What is Culture?
What do we mean by “culture”? This perplexing question was asked recently by Manuel Alfonseca in his thought-provoking blog, Popular Science. “Politicians and the media do not seem quite clear about the meaning of culture,” he writes. “When people talk about the world of culture, they usually refer to issues as diverse as pop music shows, bullfighting, opera, theater, cinema, museums, university....” Mr. Alfonseca complains that such loose-talk is “an abuse of language that mixes four things quite different, though related: culture, shows, entertainment and education”.
Proceeding logically and scientifically, he seeks to define his terms by citing the Cambridge dictionary:
Culture: music, art, theatre, literature, etc.
Education: process of teaching or learning, or the knowledge you get from this.
Show: a theatre performance or a television or radio program that is entertaining rather than serious.
Entertainment: public shows, performances or other ways of enjoying yourself.
Having made the necessary distinctions, he asserts that a cultural act “should be a public celebration where attendees try to increase their culture, to get knowledge that will improve their critical judgment”. Such cultural acts would include a classical music concert, the presentation of a book, or a visit to a museum. Conversely, watching movies is not a cultural act but entertainment, says Mr. Alfonseca, because, with few exceptions, ”we do not watch a movie to increase our culture, but to enjoy ourselves”. Similarly he states that “a pop festival or a bullfight are not cultural events, but shows”.
“We can go to the opera or the theater to improve our culture,” he concedes, “but the performance itself may not be a cultural act, but a show, especially when the stage directors distort a classic work to express their originality or to shock the public.”
University professors can be considered a part of the world of culture, he says, “if they perform popularization”. Since, however, this is not their main activity, which consists primarily of education and research, they are not, properly speaking, part of the culture.
“When the media talk about the world of culture and put there actors, pop musicians (some of whom confess that they do not know music), and even DJs, they are really talking about the world of entertainment.” So says Mr. Alfonseca in clearly plaintive mode. “Let us call things by their name.”
This is all very well but not at all satisfactory. It raises more questions than it answers. It will not do.
Rather than raising the questions, let’s suggest another way of understanding what is meant by culture. As a word, and agreeing with Mr. Alfonseca, culture is too lightly used and too often abused. As a living thing it is too often taken for granted and all too often not fully appreciated for what it is. It is, therefore, time that we looked at culture with a clarity of vision that is often absent. In short, it is time to define our terms.
First, we can say that culture is human (and ultimately divine). It does not belong to, or come forth from, other animate creatures. There is no canine culture; no civilization of chimpanzees; no planet of the apes. Only people make music, write poetry, build cathedrals or paint pictures. Second, we can say that culture is creative. It is the art of making. For a Christian, the fact that something is peculiarly human marks it as a sign that man, in a way crucially different from other animals, is made in the image of God. Culture is, therefore, a mark of God’s image in us. But what sort of mark is it? It is a creative mark. It is the image of the Creator’s creativity in his creatures. Our imagination is the image of God’s Imagination in us. There is, therefore, something both human and divine in the creativity that creates culture. It is the gift of the Giver finding creative expression in the personhood of the gifted. On a mystical level one can see an image of both the Trinity and the Incarnation in this primal truth of culture. The Trinity is the eternal expression of Divine Vitality, the source of all Creativity, and the Incarnation is the eternal and temporal giving of this Divine Vitality, this Primal Gift, in the Created humanity of Christ, to mankind. On the deepest level, the Trinity and the Incarnation are the archetypes of all culture. They are the source from which all culture springs, and they are the end which all properly ordered culture serves.
This is so essentially true that it has been recognized implicitly by the pagans of antiquity and even by the atheists of modernity, by those who believed in many gods and by those who believed in no God at all. Homer and Virgil began their epics by invoking their Muse, the goddess of creativity, to pour forth her gifts into them so that they might tell their tales with truth and beauty. Even Shelley, the avowed atheist, is forced to speak of the creative gift in mystical language. In A Defense of Poetry he writes:
Poetry is not like reasoning, a power to be exerted according to the determination of the will. A man cannot say, “I will compose poetry.” The greatest poet even cannot say it; for the mind in creation is as a fading coal which some invisible influence, like an inconstant wind, awakens to transitory brightness; this power arises from within, like the color of a flower which fades and changes as it is developed, and the conscious portions of our natures are unprophetic either of its approach or its departure. Could this influence be durable in its original purity and force, it is impossible to predict the greatness of the results; but when composition begins, inspiration is already on the decline, and the most glorious poetry that has ever been communicated to the world is probably a feeble shadow of the original conceptions of the poet.
The remarkable thing about these words of Shelley, an atheist musing about his Muse, is the fact that, in the final sentence quoted above, he agrees with the memorable lines of T.S. Eliot, in “The Hollow Men”, that “between the potency and the existence falls the shadow”. For Eliot, a Christian, the falling of the shadow is itself the Shadow of the Fall; but even for Shelley, who seems to have disbelieved in the Fall and who sympathized with Milton’s Satan, the shadow still exists. There is, therefore, an amazing, and ironically amusing, convergence between the pagans, the Christians and the atheists over the mystical nature of the creative gift. The gift itself is pure and spiritual, not merely for the pagan and the Christian but for the atheist also. Shelley calls the creative Muse or gift a “spirit of good” of which (or to whom) the poet is a mere minister.
At this point one can see the emergence of obvious objections spawning awkward questions. If creativity is a gift from God, why does he permit atheists such as Shelley to abuse the gift? Worse, why does he permit awful manifestations of low culture, such as the gyrating inanities posing as music on MTV, or the obscenities and blasphemies of much modern art, or all the other manifestations of our pornocratic zeitgeist? Furthermore, can this effluent from the spiritual sewage of man’s blackened soul be called “culture”? And, if so, does culture per se have any meaningful value? In response, we should point out that God does not remove a gift the moment it is abused. Take the gift of life, for instance. If he removed the gift of life the moment we sinned, none of us would have survived puberty. As with life, so with love. The gift of love is not removed merely because many of us abuse it selfishly or lasciviously. Indeed, if the gift of love were removed the moment it was abused, our first loves would have been our last. As with life and love, so with freedom. God gave us our freedom and he doesn’t remove it the moment we abuse it. He even leaves us free to go to Hell, should we wish. And as with life, love and freedom, so with creativity. He gives us our talents, leaving us free to use them, abuse them or bury them as we will. He gives us our creative pearls and he lets us keep them or cast them before swine.
But what of the meaning of culture? Is bad art still culture? If so, what’s so special about culture? These are good questions which are best answered with other questions. What is the meaning of man? Is a sinner still a man? If so, what’s so special about man? Man is special because he’s made in the image of God. A bad man is still made in the image of God, though the image is broken. Similarly creativity is special because it is a mark of the creative image of God in man, and culture is special because it is the mark of God’s creative image in human society or, at its highest, in Christian civilization. Bad culture still bears the mark of God’s image, though it is an image distorted and broken by abuse or sin. Good culture, like a good man, must truly reflect the goodness of its Creator. Men are called to be saints and culture is called to be saintly. We need to convert the culture in the same way that we need to convert the man. Culture, like man, must repent. It must be reoriented. It must be turned again towards its source, the Giver of light and life, and the fountainhead of all Beauty.