This essay by Brad East is very smart, and takes the Christianity-and-culture conversation usefully beyond H. Richard Niebuhr’s categories. But I have one big question: What is “culture”?

Almost everyone who writes on this subject treats it as unproblematic, yet it is anything but. In the late 18th century Herder wrote of Cultur (the German spelling would only later become Kultur): “Nothing is more indeterminate than this word, and nothing more deceptive than its application to all nations and periods.”

I suspect that (a) when most people use the term they have only the haziest sense of what they mean by it, and (b) no two writers on this subject are likely to have a substantially similar understanding of it.

I certainly don’t believe Niebuhr had any clear idea at all what he meant by “culture”: though he devotes many pages to defining it, he also uses it interchangeably with both “civilization” and “society,” which is, I think, indefensible. And he writes things like this:

Culture is social tradition which must be conserved by painful struggle not so much against nonhuman natural forces as against revolutionary and critical powers in human life and reason.

So “revolutionary and critical powers in human life and reason” are not part of culture? Coulda fooled me. Brad says that Niebuhr’s book “stubbornly resists … dismissal,” but I — waving my elegantly manicured hand through the haze of smoke from my expensive cigar — I dismiss it. I think its influence has been wholly pernicious: it has confused and distracted.

Brad’s essay, for all its virtues, suffers from its reluctance to dismiss the eminently dismissable Niebuhr. He doesn’t straightforwardly say what he means by “culture,“ but he begins his essay thus: “Christendom is the name we give to Christian civilization, when society, culture, law, art, family, politics, and worship are saturated by the church’s influence and informed by its authority.” This suggests that culture is something distinct from the other items in the list, but if culture does not include “society, … law, art, family, politics, and worship” I’m not sure what’s left over for it to be.

In his still-magisterial book Keywords, Raymond Williams famously wrote that “Culture is one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language.” And near the end of his entry on it, he writes,

Between languages as within a language, the range and complexity of sense and reference indicate both difference of intellectual position and some blurring or overlapping. These variations, of whatever kind, necessarily involve alternative views of the activities, relationships and processes which this complex word indicates. The complexity, that is to say, is not finally in the word but in the problems which its variations of use significantly indicate.

Indeed. That entry, along with Williams’s book Culture and Society: 1980-1950, ought to be the the starting points for any discourse (Christian or otherwise) about culture. Another helpful orienting element: the distinction between “private culture” and “public culture” that James Davison Hunter makes in Chapter 2 of Culture Wars.

A quotation from Hunter

Both public culture and, for lack of a better term, “private culture” can be understood as “spheres of symbolic activity,” that is, areas of human endeavor where symbols are created and adapted to human needs. At both levels, culture orders our experience, makes sense of our lives, gives us meaning. The very essence of the activity taking place in both realms — what makes both public and private culture possible — is “discourse” or conversation, the interaction of different voices, opinions, and perspectives. Yet, while public and private culture are similar in constitution, they are different in their function — one orders private life; the other orders public life.

If we can agree on some boundaries for this elusive concept we might be able to have a more profitable conversation. I’m trying here to start a conversation, not to conclude one, but I will just end with this: More often than not, when Christians oppose Christianity to or distinguish it from culture, what they mean by “culture” is what Foucault famously called the power-knowledge regime. And if that’s what you mean, that’s what you should say — because there is no form of Christian belief or practice that is not cultural through-and-through.