You May Be Able To Understand Culture, But Can You Actually Understand People?

“Culture” has become something of an evangelical buzzword in recent days. We talk about engaging the culture, renewing and redeeming the culture, transforming the culture, taking the culture for its daily walk, giving the culture a bath, etc. Basically, there’s a lot of stuff we’re going to do to the culture just as soon as we can get our hands on it – which is probably why the culture, and the dog, both hide whimpering under the bed when we get home from work.

While buzzwords tempt us to talk about something without actually understanding it, that doesn’t mean cultural engagement is merely a fad. The root desire is to bring all people – modern, post-modern, post-post-modern – to Christ and his gospel. To do that requires that we understand our age, that we be like the men of Issachar, who “had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chron. 12:32). That means we should be people who think about our culture intelligently and faithfully. Men like Tim Keller and Al Mohler have been a great help to many of us in understanding the rapidly changing world we live in, and thus getting a grip on what faithfulness to the gospel requires of us. Keller and Mohler aren’t the only ones, of course. There’s a whole host of writers, bloggers, and podcasters describing, analyzing, and evaluating every culture and subculture we can get our hands on: American culture, secular culture, Western culture, evangelical culture, young, restless, and Reformed culture.

But here’s the problem: does analyzing the culture mean you understand real people? Think about it this way.

So you can trace the history of the gay rights movement, the recent cultural and legal victories for same-sex marriage, and the threats to Christian faithfulness and religious liberty that these pose…but does that mean you understand the struggles of a Christian teen dealing with same-sex attraction? Or the middle-aged woman who, after two failed, abusive heterosexual marriages, now identifies herself as a lesbian?

So you can write a (lengthy and footnoted) paper in response to Stephen’s question, “When did ‘submission’ become such a bad word?” You can follow the post-modern trends towards suspicion of authority in multiple cultural arenas…but does that mean you understand the newly converted Christian woman who tells you over coffee she’s not sure she can submit to her still unsaved husband?

Analyzing the culture necessarily requires us to treat people in the abstract, as generalities, statistical examples of broad social trends. That’s the only way you can see the big picture patterns in how people behave. Don’t get me wrong: there’s a lot of validity to that approach! But it has its limits. And we careen violently into those limits whenever we treat a flesh-and-blood person as the generic product of a cultural assembly line.

If you like thinking about culture, if you read books about or listen to podcasts on social trends – good for you! (I do both, and don’t plan to stop.) But don’t assume that the people God brings into your life can be easily reduced to the templates your cultural analysis gives you. There’s one simple way to avoid this trap. Ask questions. Learn to be a good listener to real people, and so avoid the sin of Proverbs 18:13: “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” Remember, cultures are made up of people, and people are complex. So learn to understand them both.

My wife Anna, son Elliot, and I live in the little town of Franklin, WV. I'm a pastor. I have a degree in wildlife biology, which is useful for pastoring (actually, no). I like books, nature photography, working out, and being with my family. In a previous life I was William Wallace.