Culture is the set of values, beliefs, ideas, customs, manual skills, arts, and traditions of a people cast along to succeeding generations. Churches and families have cultures just as whole societies do. These cultures exert a major influence on how and what we worship.
Can—or should—culture and God be separated? Despite their great cultural differences, all congregations come together primarily for the purpose of worship. For most, worship is the central spiritual practice offered to congregants, the most culture-filled and the most critical component of the philosophy and strategy for congregational growth.
Culture often defines ritual, and ritual is extremely helpful in setting the boundaries for a faith community. (We talked about rituals a couple of weeks ago.) The more culture-bound our worship is, the more difficult it becomes to accommodate others who are not part of the culture—as Jesus might call them: Sheep who are not of this fold.
The culture of a faith group is heavily weighted by group identity and exclusivity. The Israelites of the Old Testament, who were chosen by God to represent him, were given extensive means to identify themselves in order to limit the access of outsiders to their culture; for example, how they wove their linen for their clothing, what they were to eat and how they were to prepare their food. Laws of ritual purity and hundreds of Levitical laws were all part of their culture and limited access to their culture. They did not weave wool with linen because wool was a native product of God’s creative act in the form of a sheep and linen was an important product of mankind originating as hemp, cultivated and then turned into linen fiber in Egypt.
But much as culture influences worship, worship also influences culture. Good worship begets good culture, the Old Testament suggests. When Israel sinned against God it was usually the result of bad worship, such as becoming idolatrous and worshiping other gods. How and who they worshipped defined, in a major way the, culture of Israel. Worship shapes believers into that which is being worshipped, thereby shaping entire nations as well as their people and their ideas, beliefs, traditions, and their culture.
In the garden of Eden before the fall, worship and culture were essentially the same thing. The culture of the garden is defined in Scripture as follows:
God blessed them; and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth.” Then God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you; and to every animal of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to everything that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food”; and it was so. And God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day. (Genesis 1:28-31)
The command to Adam and Eve was essentially to cultivate the earth. The words cultivate and culture share the same Latin root, cultus, which means to worship. That Adam was in direct personal communication with God meant that everything he did was, in essence, an act of worship. To consecrate the Sabbath as holy time and to concentrate the tending of the garden was culturally to concentrate both Adam’s time and his space.
There was no separation between culture and worship or religious duty. They were all one and the same thing. But after the fall, a curse was placed on the ground that was to be cultivated and culture began to separate from worship right up to today, when the gap between culture and worship or between culture and our picture of God has grown quite wide.
Can we identify the elements of our worship, of our viewpoint on God, that are purely cultural versus those that are purely worshipful? What needs to be preserved? And what needs to be discarded? Can God be seen only through culture or can worship and our picture of God somehow be culture free?
Culture is a product of information. The more rapid the change in data, knowledge, and information, the more pressure there is on culture to change. This is where we find ourselves today. There is an information explosion all around us. We wish and try to resist it but without success. How rapidly is information expanding and what impact does it have upon culture?
Information is expanding at an unprecedented rate in today’s world, largely due to the rapid development and widespread adoption of digital technologies such as the Internet, social media, and mobile devices. The amount of data generated globally is expected to reach 175 zettabytes by the year 2025—approximately five times the amount of data generated in 2018.
The expansion of information has a profound effect upon culture, shaping the ways in which people interact with others, influencing how we consume media, and how we participate in political and social life. The expansion of information has:
- Made it easier for people to access a wide range of information and knowledge regardless of their location, their background, or even their native culture;
- Transformed the way people consume media, with many traditional sources of media being replaced by digital media platforms (I read recently that Ford Motor Company is no longer installing AM radios in their cars because nobody listens to AM any more. As well, the younger generation hardly ever watches television—they stream almost everything);
- Enabled people to participate more fully in social and political life, with social media platforms providing new avenues for activism and engagement. We even have a name for the people who inhabit such platforms: Influencers;
- Led to changes in cultural values and attitudes, with new ideas and perspectives being introduced and old beliefs and values being challenged; and finally,
- Facilitated increased globalization, with people and cultures around the world becoming more interconnected and interdependent. We no longer live in the 10 mile radius that we’ve talked about before, as we did through to the early19th century.
