The Year of 'Culture' Confusion

Dear Church Family,

Amongst the many year-end top-ten lists, the online Merriam-Webster dictionary provided a list of the top ten words of 2014. Merriam-Webster’s number one word of the year for 2014 was: culture. If you’re about as nonplussed about that word as I am, then please suppress your yawn and try to read on. “Why,” I thought, “would the word ‘culture’ be chosen as the word of the year for 2014? What makes that word so special or indicative of the previous year?”

Well, I did a little search and discovered that since 2008, Merriam-Webster’s process for selecting the top words for the year is based solely upon the number of times a word was looked up in the online dictionary. The word ‘culture’ is Merriam Webster’s word of the year for 2014 because it is the word that was looked up the most times online!

My assumption is that people were reading or seeing the word ‘culture’ being used, were unclear as to what the word meant or how it was being used, and then went to an online dictionary to find out. The thing is, when you look up the word ‘culture’ in Merriam-Webster what you find is a variety of definitions, several of which include the word, ‘etc.’ In my mind, whenever one uses the word ‘etc.’ in the definition of a word, the definition actually becomes less, not more, precise.

‘Culture’ versus ‘Pop Culture’

And, therein is the difficulty of all talk and discussions of ‘culture’: it’s a slippery term which is much more all-encompassing than most people think. When I hear people use the word ‘culture,’ I believe they are typically thinking of it as a separate, quantifiable, finite entity with a personality and will of its own (as in “the culture is against us!”). Frankly, I’m not even sure what that means. What I think most people mean when they use the word ‘culture’ is popular culture, those messages and values which inundate us through various media (e.g., internet, cable, television, radio, newspaper). This is the culture that Carl Trueman warns about in a recent article, “A Comedy of Moral Errors.” Trueman shows how the entertainment industry, particularly with regard to sexual ethics, is promulgating its anti-traditionalist and anti-Christian message through the narratives of sitcoms and news media. [By the way, I’ve previously written on the differentiation between high, folk, and pop culture here.]

In my opinion, one of the best explanations of what popular culture is and isn’t, may be found in an article by Ken Myers written for Modern Reformation in 1997, brilliantly entitled, “Is ‘Popular Culture’ Either?” Myers argues that popular culture is actually, by definition, not popular: it doesn’t come from the people, but from a particular group of elites who are promulgating a message with a particular agenda. In this way, popular culture actually devolves to become mere propaganda. I read this article when it was first published and it has had a profound impact on my thinking throughout the years. At the end of the article, Myers gives two suggestions for how the Church may respond and counter the effects of popular culture: displaying loving and redemptive authority and insisting on its identity as an inter-generational community. I recommend reading Myer’s article in its entirety.

Toward a Definition of Culture

As I said, I believe that when most people use the word ‘culture’ they are often referring to the impulses and agenda of popular culture as manifested in various media. But what is ‘culture’ really? Again, Ken Myers is extremely helpful when he offers this definition of culture (this time from his book All God’s Children in Blue Suede Shoes: Christians and Popular Culture, p 34):

What sort of being is a culture? It’s not a person. It’s not even an institution, like the church or the state or the family. It is instead a dynamic pattern, an ever-changing matrix of objects, artifacts, sounds, institutions, philosophies, fashions, enthusiasms, myths, prejudices, relationships, attitudes, tastes, rituals, habits, colors, and loves, all embodied in individual people, in groups and collectives and associations of people (many of whom do not know they are associated), in books, in buildings, in the use of time and space, in wars, in jokes, and in food.


Defined in such a manner (a manner which I believe to be both accurate and helpful), we may find some clarity in how we ought to think and not think about culture. For one thing, culture is not something that we can separate ourselves from and analyze objectively. As Myer’s points out, culture is not a person, an institution, or a thing; it is a collection of people, institutions, artifacts, ideas, songs, clothes, etc. (there’s that ubiquitous ‘etc.’ again!).

Also, this definition helps us to see that since the coming of Christ, there is no such thing as a biblically defined ‘Christian culture.’ A particular church or denomination may have a peculiar culture which is unique to that group of people or institution, but we must be careful to not think of any ‘culture’ (as defined above) as particularly ‘Christian’ (that is, defined and regulated by Scripture). This was one of the main problems and erroneous assumptions of Constantinianism and Christian colonialism.

A Conference on Christianity and Culture

More could and should be said on this topic. That’s kind of my point. More will be said on this topic at the Midland Reformed Theological Conference coming up on February 20-21, 2014 to be held at our church. Our speaker, Dr. David VanDrunen, will be speaking on “In the World but Not of the World: A Reformed Two Kingdoms Perspective on Christianity and Culture.” [Some of you who have become callused and cynical by the salesmanship and propaganda of the media of popular culture are now thinking, “Wait! I’ve been reading an advertisement this whole time!” Honestly, my point has been to stimulate your thinking about some of the terms that we use and the assumptions that we make with respect to how Christians ought to think about culture. But, yes, if it also stimulates your interest in the conference – so be it!]

Let me close with a little bit more food for thought by giving Dr. VanDrunen the last word. Here is how he defines culture and a bit of an introduction to what to expect at the upcoming conference (from Living in God’s Two Kingdoms: A Biblical Vision for Christianity and Culture, p 32):

In a broad sense, culture refers to all of the various human activities and their products, as well as the way in which we interpret them and the language we use to describe them. Interpretation and language, as well as the products themselves, are crucial parts of culture because the same product can serve very different functions in different contexts. In this broad sense of culture, practically everything we do is ‘cultural,’ whether activities of high culture or popular culture, or mundane tasks like brushing our teeth. Not only nation-states but also neighborhoods, universities, athletic leagues, families, churches, and all sorts of other things have their own cultures, which are often overlapping. In a book such as this, I do not use the term ‘culture’ in an overly precise or technical way. I use it primarily to refer to the broad range of activities – scientific, artistic, economic, etc. – in which human beings engage. The popular expression, ‘Christianity and culture,’ which appears in the subtitle of this book, simply refers to the variety of questions that emerge how Christians and the church are to relate to these broad activities of human culture and how Christian faith affects our interpretation of them.


The Lord be with you!
- Pastor Peter M. Dietsch