Defining “Culture”

In my Theology of Culture class a few predominant issues keep pushing their way into the forefront of my mind.  One of these is the fundamental problem of defining what we mean by “culture.” 

One of the reasons this is a major issue is due to the influence of H. Richard Niebuhr’s sweeping definition, in which the term draws a net wide enough to catch every human activity.  This “monolithic” definition has been aptly critisized by John Howard Yoder, who believes the term is defined so broadly in part to highlight the inadequacy of certain Niebuhrian types (not coincidentally, the type that Yoder is closest to, the “Christ Against Culture” type) and the superiority of the “Christ Transofrms Culture,” the type that Niebuhr favors.  In fact, Yoder believes that this problematic understanding of culture, when set against Niebuhr’s equally polarizing definition of Christ, sets the discussion on an inevitable course towards Niebuhr’s preference.  The terms as so defined give Niebuhr rhetorical leverage over the opinions of his readers, leaving any conclusion but his inescapable  if his understandings of culture and Christ are correct.

While Yoder’s critique is a powerful one, it seems in most of my research the issue of how to conceptualize culture is a perennially difficult task.  The struggle appears to avoid being overly vague, lest the term become vacuous, to simply be filled in with the author’s presuppositions, or to define culture too narrowly, degenerating into sectarianism and ironically falling into the same trap as “monolithic” understandings.

In the face of such complexity, how can an adequate definition be found?  To be able to define the term in a way that is anthropologically sensitive while being fundamentally theological is one of my hopes for this course.


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