well with the spirit of the times. The Bible’s instruction may be perceived as old-fashioned, out-of-date, belonging to a past culture.

The cultural offerings of our time are largely centered around entertainment. They feed a person’s lusts and desires via the senses and open the way for destructive temptations. Entertainment culture distorts, among other things, sexuality which is seen or heard in dress, speech, music, movies and literature. When entertainment conveys through many different channels a description of immoral life which includes e.g. substance abuse and casual relationships, it subconsciously shapes people’s minds and causes them to consider those things normal when in fact they are not.

God’s Word warns against conforming to ways of life that are contrary to the Word of God and cause harm to both the individual and the whole nation (Rom. 12:2). According to Paul, people in the last times only love themselves and money, pleasures more than God. They may be outwardly pious but they deny the power of faith. The apostle exhorts us to turn away from such (2 Tim. 3:1–5). In this situation it is good to remember Jesus’ prayer on behalf of His own: “I pray not that thou shouldest take them out of the world, but that thou shouldest keep them from the evil. They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth” (John 17:15–17).

Faith is not separate from life. Biblical faith and living according to one’s faith belong together also in the modern world. A lifestyle according to the Bible includes e.g. keeping the Sabbath day holy, hearing the Word of God and marriage of a man and woman that lasts until death as well as caring for the family and rearing children. We often need to pray to God to increase our faith (Luke 17:5). We can recall Moses’ example: he considered the attainment of eternal life more important that enjoying pleasure for a season. To attain the future award he was willing to forgo riches and an easy life and to suffer affliction together with the people of God (Heb. 11:24–26).

We have a personal responsibility for our choices, since as a consequence of wrong choices we may lose the gift of faith. If we become too attached to temporal life and its pleasures and opportunities, eternal life – the goal of faith – easily becomes blurred. Abstaining from that which is wrong is part of a believer’s life. Jesus teaches, “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). Paul advised Timothy, “But thou, O man of God, flee these things [greed and harmful lusts]; and follow after righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, meekness. Fight the good fight of faith, lay hold on eternal life, whereunto thou art also called” (1 Tim. 6:11,12). Faith of the heart gives the desire and strength to make the right choices.

Pentti Rentola

 

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