Monday, October 4, 2010

What Culture is Not

C.K. Rowe on what culture cannot mean:

Culture cannot mean: a sphere of life that exists in independence from God (cf. Acts 17:24, 26). In this respect H. Richard Niebuhr's famous book 'Christ and Culture' is the example par excellence of how not to speak of culture: in Niehbuhrian grammar, Christ is one thing, culture another. Whatever this teaches us about Niehbuhr's thought, it is emphatically not what the word culture could mean if it is to be employed rightly in relation to the text of Acts. Indeed... Jesus is Lord of all (Acts 10:36).

Culture cannot mean: a piece of reality that is separable from other basic aspects of a total pattern of life. When historian David Cherry, for example writes of the effects of Roman presence in North Africa, he separates what belongs inherently together. "There is in fact no evidence to show that there was any really significant measure of cultural change in the region during the period of Roman occupation. It might be supposed instead that the main consequences of the coming of the Romans were economic and social." Contra Cherry, economic and social consequences are not non-cultural but are instead bound up with what it would mean to speak of cultural consequences in the first place. Precisely to the degree that the Romans affected social and economic life, they also effected cultural change.

Culture cannot mean: a static backdrop to the text of Acts, as if Acts itself were somehow sealed off from and did not partake of Graeco-Roman culture; or a pristine reality that Acts attempts to form, as if the new culture that Acts seeks to narrate was to retain nothing from the old. It is of course that the 'culturally fluid' situation of the late antique period bears little resemblance to the situation Acts describes. But if we are to speak of culture in relation to Acts, we cannot think in terms of entirely isolated forms of life. To take one obvious example: when the Christian community bursts the conceptual framework of Graeco-Roman altruism by engaging in radical economic redistribution (Acts 2:43-47; 4:32-37), they did not attempt to erect their own mint and strike 'Christian' coins for use in the network of house churches. The governor Felix hopes for Paul's collection money not for spiritual reasons but because he can use it (Acts 24:17, 23, 26).


P.D. said...

This is excellent. Is this whole thing a quote or your thoughts?

I still have the same questions, but this has eliminated some possible answers.

John Paulling said...

This is one long quotation. All from Rowe's book, 'World Upside Down.'

It really is a remarkable book, on the whole. I am reading Leithart's book on exegesis, and it is fascinating how much these two men are on the same page. Especially with the first point that Rowe makes. In any kind of interpretation the cultural husk cannot be torn from the kernel, and thrown away (we've talked about this numerous times before, I know). Yet, when you think about it in the terms that Rowe uses, it becomes even more provocative. Literally, Christ and culture cannot be neatly separated. To me, that is a breathtaking statement.