There are two simple analogies that I have found helpful as I have chewed on the concept of culture and as I have sought to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the different cultures I have lived in (Melanesian, American, Central Asian). Anthropologist Paul G. Hiebert defines culture as “the integrated system of learned patterns of behavior, ideas, and products characteristic of a society” (Anthropological Insights for Missionaries, p. 25). While thorough and helpful for a technical understanding of culture, I find definitions of culture like this to be hard to hold onto in my brain. So here are two analogies that help make culture a bit less abstract for me.
The first is that culture is simply a corporate personality. Even those who are unfamiliar with the idea of culture are familiar with the idea of personality. Some folks are outgoing, others more reserved. Some are high energy, some more low energy. Some are direct communicators, and others not so much. Some are very particular about things while others tend to go with the flow. The possibilities for different personalities are legion. If anyone doubts just how serious the differences between personalities can be, that person needs to get married or join a church. After that, the stark reality of personality differences will be painfully obvious. This analogy works as a lesser-to-greater image. Just as your sibling, your parent, or your friend has a different personality with its own strengths, weaknesses, and quirks, so your “people” corporately have a group personality. There is a general personality to the American people and the exceptions do not invalidate the very real patterns. Americans tend to be optimistic, confident, individualistic, direct communicators, task-oriented, etc. If you are an American and think this is just what it means to be a normal human, then you’d better sit down with someone from another country and ask them about their perspective on Americans. I promise it will be an enlightening conversation. As it happens, that person from another country will also be part of his own people’s corporate personality, which comes with its own strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, and quirks. Culture can be visualized as a corporate personality.
The second analogy is that culture is like a row of glasses with only enough water for each glass to be partially filled. Each glass stands for one aspect of culture. To make one glass fuller is to make another glass emptier. Perhaps only in the culture of God himself can each glass be full. But to be part of a human society, a human culture, means to reflect the image of God in culture in a mixed and limited way. If a society is strong in honor, it will tend to be weaker in honesty. If a society has more water in the glass of personal responsibility, it will tend to have less water in the glass of corporate responsibility. There is no perfect and whole human culture. To be strong in one area is to be weak in another. Human history and experience and common sense bear this out. You cannot be strongly task-oriented and relationship-oriented at the same time, just as you can’t be both an extrovert and an introvert. Perhaps these limitations are part of the original good design for humanity, albeit distorted and weaponized by our fall into sin.
These images of partially-full glasses and corporate personalities are helpful because of the cultural equality they communicate. No culture is naturally superior or inferior to another, since each culture can in a limited sense reflect the nature of God in a piecemeal way. This is a cause for hope and for lamentation for every human culture. We can still reflect God corporately, but in a limited way, only as a broken and distorted mirror. What difference, then, does the gospel make in a given culture? That is a good subject for another post…