Overall, the expansion of information has had and is having a profound effect upon our culture. In the year 1500 it is estimated that it took information about 100 years to double. By the early 1800s, information was doubling every 50 years. By the early 1900s. Information was doubling twice every 30 years. In the 1950s and 1960s, information began to double every decade due to the rise of computers and digital technologies.
By 1989, information was doubling every two to three years and in the early 2000s Information was doubling every year. Today, information is estimated to double every 12 months. What that means is that a year ago this Easter one year ago, we knew half of what we now know today about ourselves and about the world around us.
Do we know now twice as much about God as we did a year ago? Does the rate at which data, information, and knowledge accumulate effect change in our culture and our picture of God?
Indeed, the rate at which data, information, and knowledge accumulates affects the rate of change of the culture in an entirely reproducible way. As people become more exposed to diverse and varied ideas, beliefs, and values, they’re more likely to adopt new cultural practices and norms. In short, their worldview begins to change as they’re exposed to more diverse ideas.
The accumulation of knowledge and information can also challenge existing cultural beliefs and practices, leading to a shift in cultural values and norms. For example, scientific discoveries and advancements in technology have led to changes in how we view and approach various aspects of life, such as health, learning and education, and social interactions.
The rate at which data accumulates now can also contribute to the creation of new cultural practices and customs. As new technologies, products and services emerge, people may develop new ways of interacting with one another and with the world around them. This Zoom class of ours may be a perfect example of the changes we’re talking about. It allows people from around the country and around the world to meet with us this morning. Today we have Sharon from Africa and Reinhardt from Indonesia.
This all adds new meaning to something called the “faith community.” The rate at which data and information accumulates and alters our worldview can have a significant impact on cultural change, shaping our beliefs and our values and practices as individuals and societies, which are changing rapidly over time.
Frankly, these changes can be frightening. We look for stability around us, but see nothing but change. We see change in how we work and how we worship. We see change in how we learn, how we shop, how we pay for things and how we communicate. Everything is different, driven by new ideas, new devices, new machines, new ways of life. Technology is not just our future; it is our ever-present.
Why do we fear the changes that technology brings to our culture? New technologies often bring changes that people may not understand or be familiar with, leading to fear and uncertainty about how this will impact their lives. New technologies also can sometimes displace or replace traditional practices and ways of life, leading to a sense of loss or disconnection from cultural roots.
Schooling and education may be a leading example of this: Students now can get much of the information that they need for learning from a computer. The role of the teacher is changing. Technological advancement can sometimes lead to job losses or changes in employment pattern leading to economic disruption and uncertainty. David sends me something every week about how my job is in jeopardy and will be gone in a very few years.
Some people fear that technologies such as social media and cellular devices may lead to increased social isolation rather than increase connection with one another. I see some kids in my own living room sometimes texting one another, from one couch to another in the same room. Some people may have concerns about the ethical implications of new technologies, such as the impact of automation and artificial intelligence on human decision making.
Technology is a major influence on our culture, and can influence our religion as well. With the advent of technology people now have easy access to religious content such as Scriptures. On my cell phone, I have more than 50 translations of the Bible. You can also get teachings and sermons and our own blog, The Interface, which is also a product of technology. This can help individuals to deepen their knowledge of faith and connect with religious communities, communities, and leaders.
Many religious organizations now offer virtual religious services allowing people to attend worship service and other religious events from the comfort of their own home. This of course, has revolutionized shut-in ministries. This has been become especially important during times of social distancing and the pandemic. Social media platforms themselves have become an important tool for religious organizations to connect with their members and followers and share religious messages and teachings. Religious leaders can use social media to reach a wider audience and engage with their followers in new and more meaningful ways. Oakwood Church has a Facebook page.
There is now a variety of religious apps allowing users to connect with their faith in new and innovative ways. You can use a prayer app, you can use a Scriptural app, you can use a meditation app, a music app, you can get an app for your mass or for your liturgy, even for your communion. You can literally do church in your pajamas. Technology can also impact religious practices and rituals. Some religious communities have embraced the technology to enhance traditional practice, such as using a digital prayer mat that lights up to indicate the direction of Mecca during prayer.
