How do you “make a culture”?

How do you “make a culture”? June 23, 2017


A few years back there was a flash of enthusiasm among people who read books published by InterVarsity Press for something called “culture making”. The idea, as I recall, had something to do with creativity, that and the notion that Christians shouldn’t be preoccupied with politics, or even apologetics. The world could use more beautiful things, and if Christians made more of them, they’d be more attractive. If I’ve misrepresented this, please forgive me. But it is the impression I felt at a distance.

Whether or not I have that particular moment just right, there are a number of people of my acquaintance who do believe what I’ve just outlined. While I feel some sympathy for this, there are a number of problems with the outlook. For one thing, what constitutes “culture making”? How do you do that? As I said, I have the impression that it’s an artsy thing: painting, composing music, even building buildings; those things constitute culture. Perhaps there’s more: traditions, holidays, good food, and so on, but artifacts are its essence.

But the Shakers had all those things, and their accomplishments were remarkable in some respects. But the Shakers are dead–and if not entirely dead–as good as dead–primarily because their culture failed to make people. (They abolished the family and men and women lived separate, celibate lives. I wrote about them here.)

I think the culture makers I’ve tried to describe have got it backward. Culture is primarily the art of making people. And art, as the culture makers think of it, is just one of the ingredients for doing that.

IMG_2603It is surprising how many people take people for granted. (For the Malthusians among us, they’re more of a problem than a blessing.) But people aren’t just granted, they’re made, And this brings me to a book about making people in the proper way. It is Joseph C. Atkinson’s remarkable study, Biblical and Theological Foundations of the Family.

I had heard the author interviewed by Ken Myers on the Mars Hill Audio Journal. What struck me, apart from the impression that I really ought to read the book, was the fact that it had taken so long for someone to write the thing.

Again, perhaps I am missing something, but most of the things I see published by the Christian press take the family for granted. The family is never justified theologically, or its purposes understood. It’s role in the Bible, and its place in revelation and its functions in the doctrine of salvation, amazingly, are unexplained. The meaning of the family for most evangelicals is assumed to be love, as in love makes a family. Why this should be limited to what we have come to call the nuclear family, traditionally understood, is unclear.

I suspect this is why things like “gay marriage” disturb people so deeply. Evangelicals sense there is something wrong with recent innovations when it comes to living arrangements between consenting adults, but they’re not entirely sure why. Maybe the more intrepid will muster a few proof-texts, and paste together a few arguments based on the findings of psychology or sociology. Some people may even resort to Natural Law (I have much sympathy for these folks). But the myriad of ways the natural family is integral to both the Christian doctrines of creation and redemption remains unexplored territory. One quick example of what I mean: Jesus referred to himself as the bridegroom. This implies the biological realities of sex, i.e., male and female, as well as the legal institution of covenants. These are not just notions intended to illustrate something else–these realities are lived. And they are integral to the Christian faith. Yet, the lines connecting these lived realities to salvation are seldom drawn.

Atkinson doesn’t address “gay marriage” or any of the shibboleths of our time that help us identify the beautiful people. He’s interested in the biblical and theological basis of the family. And while love is at the heart of it, he doesn’t use an emotion to gloss over all its fascinating and indelible detail. In this case, God is in the details. He tells the story of how a particular household was formed, that being Abraham’s, and how that household eventually became the Christian household.

To be continued.

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