Karl Barth was reportedly fond of saying, "We must hold the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other." These days one could recast the old adage as "hold the Bible in one hand and the TV remote in the other" or "hold the Bible in one hand and an iPad in the other."

Regardless of which media is chosen, the point remains the same: Christians, and especially church leaders, need to know both the biblical text and the cultural circumstances into which its truths are preached. Paul perhaps set an early example as "he reasoned … in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there." (Acts 17:17 emphasis added)

There is, of course, no lack of interest in culture in most Christian circles today. But I suspect that all too often it's solely with an interest in blaming culture (for our societal ills) or changing culture (to overcome our ills), without first seeking to simply understand culture. Worse, this culture-blaming and culture-changing often fails to properly understand the very nature of culture itself. Current behavior gets mistaken for enduring norms.

Defining culture

In my business consulting with companies, I usually describe corporate culture as that set of behaviors that remain the same after there has been 100% turnover in personnel. For example, over the course of a decade working at a particular consultancy, I witnessed our staff of a half-dozen or so administrative assistants turn over several times; but certain attitudes and activity remained—despite the fact that not a single individual remained from the group I had first encountered in the office.

To give this definition broader, more academic validation, consider the perspective offered in James Davison Hunter's book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Culture, says Hunter, "is a slow product of history." He cites Pierre Bourdieu's treatment of the Aristotelian and Thomist concept of habitus as "the past which lives in the present" and "history turned into nature."

Hunter adds that this second nature "organizes a way of being, and not just a course of action, and it does so in a way that makes our understanding of the world and our way of life seem natural. For these historical reasons, culture is highly resilient, durable over time."

Lesson of the sundial

Consider my favorite example for illustrating the durability of culture over time: our timekeeping devices. Note the overwhelming prevalence of this type of clock:

versus this one:

Why? Because of the abiding significance of high noon. Today's dominant clock design is just a modern mechanized manifestation of the age-old sundial:

Our current clock is but the past clock living on in the present!

Let's expand our examination of timekeeping to that of time zones. Ever have someone from a faraway region ask you on the phone, "What time is it where you are?" Seldom does one answer (as I do), "Why, it's the same time as where you are!" (For now is now.)

The question stems from man's invention of time zones. But why do we even have time zones? Answer: the railroad. The advent of passenger travel via train represented, for the first time in human history, an ability to move from one place to another at such speed that the difference in "local times" (as determined by the sundial) could be detected. One would travel for three actual hours, as one's pocketwatch would signify, but the local time at one's destination, as determined by the sun, might suggest just two-and-half hours. So we invented time zones to standardize the adjustment of timepieces when traveling long distance.

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