How does an unchanging God adapt to an ever- and rapidly changing world? Does advancing technology require us to change our concepts of God? How does our understanding of God adapt to the changes that we see rapidly occurring around us?
Advancing technology can lead to new understandings of the Divine and challenge traditional concepts of God. As humans develop new technologies and learn more about the universe, our understanding of the natural world and the place of humans within it certainly changes. This can lead to new theological and philosophical questions and challenges, and also increases the number of new conundrums as well. For example: The development of advanced medical technologies can lead to ethical questions about the role of God and healing and the use of technology to extend human life.
Similarly, advancements in artificial intelligence and robots may raise questions about the nature of consciousness and the relationship between humans and machines. (David wrote a book about that if you’re interested.)
However, while advancing technology can challenge traditional concepts of God, it can also provide new opportunities for spiritual growth and understanding. Technology can also help people connect with others around the world explore different religious traditions and deepen their understanding of the Divine.
Ultimately, the impact of advancing technology and our concept of God depends on how it is used, including how individuals believe and cultural attitudes toward technology change and the ways in which technology is used to explore and use different ideas. Perhaps technology may in itself help us to overcome our fear of religious change. I believe it can do so in several ways:
- Technology allows us to connect with people from different religious backgrounds and explore new religious ideas and practices. This can help us to understand and appreciate different perspectives and reduce the fear of the unknown.
- Technology can educate us about ourselves in ways that we’ve never been able to be educated before and about different religions and religious practices, helping us to better understand and appreciate differences of beliefs.
- Technology can help us to connect with our own religious communities and with leaders around the world, providing a sense of connection and community even if we’re physically distant. Unfortunately, we frequently fail to take advantage of this and instead, somehow turn it into a clash of cultures.
- Technology can facilitate interfaith dialogue and understanding, allowing people from different religious traditions to engage in constructive conversations about their beliefs and practices.
- Technology can provide access to a wide range of resources for spiritual growth, such as the various meditation, scriptural, musical, and other apps that can deepen people’s understanding of their own faith, and explore new religious ideas and practices.
So how does a religious community undergo change without losing its way? Religious communities can maintain the integrity of their culture by deeply grounding their changes in Scripture, and more loosely grounding them in tradition. Any changes to religious practice or belief should be rooted in a deep understanding of Scripture, and the historical context of the various traditions.
Religious groups can benefit from engaging in dialogue with their own followers and with other religious traditions. This can help to foster a deeper understanding of the needs and the experiences of the community being served, and ensure that changes are responsive to those needs while still remaining true to the core beliefs and values of the traditions.
Religious tradition can embrace diversity within their own community and recognize that different individuals may have different needs and experiences by acknowledging and valuing these differences. Religious traditions can adapt to meet the needs of a changing community while still maintaining their overall integrity. Religious organizations can maintain their integrity by keeping the common good in mind, Changes should be made with the goal of improving the lives of the community, promoting social justice, compassion inclusivity and to foster a better way of life. This brings us to the final question. Does culture change religion, or does religion change culture?
Which do you think is is more likely to occur—that culture changes religion or religion changes culture? How does a God that never changes adapt to a changing culture (and a rapidly changing one at that)? How does technology and its advances shape our culture? How are we to keep up?
Why do we fear change? Especially religious change? What are we actually afraid of? How does each generation find its own way of balancing the new cultures and the new technologies and help in shaping its view of God? How does your generation view God compared to mine, or maybe to my dad’s even? How does your generation practice your faith compared to mine?
How do you think culture, technology, and knowing God interact? Should we, as a matter of principle\, embrace change or should we resist it? Should we hold on or should we let go? Should we resist or should we surrender? And can change be actually managed or is change something that really we have no control over?
Jay: My view of God is one in which there are timeless universal, principles There’s no doubt that historically the different cultures found all across our world have related to those principles differently, but if the principles themselves are universal and timeless, then they are what they are. There’s no doubt that as we look through our cultural lens with whatever limited knowledge we have, we see those principles very differently but I believe that those principles are timeless and universal.
