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Culture, Culture, Every Where

But scarcely a whiff of glory.

What Is Culture? (1)

Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.
1 Corinthians 10.31

Where is the glory?
In Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s 1798 poem, “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”, a cruel and contemptuous act imperils and ultimately destroys a ship and its crew, leaving alive only the perpetrator of the crime to spend the rest of his life in rueful confession and repentance.

As the sailing ship was in danger of becoming icebound in Antarctic waters, an elegant, graceful albatross appeared to lead the ship to warm winds. In a meaningless act of sport, the Mariner—who recites his crime in this poem—shot the albatross with his crossbow. The crew, incensed, forced him to wear the dead albatross around his neck, while the consequences of his crime began to unfold. The ship was becalmed, and the hot sun beat down day by day on the thirsting crew. The tragedy of their plight is captured in the familiar lines,

Water, water every where,
And not a drop to drink.

Water which could have saved their lives was withheld as death overtook the crew, except for the Mariner. He would return to land to repeat his dreary confessional for the rest of his days.

“Water, water every where…” This tragic poem invites us to reflect on the state of culture in our day. Culture can ennoble the soul, fill the world with beauty, promote acts of goodness and compassion, and cause the knowledge of the glory of God to cover the earth as the water covers the sea. We sail in a veritable sea of culture. Culture, culture every where.

Yet where is the glory of God?

Accustomed to the stench?
One summer Susie and I drove to visit her parents in California. We made an initial stop in Kansas to visit our daughter and her family, then headed south through cattle country to intercept the interstate in Texas.

As we drove through miles and miles of cattle pens on either side of the road, a stench invaded our car. The day was hot, and before long the stifling air became oppressive. No amount of turning up the AC in our car could keep us from nearly choking. Air, air everywhere, but not a fresh breath to be found.

Then suddenly, on the left, we saw a group of people gathered around a picnic table surrounded by thousands of head of cattle. They were eating and enjoying themselves, altogether untroubled by the powerful smell all around. They had adapted to the stench, of course, and whereas we could hardly wait to escape it, they seemed right at home and content.

For many observers, modern culture has become a stifling atmosphere. Culture is like a stagnant pool for some critics, abounding in interesting features but lacking in true beauty. Others see culture today as oppressive, depriving us of peace of mind. Still others lament that culture demeans us with its penchant for triviality, violence, and sex. Many Christians have written or spoken about what they regard as the depraved state of contemporary culture. They hope to wake up those who have become accustomed to the stench and lead them, like the albatross, into sweeter cultural breezes. Contemporary culture, these critics opine, is threatening to destroy us, the consequence of our having shot dead the better spirits of culture—that is, classical Western civilization—so that we are becalmed in a stifling death cycle.

The good in culture
Culture, which might with elegance and grace lead us into warm currents of beauty, goodness, and truth, is today more likely to appeal to mere sensuality, base self-interest, and the worship of things. This is not true for all aspects of culture, however. Only for those which first come to mind when the word “culture” is introduced.

But what, precisely, is culture? The arts are culture. Film, literature, music, and so on. So are television, social media, video games, online gambling, and a host of other diversions. Politics is culture, as is government. Our work, the tools we use to do our work, the vehicles that take us there, the clothes we wear, homes we inhabit, furnishings that fill those homes; the language we use, whether speaking, texting, or drafting a proposal—this, too, is culture. Much of this culture is undeniably good and useful, although hardly any of it points us beyond culture to higher values and nobler aspirations.

Culture, culture every where, but scarcely a whiff of glory.

Yet Paul says that “whatever we do”, even down to such quotidian activities as eating and drinking—also forms of culture—should be done to the glory of God. All our use of culture is a way we can honor, praise, and celebrate the goodness of God. This is because all the good things we as human beings make, use, enjoy, share, and pass along to others come ultimately from the hand of our good and sovereign God. Every good and perfect gift is from God, Who lavishes His kindness on the just and unjust alike (Jms. 1.17; Matt. 5.43-45).

It’s up to us whether we use these gifts merely for our own ends or to glorify Him.

We need to understand culture and appreciate it more if we are going to use culture as God intends—for His glory. The repentant Mariner’s lesson must be ours as well as we begin in this series to think about using all of culture in every aspect of our lives for the praise and glory and Kingdom of our God. Coleridge concludes:

He prayeth best who loveth best
All things both great and small;
For the dear God who loveth us,
Hath made and loveth all.

For reflection
1. What is culture? Why do we have it?

2. How diverse is your involvement with culture? What does the culture you use include?

3. Can culture be a negative thing? Explain.

Next steps—Preparation: Looking at question 2, make a list—and keep it with you to add to it—of all the ways you are involved with culture. In how many of those ways are you conscious of seeking to glorify God with your cultural life?

T. M. Moore

Two books on culture are available to accompany this series on “A Christian Approach to Culture.” Christians on the Front Lines of the Culture Wars shows how important it is that we consider culture as a way of bringing glory to God. Order your copy by clicking here. Redeeming Pop Culture examines the nature of pop culture and some ways we can make good use of it for God’s glory. Order your copy by clicking here.

Support for ReVision comes from our faithful and generous God, who moves our readers to share financially in our work. If this article was helpful, please give Him thanks and praise.

And please prayerfully consider supporting The Fellowship of Ailbe with your prayers and gifts. You can contribute online, via PayPal or Anedot, or by sending a gift to The Fellowship of Ailbe, 103 Reynolds Lane, West Grove, PA 19390.

Except as indicated, all Scriptures are taken from the New King James Version. © Copyright 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

T.M. Moore

T. M. Moore is principal of The Fellowship of Ailbe, a spiritual fellowship in the Celtic Christian tradition. He and his wife, Susie, make their home in the Champlain Valley of Vermont.
Books by T. M. Moore

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