Worship and Culture PDF Print E-mail
Written by Luke Jankovic   
Wednesday, 12 January 2011 12:34

Second in a series . . .

Worship shapes and molds people, individually and corporately. In so far as it does, it also shapes and molds the stuff of life—the way in which people mess with matter. What they make, how they make it, for what reasons. From plowing fields, to playing music, to dancing—worship is formative. This is the case because God made it this way. In this piece, I would like to argue that communion with God shapes how we do the stuff of life corporately and individually because the pattern was set in the garden with Adam; it’s a creational pattern.

The word “culture” is downstream from the Latin colere—to tend, cultivate. In Genesis 1, God gives Adam marching orders: “Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth” (Gen. 1:28). Adam’s calling was to tend and cultivate the earth—to rule it. Before the fall, he was wholly capable of doing so and, being made in the God’s image, it came naturally to him. Adam’s communion with God (his worship) and his calling (cultural dominion) were one and the same. The two were intertwined. The link between worship and culture was not lost on the post-fall descendants of Adam, which is why “cultus” (worship) also shares lineage with the Latin parent colere. The cultivation of land, the tending of the natural world, and the production and consumption of food (initial culture) have been tied with up with worship since the Garden. When Adam broke communion the connection between worship and the calling to tend and inhabit—to create culture—didn’t disappear. The nature of the communion changed, but not the calling. Adam still had his marching orders but now the task was different. I believe that Adam, as the first man, set the pattern for all who would follow. At the center of every culture there is a communion, or worship, and—even if it isn’t regarded—it has an incredible shaping power over people and their culture.

Kenneth Myers in his book All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians & Popular Culture describes the pre-fall relationship between worship and culture in this way.

“In observing the Sabbath man was culturally structuring time in accordance with a holy pattern. This was part of his cultural commission, along with the task of being an architect in space by tending the Garden. Space and time were thus consecrated by man’s original culture.”[i]

Myers continues by pointing out more explicitly the relationship of worship and culture.

“For man as originally created, there was no separation between his culture and his loving worship of his Lord. Culture and religious duty were one. All cultural activity was self-consciously pursued as an act of loving obedience. Not only the internal attitude of man in these activities, but the invention of the very cultural structures themselves, the eternal institution of things, were bound to be a deliberate act of service to the creator.”[ii]

In the Garden all of life was communion with God. The world was the gift of God to man, given that we might know Him and live in communion with Him. In effect, culture itself—the tending of the Garden—was Adam’s service to the Lord. Alexander Schmemann puts it well in his book For the Life of the World.

“God blessed the world, blessed man, blessed the seventh day (that is, time) and this means that he filled all that exists with His love and goodness. Made all this “very good.” So the only natural (and not “supernatural”) reaction of man to whom God gave this blessed and sanctified world is to bless God in return, to thank Him, to see the world as God sees it and—in this act of gratitude and adoration—to know, name, and possess the world.”[iii]

Man’s act of culture (as defined by Myers) is for Schmemann simply the worshipful act of responding to God’s blessing of the world by giving it back to him, and blessing it through filling and subduing it. In this sense, what’s labeled the “cultural mandate” of Genesis 1 is an act of worship.  It is taking the gift of God, forming it, subduing it, changing it, and then giving it back to God in thanksgiving for it.

Consequently, in the Garden there was no distinction between the secular and the religious; they were inseparable. Man knew God through the world itself. The world was made so that God might commune with man and man’s reaction and utilization of the stuff of the world was originally an act of communion. Culture was communion. Man did not know God apart from the stuff of the world and man maintained his communion with God by responding in obedience to the “cultural mandate.” There was no point in culture that man was doing an “irreligious” activity. Again more on this from Schmemann:

“The first, the basic definition of man is that he is priest. He stands in the center of the world and unifies it in his act of blessing God, of both receiving the world from God and offering it to God—and by filling the world with this eucharist, he transforms his life, the one that he receives from the world, into life in God, into communion with Him. The world was created as the “matter,” the material of one all embracing eucharist, and man was created as priest of this cosmic sacrament.”[iv]

Adam served God by consecrating his time and the world in the way in which God had commanded him to do. In doing so, he reflected most brightly the image of God in him. This was man’s original orientation and still is today. The fall has disrupted our ability to maintain this orientation, not our obligation to maintain it.

Furthermore, every man’s relationship to the world and the stuff in it, individually and corporately, and the culture he creates will be defined by his god (or theology) and because of this by his worship. Culture is communion.

The nation of Israel in the Old Testament was the consecrated people of God. God set them aside to make them into a holy people, acceptable to Him. In this reality we can see this same principle of the centrality of worship in culture. The nation of Israel exhibits this just as Adam did.