Secondly, in the story of the Tower of Babel is a very common group of people who end up with the inappropriate goal of reaching heaven, reaching God, and understanding what God is. God confounds them through language, which dramatically drives culture—a common language brings people together into a group and dramatically drives the group culture.
The question is: Is that starting to happen again? As information and knowledge is growing so quickly and language barriers are being rapidly dismantled, are we building a new Tower of Babel?
David: I do think it’s clear that we are moving towards a more universal culture across human civilization. The question is whether we are going to use it the same way that the Babelonians did—to crack open the secrets of God—in which case presumably the same lesson God gave them would apply to us and God will not want it to happen. So what what’s going to come of that?
As to the question of how we relate to God: I recently talked with ChatGPT-4 about just that. It pointed out that we humans relate to God through the medium of the Church, which then guides us into the Scriptures—in Christian churches, primarily the Gospels. We are not born and given a Bible to read as part of our recommended reading. We are born and sent to Sabbath School to learn to read and understand the Bible the way the Church wants us to read and understand it.
In other words, the Gospels are given to us in the context of the church’s own culture, a culture that is built on the Curche’s own principles. For two millennia the Good News of the Word has been mediated by the Church. ChatGPT floored me by pointing out that the first readers/students of the Gospels had no one to interpret for them. They were naive readers. They were exposed to God’s Word directly, without any slick mediation.
The fascinating thing is that technology is returning us to that unmediated experience of the Word. Rather than going to church and being being fed the church’s version of what the Word says and means—”the truth”—young people today can find the Gospels themselves through ChatGPT and/or other people on TikTok. They may be Christian or Jewish or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist, and may speak of the Word as it is presented to them in their own Scripture.
In this way, God’s Word is coalescing around the world and becoming one. I think that that will lead to a better understanding of God, but Jay’s question nags: Is that a good thing or a bad thing? Are we going back to Babel?
Donald: I’m not as optimistic as Jay and David. What’s the difference between doctrine and culture in the context of faith, and then what are the core beliefs—the essentials? I don’t know that we can agree upon those things, though we think we can. As an administrator at a university, 15 years ago I created a reader for freshmen called The Essentials. It was about what was essential to our faith and why our university was the right choice. It never got off the ground because we couldn’t agree upon the essentials.
In the area surrounding my neighborhood we have probably 15 to 20 churches, most based upon an ethnicity or culture group—Filipino, Korean, etc.. On the Sabbath, we don’t come together. We are not comfortable taking on each other’s cultures. We’d like to think we are. I’m open minded. I’m liberal in my thinking, but everything is filtered through our particular group culture or context. I may have more available to me. I have greater exposure. But that doesn’t mean I’m very tolerant
C-J: I think this tolerance is more about codependence because of free markets. Everything we do is politically motivated. You may slap a belief system on ritual and traditions or clothing. But really, in the global community it’s about politics, money, and power. So he who has the greatest influence gets to make those decisions about what the country’s language will be, what currency they will use, who they’ll do business with, when and how, music,… you can go down the list.
For the last 70 years, it’s been the United States, but in other times it was China, Rome, Egypt… you can go down the list. You can see that cultural influence as it spread out like spilled milk, as to what their buildings look like, the similarities in their language, all those things. And so when we talk about religion as if it’s something separate, it’s really a reflection.
I think when we talk about personal identity, we we work from the center, which would be the individual and go out. “I am these things.” And as we mature, we keep hanging things on the Christmas tree. But the truth is that we are not as unique as we think we are, we do not stand alone as much as we think we can, we really are codependent in all these networks.
I agree that it’s rooted in language. If you cannot communicate, none of that’s going to happen effectively. You have to negotiate peace. You have to use diplomacy You have to be gracious. How much are you willing to put on the table and lose? It’s not about putting it on the table and winning, it’s what are you comfortable in losing? So it can be a border. It can be weapons to protect your borders. Money is a weapon in the global marketplace.
I think that we console ourselves with the spiritual component because we need to feel connected, and you cannot feel connected by currency. You can buy people to stand near you. But you cannot buy the union that it seems like the spiritual realm provides. When I’m with a Christian, I can exhale, even if I don’t like how they practice or maybe who they are as an individual. But I know we have a common thread, a common moral compass, a common way of being. We’re imperfect, but I feel connected to that community.
