A Biblical View of Culture - extract from Culture and Context module


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Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” (Genesis 1:26–28)

In the opening verses of Genesis 1, we see God create the heavens and the earth by his word; we witness him giving them increasingly complex form. From a formless void, God shapes, subdues, and fills creation. On the sixth day, humanity is created and enters an already ordered world as God’s image-bearers. We do not have to look far for an understanding of what it means to be his image-bearers: humanity is told to fill and subdue the earth—two things that God himself has been doing for the first 25 verses.

The word “fill” has the sense of completing or replenishing the creation. As people made after God’s likeness, humanity has the job of completing creation. The finished creation was prepared for us to develop it, to add complexity to it, as we see Adam doing in Genesis 2. God made the animals and put them in their place in the creation through his word, and then Adam was invited to add a layer of complexity. He named the animals, adding a mediating system. This is the first act of science—taking up the world through creating categories. Adam translated the animal kingdom into something understandable through a mediating meaning-making labelling system.

Similarly, Genesis 2 also shows us the beginning of the arts, as Adam reacts to his first encounter with Eve with an outburst of poetry. He takes up another aspect of creation and applies another set of mediators to describe his partner. Both his poetic rendering of his experience of meeting Eve and his scientific categorising add something to creation. They order and beautify. In this sense they also show us something of what it means to follow God’s command to image him by subduing creation.

“To subdue” does not mean “to suppress”. It gets its meaning from what God has been doing in Genesis 1:3–25; that is, ordering material and fashioning it into something useful and beautiful. As we harness, craft, beautify, and refine creation through literary practice, painting, interior design, adding maps and trails to woodlands for walkers, or peering at microbes on petri dishes, we image God. In other words, as image-bearers, our role is to translate creation.

Filling and subduing work toward a specific purpose. The ultimate purpose is to image God in creation. We do that as we act on the world—translate it—to make a home for ourselves in the world. Genesis 2 shows us that the command to fill and subdue the earth was to be carried out as an act of making a home. In Genesis 2:5, we read that God had made the heavens and the earth, but there was no man to work the ground. In verse 7, God creates the first man, and then in verses 8–14 the writer describes the Garden of Eden. The garden was filled with rich resources (gold, onyx, bdellium, trees) and was well watered by the rivers flowing out from Eden. Here God places Adam to cultivate the garden under God’s rule (2:15). As the narrative leads us through the description of the garden as unworked (2:5) and the list of resources, it leads us to the expectation that Adam’s job was not simply gardening, but development of his garden home. Adam’s task has become known as the “cultural mandate”.

Making a home in the world is more than simply making a shelter. It is about making wild woods suitable for Sunday walks and educational purposes. It is about making public spaces for bringing people together. It is about festivals and civic events like ‘Streets Alive’ in my home town, where all sorts of local cultures find expression through the public display of art and various forms of entertainment.

As we have seen, Adam’s home-making begins with the birth of science and poetry. Science is a way of carving out a dwelling for us in the world. It is a way of understanding the world through a set of mediators that allow us to analyse and articulate the world in new ways, and harness it to make life better. Poetry is another way of giving us a foothold in creation: we take up and creatively re-articulate aspects of the world through artistic use of language.

Culture is the response to the call of God to cultivate the garden. And it is performed corporately. The nuts and bolts of culture are about taking up the world together to translate it into a place where meaning-making and cultural production can flourish, generating creative and multicultural ways of making a dwelling in the world, in community, under God’s word. The Bible starts in a garden filled with resources and the beginnings of the human race; it ends in a new creation, a garden-city, a developed Eden in which God dwells with his multicultural people.

What we see, then, in Genesis is the nuts and bolts of culture in our image-bearer design. We are, by design, translators through mediators of creation, as we fulfil the command to fill and subdue—taking up the world and fashioning it in order to make a home for ourselves.

But our understanding of the nuts and bolts of culture goes deeper in Genesis 1 and 2. We have seen that translation and mediation—the processes of taking up the world to fill and subdue it—are part of our image-bearing nature. But these chapters also show that we cultivate the world through one primary mediator: God’s word. For that word has already organised the world.

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Beth Butler