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Culture Sustains Us

Really, we can't do without it.

What Is Culture? (3)

He causes the grass to grow for the cattle,
And vegetation for the service of man,
That he may bring forth food from the earth,
And wine
that makes glad the heart of man,
Oil to make
his face shine,
And bread
which strengthens man’s heart. Psalm 104.14, 15

Square pegs and round holes

In the 1995 film, “Apollo 13”, NASA ground control identifies a problem on the spacecraft which, if not resolved, could lead to the death of the astronauts on board the crippled vessel. They must find a solution to the problem by looking at the resources which are available on the spacecraft and then showing the astronauts how to make a “square peg fit into a round hole.”

A hasty inventory comes up with three cardboard boxes full of assorted items like those on the spacecraft: a hose thing, a cylinder of some sort, bits of cloth, a plastic box-like item, and various other nameless stuff (probably including some duct tape). They dump the boxes out on a large table, survey the contents, then get to work, using the protocols of engineering, to find a way to save the astronauts by modifying and combining various artifacts which the astronauts can find onboard.

The scene makes a dramatic statement about human beings’ need for culture. What we mostly take for granted—reliable equipment and systems, fresh air—came suddenly into urgent focus for the astronauts on Apollo 13. They had to make something they desperately needed from other things in their immediate environment. They needed an artifact of culture to keep them alive.

This is what culture does. It sustains us.

Without culture to sustain us we become like the proverbial castaway, stranded on a desert island, awaiting a slow and agonizing death. Such a person, bereft of food or tools or shelter or any other form of culture, will at least scrawl in large letters in the sand—using the cultural convention of language—an “SOS” or “HELP” for anyone flying overhead to see.

We take for granted the culture that sustains us day by day. It’s always been there, and it will always be there. So we suppose. But the God Who gives the gifts of culture despises above all things an ungrateful heart.

From the beginning
That God created people for culture is clear from the beginning. He put the first humans in a garden which abounded with beauty and fruit-bearing plants. He appointed Adam the task of serving and guarding the garden (Gen. 2.15). In addition to the bounty of the garden, the text mentions precious metals—which would have to be mined and smelted—and powerful rivers which could be employed for a variety of purposes (transportation, irrigation, power, etc.).

But before anything productive could happen, God Himself instituted forms of culture to help Adam fulfill his calling. First, God led Adam to create a kind of primitive taxonomy as He brought the animals of the garden before him so that he could name them. This convention would make work easier and more efficient.

Next, God created the institution of marriage, so that Adam would have a complementary helper to assist him in his work and to complete the image of God in them both (Gen. 1.26-28).

God did not intend that Adam and Eve should spend their days lolling about in the garden, picking whatever fruit was within easy reach to satisfy their intermittent hunger. He meant them to work. Serving the garden required applying intelligence, skill, and labor to the plants so that they could yield their respective fruits.

But wine, bread, and oil do not grow on trees. They must be made by combining, fermenting, baking, and so forth, all activities which require certain cultural artifacts to accomplish their purpose. Adam and Eve were given to know that, as Paul would put it centuries later, if they refused to work, they would not be allowed to eat (2 Thess. 3.10). And work required culture.

Animals needed husbanding, and that would require the development of conventions for keeping and caring for flocks, herds, and other kinds of beasts. After the fall into sin, God continued to provide Adam and Eve with cultural forms—clothing, for example—to sustain them in a suddenly inhospitable environment.

From the beginning, culture has been indispensable for the survival and thriving of the image-bearers of God.

So also for us
We must not take for granted the culture God provides for us. Israel did, throughout most of the Old Testament, failing to give thanks to God and ascribing to pagan deities the blessings they enjoyed. Our lives abound in different kinds of culture. Homes, food, clothes, automobiles, computers, work, diversions, and much, much more. All these good and perfect gifts are essential to our survival and wellbeing, and every one of them comes to us from the hand of God, Who knows what we need even before we ask (Matt. 6.25-32).

God sustains us in a variety of ways, but the culture we make, use, and enjoy plays a major role in our flourishing. The children’s song that urges us to “Count your blessings, name them one by one” offers sound counsel and abundant topics for prayer. We know we must have culture, all kinds of culture, to flourish in life. And if we know that all our culture comes to us as a gift from God—for of Him and through Him and unto Him are all things, to Whom be glory forever (Rom. 11.36)—then we will give thanks for our culture, will choose our culture wisely, and use it for the glory of God and the progress of His Kingdom.

For reflection
1. List five items of culture you need every day. What would your life be like without these?

2. God uses people to make the culture we require. How should bearing that in mind help us in learning to love our neighbors?

3. When should you give thanks to God for the gifts of culture He provides?

Next Steps—Transformation: Practice offering a quick prayer of thanksgiving to God for everything you use or benefit from—some form of culture: a toothbrush, glasses, computer, or favorite pair of shoes. Keep this up until the culture you use helps you in practicing prayer without ceasing.

Following Jesus
What does it mean to follow Jesus? How does following Him affect our lives? Our course, “Disciples Making Disciples”, can help you bring your life and culture more into line with the Kingdom and glory of God. Click here to learn more and to register for this free self-study course.

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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