I think we oftentimes create our own misery inside. But we also have to accept responsibility for that political piece that influences so much.
Jay: The notion of “essentials” takes us back to the timeless, universal principles about God, As knowledge increases and culture expands, the sense of understanding and the want to understand more is heightened. We want to dig into it, get into the nitty gritty of it. But the essential things in life tend to be fairly broad and non-specific. Is inter-group disagreement about essentials the result of trying to be specific about them? Food, water, and shelter are essentials, but when we are more specific about them, they’re not essential, but they become defining.
As we increase in our ability to be able to understand, decipher, and decode data, information, and knowledge there’s no doubt that we begin to focus on the nitty gritty instead of broad principle. So the question is how to get a deeper understanding of the broad essentials without getting lost in the nitty gritty?
Donald: The challenge lies in being open-minded. What are the essentials? Adventism has 28 of them but if we were to scrutinize that list and eliminate items that are too narrow, cultural, or not truly doctrinal, I think we would struggle to reduce it to fewer than 20. Yet, honestly, it needs to be pared down to about six.
If the framework you’ve established around your life aligns with your understanding, beliefs, and values, then by all means, move forward. Who am I to say otherwise? Unfortunately, it seems like churches and doctrines often create divisions.
I have lifelong friends who are quite conservative, and a conversation like this would not resonate with them. They enjoy delving into minute details and narrowing their focus. They sleep well at night, secure in their beliefs. While I don’t agree with their views, I admire their conviction and the peace it brings them.
C-J: Isn’t that what Paul said to the people? Are we having the same conversation that Paul had with the new Christians? “Do I have to be circumcised? Can I only eat this meat? Do I have to say these prayers?” This is the conversation he had about what is essential. He said, “Believe in the Lord. Don’t eat food offered to idols (meaning that would supersede this guy that we’re introducing you to) and be faithful to your wives.” Essentially he was saying, “Don’t get in the weeds. Don’t get distracted by all that.”
How am I going to make these puzzle pieces fit together? Do I have to trim it a little bit? I don’t think that this is where we, in our spiritual lives, should be spending our time. We do that in catechism with young people or new converts. When you get baptized, where you get baptized, how you get baptized, what church you attend… all those things really confuse people. But when we create, as a more mature Christian, our safety net, how comfortable do I feel in this discussion? How open am I?
I think that comes down to God’s grace, which is what Paul understood because of his own conversion. “I thought I was doing it right. There was none like me, I was a Pharisee among Pharisees, and it was like, Oops!” it really is a very personal relationship with our God. Some people need that safety net. Keep your circle small and closed. Other people can walk among the most broken, dangerous people and know that God is present.
It’s not what I say; it’s not even what I do. It is the presence of the Holy Spirit. And God has asked me to do this thing. I’m only here for a short time. Some people get 10 years, some people get 100 years. It doesn’t matter as long as I’m doing the business that God has asked me to do, by my faith and by revelation, and confirmation.
I’ve been in the church where people say, “Connie, what are you doing?” And I go, “This is the way God works with me. I’m not concerned with it. I just see. And when it’s time I’m gonna go someplace else.” People go, “You don’t have roots. You’re not consistent.” And I’m like, “I’m not consistent on your checklist. I am consistent in my relationship with my lord.”
Sharon: In the context of Africa, the issue of culture is probably more important than technology. The big discussion here in our churches is: Is it okay to use my cell phone to get the words to the hymnal? A lot of pastors now collect cell phones from people as they come into the church.
I think values should underpin the ideas related to the technology. But it is so culturally contextualized, and when you’re on Maslow’s lower rung of survival, where food for today is more important, what you are talking about is self-actualization or even beyond.
For the people with whom I circulate in our churches here (we have 36 churches within two miles of our campus, which are not ethnically defined) the conservative continuum of the morality of cell phones in church decides whether they are allowed in or not.
So I do think culture is probably stronger than technology at implementing the changes that we face in the 21st century.
Don: Thinking even more broadly, does culture still trump technology world-wide, or is this just in Africa?
