Christian culture stands in need of a definition. Today’s world lacks a good understanding of both Christianity and culture, perhaps because it is uncomfortable with the idea of definition in the first place. Definition, after all, is an exclusive business, and exclusivity has fallen on hard times. We have lost the obsessive desire of Socrates to discover the precise meaning of words, not to mention his conviction that this desire is the ally, not the enemy, of true friendship and hospitality.
The term “culture” is often used for the characteristic beliefs, practices, and artifacts of some group of people. Such usage is understandable, for culture does involve such things. As a definition, however, this does not get at the heart of what culture is. It invites the attitude of a sociologist interested in cataloging a set of more or less neutral facts in his encyclopedia. Let us try instead to think of culture as the practice of human cultivation. As practice, culture is not an inert reportable fact, but a living activity to be undertaken. For this reason, it makes as little sense to speak of “cultures” in the plural as it would to speak of “architectures” or “gardenings.” As cultivation, culture is not neutral, for it can be more or less successful. We cannot sit back and observe “cultural diversity” in a disinterested way, any more than a farmer can sit back and observe diverse ways of cultivating soybeans as though the way one chooses makes no difference to whether the plants flourish or wilt. As human, culture is exclusively concerned with that which distinguishes us from the animals: in particular, culture directs our understanding to what is true, our will to what is good, and our discernment to what is beautiful.
Human judgment of this kind needs to be cultivated in a community. A man cannot thrive alone, like a weed in a sidewalk crack. Aristotle remarks in his Politics that whoever does not need community must be either a beast or a god. The fundamental unit of human community is the household, specifically one which focuses more on cultivating human virtue or excellence than it does on material goods, even though providing material goods is one of its functions.
A household requires an authority structure governed by virtue. Aristotle’s example of a household virtue is courage. A husband, who is by nature the authority, exemplifies courage in commanding; a wife, having a different nature, exemplifies the same virtue in obeying. Children, who have yet another nature, obey their father in a different way. When natural authority is respected by all, virtue can be passed down to the next generation; a boy raised in a virtuous home by a courageous father will one day do the same for his own household.
Even the highest household authority, however, is not absolute. No human father is perfectly wise, and no son has a perfect memory or perfect obedience. For this reason, authority also involves respect for a tradition that predates and survives any one particular authority. As G. K. Chesterton spoke of a “democracy of the dead,” we might say that a household or a community that neglects tradition is committing cultural election fraud. This does not mean tradition has absolute authority, but it does mean it has default authority. The authority of tradition does not dictate that we never change, but it does place the burden of proof on the one who wants to change. Tradition does not bar us from asking questions, but it does reveal that such questions are best asked in conversation with a certain body of respectable texts, stories, art, and music. Understood in this way, tradition is not about stuffing old ideas into the cramped theater of your mind. Rather, tradition is about allowing your mind to stretch—sometimes painfully—to fill cathedrals built long ago.
Culture, then, is the practice of cultivating human judgment in communities, especially households, which look to their proper authorities and to the authority of tradition as they cultivate human virtue or flourishing. What about Christian culture in particular? As with culture in general, we cannot, like the sociologist, simply observe some behaviors of those who call themselves Christian, report our findings, and refer to what we have observed as “Christian culture.” It will be much more fruitful to ask what a prescriptively Christian version of culture, as defined above, will look like.
What makes something Christian is, of course, Christ Himself. He is not just the truest, best, and most beautiful thing, but Truth, Goodness, and Beauty absolutely speaking—that which makes everything else true, good, or beautiful. It follows that Christian culture has a uniquely strong capacity for producing great cultural works. It also follows that culture which fails to recognize Christ is defective and cultivates its members imperfectly.
This does not mean that Christian culture has nothing to do with non-Christians. On the contrary, Christian culture is maximally open to both them and their great works. Since Christian culture understands Jesus as the cause of all that is good, it can easily organize the good activities and creations of non-Christians into their proper context. It is actually non-Christian culture that is closed off and defective, since it inevitably orders its goods into a pantheon of idols, and so misunderstands what they are and what they are worth. Non-Christian culture experiences Jesus as a destructive rock, like the one that smashed Nebuchadnezzar’s statue (Dan. 2, Mt. 21). In Christian culture, where Jesus is the cornerstone, all the temple furnishings fall into place—some, to be sure, into the garbage heap.
Christian culture recognizes the core importance of individual households (Dt. 6), but it also recognizes the household of faith. This stands in contrast to secular political philosophy, which is likely to say that anything larger than a home must be governed by norms different in kind from household ones. In spite of this, Christians see each other as genuine brothers and sisters—even more truly so than their biological siblings, since their heavenly Father is a truer father, and the Church a truer mother, than any earthly parents. (For many, of course, their biological siblings will be their closest Christian ones.) Like a human family, practitioners of Christian culture hold everything in common, avoiding the merciless ways of the marketplace.
Since Christian culture is blessed with an inerrant God and a verbally inspired divine revelation, it has a uniquely strong understanding of authority. Even the greatest human tradition includes errors, and if it lacks the direct words of God, it can only ever be an authority by default. Christian culture, by contrast, has the Word of God, and so recognizes the one absolute authority in which all human authority has its root. This is why the first three commandments have to do with God, while earthly parents get pushed to commandment four.
Divine cultural authority is absolute not just in strength but in duration. While the texts and artwork of non-Christian culture provide an authoritative space for thought and feeling, their authority can change over time. Aristotelian virtue theory, though it refers to Homer’s authoritative poetry, is a real advance in Greek culture, and this would continue to be recognized as such by the medieval West. By contrast, nothing in Christian culture is an advance on the Word and the Sacraments, even if it is an unprecedentedly apt expression of them, for the Word of the Lord endures forever. This is why Christian culture focuses on the memorization and learning of specific biblical texts (Dt. 6). God’s words are to be discussed often, especially in the household, as they apply to our actual lives. They are to be written on our hearts—written, not recast into something better!
This fundamental centrality of God’s Word exposes one more distinguishing factor of Christian culture. Understood in a natural way, culture focuses on virtues—excellences of character or intellect which we can consider and pursue with more or less accuracy. Christian culture, by contrast, prioritizes direct knowledge of the commands and declarations of God (Ps. 119). Abstract consideration of human excellences, however noble they may be, is of secondary importance. This insight drove Luther beyond his Scholastic predecessors, ethically speaking (his own endorsements of virtue notwithstanding). Virtue theory is one step removed from Word and Sacrament. This is why, whatever good may come of its revival in Lutheran circles, virtue as a concept should not determine our homespun conversation about the Christian life. Virtue must not be pushed to center stage. Only the Word of God, incarnate and preached, belongs there.