Culture as Story - extract from "Plugged In" by Dan Strange
If you went onto the street and asked people what the answer is to the ultimate question of life, the universe and everything - what do you think they’d say?
My guess is that you’d get lots of different answers (although sure, every smart alec who’s actually got to the end of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy would tell you its 42).
Why are we here? What does it all mean? How can we be happy? What is right and wrong? What things in life are important? When it comes to answering these big, foundational questions, we all have a different idea - that’s why culture, which expresses the answers, is so varied across different times and places. Remember our little definition of what culture ultimately is:
Culture is the stories we tell that express meaning about the world.
But here’s the thing: the world around us already has a meaning. So what is it?
God’s Big Reveal
As we’ve seen, being made in God’s image means that because God is a speaker and a maker, so we too speak and make. Of course, depending on the status of our spiritual roots, our cultural fruit might be ripe or it might be rotten - but we all produce something. We can’t do otherwise. It’s what it means to be human. But it is only human.
What do I mean? Bluntly, our speaking and making can’t be the same as God’s speaking and making, because he is God and we are not! He is the Creator and we are mere creatures, part of the creation. This is an obvious but crucial distinction. God creates out of nothing. Before creation, there was only God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. There was not even a speck of other stuff. But humans can’t create out of nothing. At least, I know I can’t.
So when we say that human beings “create” anything. No, we are simply culture builders, building out of stuff that’s already there. We might get to lay some track in God’s awesome cosmic model railway, but we’ve got to be given the pieces first. In this sense, we can never make culture that is truly original, because only God can do that. Although human creativity can be totally mind-blowing, we are limited in our creativity because we are creatures and not the Creator.
Let’s look a little more closely at the created materials with which we build culture - the stuff that inspires the stories we tell, the stuff out of which we make a home for ourselves in the world. Creation has God’s fingerprints all over it. As with any great artist, you can tell it’s his masterpiece just by looking at it. Creation means something about God and his identity. Creation is revelation, as David says in Psalm 19:
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.
(Psalm 19 v 1-2)
So what exactly is the “knowledge” that the world around us reveals? It’s helpful to think about what God reveals about himself in terms of shadows and sunbeams. Once we’re clear on God’s true meaning behind the world, that will help us make sense of the alternative “meaning” that human beings express through culture.
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