Culture. It’s a bit of buzzword. We’ve got office culture, pop culture, church wars and even a clash of cultures but do we really know how to define it?. What is culture? From a biblical perspective, a simple definition of culture is what humans do with what God created.
Culture certainly includes art, music, fashion, media and entertainment, but culture also encompasses big systemic things like how cities are designed, how curriculum is taught in our schools, what is normative and what is valued, what goes viral on social media and what becomes socially contagious among our youth.
When we consider it this way— culture doesn’t just happen or exist. Each of us is helping to create culture in how we work, post, participate in our community, spend our money, and consume media and entertainment (among other things).
Much of the discussion, at least in many Christian circles, can focus on what is “wrong” with culture or how to fight against a secularized culture. Dominant metaphors for culture include the melting pot, a war zone or contest, a stage, the endlessly repeating cycle, a house and a river. While some of these metaphors have scriptural support, the primary metaphor God uses for culture throughout the Bible is that of a garden.
The Big Story
Culture as a garden is a major worldview shift for many of us raised in the modern era where our primary lens for understanding the world around us is a “culture war.” If we see the world only as a cosmic and current battle, then yes, culture is a war zone and we are culture warriors. But even in war, you have to eat. So who is tending the garden of culture today?
From Genesis to Revelation, we see God placing people in the garden of culture to tend and care and sow and reap. From Eden to the Psalms and the prophets to the Kingdom of Heaven teachings of Jesus and Paul to the visions of John in Revelation – from beginning to end – Scripture bears witness to the metaphor of culture as a garden. In some seasons culture produces a harvest of unrighteousness, but in every season God expects His people to produce good fruit and sow peace, caring and tending to the field where He sets them to labor.
The first commission and indeed the very first commandment of God to humanity as a whole is found in Genesis 1:26-28 and 2:15.
Here, in the beginning when everything was good, God commanded His people to “rule over the earth.” To be His delegated authority, as stewards of His creation. We are made in His image that under His authority we might do His will in the way in which He would do it Himself. This mandate of God is in view as we hear Him issue the next command “to serve and keep the earth.”
Then sin entered the world. In Genesis 3, we read the curse would not just infect humans, but the entire created world. So when God sends Adam and Eve out of the Garden, He did not remove the stewardship mandate, but affirmed it. Now, the curse means the work to multiply and cultivate will now be painful, even fruitless at times, but we are still to do it.
We may wonder how we are expected to be culture gardeners when all we see around us is rocky soil or weeds, thorns and — frankly— trash.
When God spoke to his people through the prophet Jeremiah, they were living as exiles in a foreign land, one with its own pagan culture. Even then, He commanded them to “seek the welfare of the city” where they were, and to pray for it. He commanded them to build houses, plant gardens and eat of the produce, marry and raise children. They were to be culture gardeners even in exile.
The New Testament epistles are laden with instructions for Christians living in downright hostile cultures. The commands largely fall into two categories. The church was to cultivate a new gospel community, based on the grace and mercy we have received in Christ (Col 3), and when interacting with others, to do good and act honorably to bring glory to God (1 Peter 2). These are culture-building instructions— not to acquiesce to whatever was popular at the time but build something different, something lifegiving and Christ-representing.
So we water and weed and tend and pray, recognizing that God alone gives the growth (I Cor 3). And we repent of our desire to pull up all the weeds we see in culture because God has told us He’s got that handled (Matthew 13).
Consider that Jesus told many parables about gardening and likens God to the Gardener. As His image bearers and now as His stewards, we cultivate the garden of our particular culture in the spirit of the living God. The cultivation of the culture is worthy, worshipful, fruitful work. Removing rocks (2 Cor 10:5) is the pre-evangelism or apologetics work necessary today before we can even begin to till, prepare and enrich the soil (Matthew 13, Mark 4, Luke 8).
Then there is the planting of the seed, which is the Word of God, and the sowing of peace.
James 3:18 provides a framework for the culture gardener. “And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” If you don’t like what the culture around you is producing, then it’s time to sow peace in order that in due season, God might have a harvest of righteousness.
God has a clear expectation that we be gardens— people who are good soil, abiding in the Vine (John 15), producing good fruit in every season (Psalm 1) from roots to fruits! He also expects us to be gardeners in the culture where He sends us as Ambassadors of the King and the Kingdom amidst the kingdoms of this world. Some of those are desert climates and some are swamps— and in them all, God calls us to be faithful, fruitful witnesses.
The purpose of all our planting and tending is not ultimately about us. In all we do and make, we seek to bring God glory, to reflect Him and tell the world of His goodness and worthiness. Our efforts today are really preparing for something glorious to come— when Jesus returns in victory and sets all things right, including the full restoration of culture. Revelation 21 and 22 paints the picture of a city, and in the middle of the city, a tree, by whose leaves the nations will be healed and nothing will be cursed!
If we don’t like the harvest of unrighteousness we see in the culture today then let us set ourselves anew to the work of gardening in order that the culture of which we are a part might produce a harvest of righteousness to God (Gal 5, Philippians 1 and James 3:18). And if the crop this season fails, may we preserve the heirloom seeds for planting anew in the season to come.
- How does it change your view of God, yourself, others and your purpose in the world if your primary operating metaphor for life is that of a garden?
- What heirloom seeds of faith do you have? Mine are from my grandmother, Rhobenia.
- What new seeds are you planting or tending in your garden— in this season and this soil God has given you?
Photo by Jonathan Kemper on Unsplash