Culture as Hammer

Has culture become a took in the kit of a narcissistic elite?

Terry Eagleton's book, Culture, provides valuable insight to the nature of culture and the role it performs in human life. Throughout, he compares culture – for which he has a narrow view – to civilization – which he seems to regard as that which culture produces, and which sustains culture. 

I think of culture more expansively than what it seems Terry Eagleton does, more along the lines of what he refers to as civilization. However, for me, civilization is more the sum total of culture than coterminous with it, and describes a common social order existing over time, as people engage culture to their own ends. Civilization is made up of culture, and culture is a human enterprise at every level of society and civilization.

The varieties of culture and civilization mean that we must exercise some judgment. Culture is relative in many ways, but not absolutely so. There are standards for culture which obtain in nearly every culture – what Lewis would call the Tao. Not every cultural practice is acceptable or beneficial. We must pass judgment on culture, and to do this we must have certain agreed-upon standards or criteria for judging. 

Culture is the collective unconscious of a people, developed over time, and encoded in such forms as language, lore, and law. It is deeply rooted, and functions mainly as a set of assumptions or givens. Culture gives rise to civilization.

At another level, culture is the work of an elite coterie who, in touch with the common culture, use culture to refine or reshape culture and society according to some ideal vision. More narrowly, as with Oscar Wilde, culture is the fruit of leisure pursuits of an artistic nature, the life for which all are intended, but which the necessities of material existence keep ever out of their grasp, except for an elite coterie.

Culture can be a tool of political power, as has been especially the case since the 19th century: “What happens with the rise of revolutionary nationalism, however, is that culture ceases to be part of the solution and instead becomes part of the problem. It is no longer the sworn enemy of politics; rather, it is the very idiom in which political demands are framed, articulated and fought out.” In the modern age, the line between culture and civilization was blurred, and culture became a tool of power, whether political, commercial, racial, or national.

For many people, culture has taken the place of God, as the focus of our faith and hope, and the means of our salvation. However, instead of lifting and saving us, culture has ensnared us, like a Venus fly trap, and is reducing us, by means of pop culture, to a mere semblance of itself.

Terry Eagleton is not encouraged by the state of culture today. He seems to think that culture no longer exists as a values-shaping or -preserving enterprise. Instead, culture is merely a tool in the kit of those who intend to manipulate power and wealth to their own ends. He may be right.

All the more reason for Christians to be more conscientious about their involvement in culture, whether artifacts, institutions, or conventions. Two books in our bookstore to guide your thinking about the Christian’s role in culture are Redeeming Pop Culture and Christians on the Front Lines of the Culture Wars.

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