The entire culture of the nation of Israel grew out of their worship. When Israel sinned against God and sought its desires, it was a problem of wrong worship, of idolatry. Whenever some hint of idolatry sneaks into the camp, or the temple, the whole nation starts to deteriorate. The entire life of the people is changed. For the Israelites, there was never a cultural compromise that was not first and fundamentally a worship compromise. Israel’s communion with God, their service, was obedience to His law. If they kept covenant with Him by obeying the law He would commune with them; He would be their God and bless them beyond measure as He had promised in His covenant to Abraham.

Again, whether they were worshiping rightly and faithfully, or wrongly and idolatrously, worship was the shaping factor. The fundamental problem of idolatry was one of identity. Because given the nature of God, worship defines a nation. Worship is that which shapes the worshipper into that which is being worshiped, and thus shapes the nation and culture. God’s law was important because it reflected His nature, and who He is. The problem of idolatry is not simply transgression of the law, as though someone “broke some rule.” Instead the problem lies in communing with another god, and becoming like unto that god, and in this turning from the truth to a lie.

In Jeremiah 7 God remarks on His anger toward a wicked and idolatrous Israelite generation and in this He alludes to the power of communion.

“But this thing I commanded them, saying, Obey my voice, and I shall be thy God, and ye shall be my people, and walk ye in all the ways that I have commanded you, that it may be well unto you. But they hearkened not, nor inclined their ear, but walked in the counsels and in the imagination of their evil heart, and went backward, and not forward” (Jer. 7:23-24).

Continuing on, God describes the problem which the Israelites have, which was a turning away from the truth, a turning away that was manifested in their wrong worship.

“Therefore thou shalt speak all these words unto them; but they will not hearken to thee: thou shalt also call unto them; but they will not answer thee. But thou shalt say unto them, This is a nation that obeyeth not the voice of the LORD their God, nor receiveth correction: truth is perished, and is cut off from their mouth. Cut off thine hair, O Jerusalem, and cast it away, and take up a lamentation on high places; for the LORD hath rejected and forsaken the generation of his wrath. For the children of Judah have done evil in my sight, saith the LORD: they have set their abominations in the house which is called by my name, to pollute it. And they have built the high places of Tophet, which is in the valley of the son of Hinnom, to burn their sons and their daughters in the fire; which I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart” (Jer. 7:27-31, emphasis mine).

This passage is revealing. It shows not only the source of Israel’s unfaithfulness, which was wrong worship, but also the horrible effects it was having upon the people and their culture. God’s reaction to this is also revealing. He in His anger is lamenting the choice the wicked generation has made. This section of Jeremiah that I am quoting begins with God summarizing his intent for Israel, which was that it would go well for them. All they had to do was walk in the commands and abide the laws of God. They had to follow the truth. Later God remarks that among the nation “truth is perished.” Breaking God’s law and worshipping idols leads not only to God in his jealousy being angry for His own glory, but it leads God to be confounded with the hardness of sin. Israel, in the worship of other gods, had become like those gods to the point that they would burn their own sons and daughters which God laments remarking “…I commanded them not, neither came it into my heart.”

The idols they were worshipping were like that. They devoured their own children. But God was not. That generation was so hardened and had communed so much with their idols that they would even sacrifice their own children. They had become slaves to lies and by worshipping a god other than the living God, they had become slaves to death.

Man becomes like what he worships because he communes with what he worships. And as it did in the Garden, that communion shapes culture.

G.K. Beale has made this point well.

“God has made humans to reflect him, but if they do not commit themselves to him, they will not reflect him but something else in creation. At the core of our beings we are imaging creatures. It is not possible to be neutral on this issue: we either reflect the Creator or something in creation”[v]

Or in the words of the Psalmist . . .

“Not unto us, O LORD, not unto us, but unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth's sake. Wherefore should the heathen say, Where is now their God? But our God is in the heavens: he hath done whatsoever he hath pleased. Their idols are silver and gold, the work of men's hands. They have mouths, but they speak not: eyes have they, but they see not: They have ears, but they hear not: noses have they, but they smell not: They have hands, but they handle not: feet have they, but they walk not: neither speak they through their throat. They that make them are like unto them; so is every one that trusteth in them” (Psalm 115:1-8, emphasis mine)

Having established that worship is central to culture, in the next chapter/piece I want to emphasis the central role food has in worship, and the formative power of the Table.

[i] Myers Kenneth All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes: Christians & Popular Culture. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1989) p. 42.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Schmemann Alexander For the Life of the World. (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimirs, 1963) p. 15.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] G.K. Beale, We Become What We Worship (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2008), p. 16.

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