Sharon: I think that globally, in the context of the independent variable versus the dependent variable, probably the independent variable is culture, which impacts the use and adaption of technology. But that is also generalizable. Globally, we’re social beings. I think that applies in the context of whatever technology we have access to.
Reinhard: If we look at civilization, particularly since the existence of the Christian Church or the Bible, the Bible has remained strong. In the past, culture may not have affected the church; rather, the church may have influenced culture in many ways. For example, missionaries traveled to third-world countries.
In today’s world, information technology is significantly impacting culture. If technology contributes positively to our lives by making them easier, I think that’s acceptable. If it affects the church in a positive way, like what we see with Zoom enabling people to attend worship services remotely, that’s great. It can encourage our relationship with God.
We should ask ourselves if modern technology is helping or hindering our faith. For us, discussing in forums like this one helps us grow and face the challenges posed by technology. However, for other Christians who may not have strong faith in God, there might be some concerns.
The Word of God will last forever, as mentioned earlier. The Bible contains enough information for us, but the challenge of modern technology could test the church and its members. If we stay strong in the Word of God, we can overcome these challenges and embrace the good things technology brings.
Using smartphones, for example, to read the Bible is not inherently wrong. Some people may disagree with using phones inside the church, but if it helps with worship, such as displaying hymnals, I think it’s a positive thing. The main concern is whether this technology will weaken our faith in God.
That’s why we have forums like this to communicate and discuss these issues. As members of this group, we are doing the right thing in the eyes of God, I believe. Overall, our focus should be on whether technology strengthens or weakens our faith and how we can use it for good.
David: Psalm 8:2 reminds us that wisdom comes out of the mouths of babes and sucklings (at least that’s how I interpret that rather difficult passage in the original Hebrew.) What you don’t get out of the mouths of babes and sucklings is the kind of detail that Donald and Jay were talking about. You only get The Essentials. Jesus reminded us several times to pay heed to that.
With regard to Sharon’s comment: I can see technology as an independent variable vis-a-vis culture. But at the same time, technology is also a part of culture, which develops and applies technology. It confuses me!
C-J : My concern about staying too much in the envelope is that I think it was Stalin who said religion is the opiate of the people. Without effective communication and being able to feel safe in saying: “Sometimes I wonder about this” or “where are we headed? How are we going to maneuver this and survive?” I think we do that internally and when we feel safe we might do that with a very close friend who knows us well enough to see what we’re really trying not to say and hoping they see it or hear it.
Faith is a very personal thing and it grows. It ebbs and flows and it gets rewritten. Who I thought God was when I was seven is definitely not who my relationship over many years, has now informed me as to how big my God is, and it’s without boundaries.
Janelin: I’ve heard people use the analogy of drawing a circle to represent their boundaries or beliefs. I was visualizing this circle and realized that as we grow older and go through life, the circle doesn’t necessarily stay the same size or shape. It may ebb and flow, changing over time. Rather than a perfect circle, it might be more accurate to think of it as a complex geometric shape with no specific name, as it can be quite messy and irregular. So, it occurred to me that using a circle as an analogy might be too simplistic, and a more intricate, jagged shape could better represent the complexity of our beliefs and experiences throughout life. That’s all.
Michael: It seems to me that any any culture that failed to adapt and incorporate with technology has gone extinct. This is how I see history. Any culture, any religion, any movement that does not incorporate the advancements in technologies is going to be gone in a generation.
Donald: It seems that when we’re young, our circle is quite large. Everything is new, and we take it all in within the context of our family, which is small. As we progress through school and college, our circle might change. Interestingly, the concept of being open-minded in higher education can become more narrow, with people closing down and adhering to specific ways of thinking.
As we mature, it’s common to find that older individuals have smaller circles. This can be attributed to a sense of comfort and nostalgia, reminiscing about their past experiences. It’s natural to hold on to these memories, even if they may not have any practical value in the present. It’s important not to dismiss the significance of these feelings and the comfort they bring.
As people age, it might be more challenging to maintain an open-minded perspective. For example, a 97-year-old person might have a very small circle, and that’s perfectly fine. So, the concept of the circle in this context is intriguing.
Don: I think this is a subject we need to revisit next week. Hopefully, each of you will be able to be here so that we can maybe have a little bit more time to discuss it.
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