What Is Culture?

Some Scholarly Definitions of Culture

“The system of shared beliefs, values, customs, behaviors, and artifacts that the members of society use to cope with their world and with one another, and that are transmitted from generation to generation through learning.”

–Brian Schwimmer, University of Manitoba

“A culture is a way of life of a group of people–the behaviors, beliefs, values, and symbols that they accept, generally without thinking about them, and that are passed along by communication and imitation from one generation to the next.”

“Culture is the sum total of the learned behavior of a group of people that are generally considered to be the tradition of that people and are transmitted from generation to generation.”

“Culture is a collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from another.”

“Culture refers to the cumulative deposit of knowledge, experience, beliefs, values, attitudes, meanings, hierarchies, religion, notions of time, roles, spatial relations, concepts of the universe, and material objects and possessions acquired by a group of people in the course of generations through individual and group striving.”

–Ifte Choudhury, Texas A&M University

“Culture is our common human endeavor; a historical process carried on from generation to generation that bonds us together in the community of humankind.”

–William Romanowski

“Culture is that activity of man, the image-­bearer of God, by which he fulfills the creation mandate to cultivate the earth, to have dominion over it and to subdue it.”

–Henry Van Til


Characteristics of Culture

Culture is a shared, learned, symbolic system of values, beliefs, and attitudes that shapes and influences perception and behavior – an abstract “mental blueprint” or “mental code” that describes and defines, consciously and unconsciously, who and what a group of people is all about.

  • It is shared (no “culture of one”).
  • It is mutually constructed through constant social interactions.
  • It is learned through communication and imitation. In fact, the process of learning one’s culture (not about culture, but how to act and understand things within it) is called enculturation. [e.g., parents teaching “polite” behavior… teens imitating the behaviors of “popular” peers and celebrities]
  • It is symbolic… it includes things (e. g., artifacts), but these things also mean something (e.g., designer clothes mean success) and/or facilitate something (e. g., cell phone enables instant communication), and these things that they mean and/or facilitate both reflect and become what we value.
  • It is internalized, that is, it is habitual, taken for granted, and, if thought about at all, is perceived as somehow “natural” or “obvious” We generally don’t think about it. Instead, we just “go with the flow.”
  • It is arbitrary, not based on “natural laws” that somehow are built into the physical fabric of the universe, but instead, based on the “whims” of society (e.g., standards of polite behavior, standards of beauty). This is why the culture of one group of people can be quite different from the culture of another group of people.Why Study Culture?

Why Study Culture?

Culture is Biblical

“God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

–Genesis 1:28

“The Lord God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.”

–Genesis 2:15

The term “culture” has meant many things to many people. In this book I use the term to designate that activity of man, the image-bearer of God, by which he fulfills the creation mandate to cultivate the earth, to have dominion over it and to subdue it. The term is also applied to the result of such activity, namely, the secondary environment which has been superimposed upon nature by man’s creative effort. Culture, then, is not a peripheral concern, but of the very essence of life. It is an expression of man’s essential being as created in the image of God, and since man is essentially a religious being, it is expressive of his relationship to God, that is, of his religion.

That man as a covenantal creature is called to culture cannot be stressed too much. For the Lord God, who called him into being, also gave him the cultural mandate to replenish the earth and to have dominion over it. David was so filled with ecstasy at this glory-filled vocation that he exclaimed in awe and wonder: “What is man, that thou art mindful of him?… For thou hast made him a little lower than God, And crownest him with glory and honor… Thou hast put all things under his feet.”

–Henry Van Til

We need be discerning, to honestly evaluate our culture, and to participate in its redemption

“Culture is lived religion.”

–T.S. Eliot

“Is culture godly or ungodly? It depends on the spirit which animates it.”

–Henry Van Til

“Discernment is love making a right distinction between that which moves us closer to God and that which moves us farther away.”

–St. Augustine

“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

–Matthew 28:19-20a


Readings & Resources:

Nonfiction Project (Google Doc)
UCLA Today: Mission accomplished for center on middle-class families
University of Caligornia: Book documents cluttered paradise of middle-class
Family Culture Inventory (Google Doc)
Abandoned Farmhouse (Google Doc)

School Culture (Google Doc)

Colorado Culture (Google Doc)
Symbolic Word Work (Google Doc)