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Cultivating Culture

Author Ben Palpant encourages you to view culture as a garden to cultivate in order to see true change in this article published in the spring 2018 edition of Today's Christian Doctor.

by Ben Palpant

As every healthcare professional knows, a healthy person is one in whom the whole person—mind, body and soul—thrives. It’s where the constituent parts function together harmoniously, as they were made to do. A healthy diet is prerequisite, of course, to cultivate the whole person’s health, but invasive procedures are sometimes in order.

The same could be said of a healthy culture. In that idealized culture, the constituent parts work together harmoniously so that members of a society thrive and live as God meant them to live. We can draw on parallels with the human person to understand better how to cultivate a thriving culture, but I find it more helpful to see broader culture as a garden that requires planting and weeding, watering and fertilizing. As with all gardens, culture requires soil cultivation and protection from invasive species. Who is called to this good work, but cultural gardeners and every Christian, regardless of profession? This cultural work demands discernment, courage and a high standard of quality. God strikes the human heart courageously, with fervor and velocity. So Christians get to imitate Him by vividly awakening those hearts they can touch, and that awakening can only be done out of the depth of the whole person. That is why Paul charges us this way: “Therefore, my beloved brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15:58, ESV). When Nehemiah rebuilt the city of Jerusalem, he was going about cultural work with “the trowel in hand, and the gun rather loose in the holster,” as T.S. Eliot wrote in Choruses from the Rock. Steadfast. Focused. Brave. As Christians, we can learn to do the same.

The other day, I overheard a Christian deride “culture” as if it were an object outside of his jurisdiction, outside of his own heart. “Culture” had become a convenient scapegoat for all of his frustrations with our times. He had clearly forgotten or did not realize that culture is the manifestation of human achievement of which he is part and parcel.

Like a son who disowns his family name and critiques his father, this man had effectively removed himself from his society and the aggregate of souls living alongside his soul, to judge the issues of which he is inextricably a part. Instead of recognizing his part in culture and doing something to improve society, he chose the easy way out.

While Jesus demonstrated that there is a time to fight, His ministry is largely one of cultivation and healing. Discord is always easier than healing; criticism is always easier than creation. Sometimes both are necessary, but many people inadvertently adopt a rhetoric of cultural warfare that substantively changes the way we see culture and the way we interact with culture. Instead of building a healthier culture, we only critique it. Instead of cultivating culture, we hunker down and toss grenades. It seems to me culture is not the problem; people who create culture are the problem. Ideologies and desires pass through people and are evidenced in the culture they make. If we want to see cultural change (and we should), then we must change people, and people are not generally changed by cultural criticism. The great calling for Christians is to stop complaining and start building.

The church has largely abdicated cultural stewardship in favor of culture warfare, thereby effectively leaving culture in the hands of the church’s enemies who recognize the power of the imagination. As Gregory Wolfe presciently warned in Beauty Will Save the World, if we do not help to build culture by our creativity, if we simply keep criticizing culture, the torn-down gates of our city will welcome a new barbarism. It seems apparent we are now living in that new barbarism and it is our divine calling to reclaim all of it for God’s sake. Be assured, we cannot reclaim something we hate or evade.

Instead of seeing culture as a territory won or lost, I suggest we see culture as a garden to cultivate. Like a master gardener, we can learn what the cultural weeds are and pull them, but we will be nothing more than a human rototiller if we do not learn to replace those weeds with something beautiful and spiritually rich. Like every farmer knows, the fertility of a field depends upon good management of that land, knowing what to plant and when, how to fertilize and which invasive species need eradicating.

The Dutch Christian philosopher Henry Van Til believed that culture is religion externalized, which simply means that how we view God (or the gods) determines the kind of culture we build. Christianity is a liberating catalyst for full human thriving, and this cultural freedom work is natural for those who worship the God who frees us from our many slaveries. As Makoto Fujimura suggests in Culture Care, generative people live out Isaiah 61:1-4 in their meditating, planning and preparation and execution of their work. They remember that the Spirit of the Lord is upon them because the Lord has anointed them to bring good news to the poor. He has sent generative people to bind up the brokenhearted, proclaim liberty to the captives and open the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of God; to comfort all who mourn; to console those who mourn in Zion. All of this so they may be oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord for His glorification.

Christ is the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah 61:1-4, of course, but He loves to use people like you and me for the liberating work of reclaiming and rebuilding. People who know what they are about and keep that high vision at the forefront of their minds continue Christ’s work by incarnating beauty in all its mystery, wonder, ambiguity and depth. One of our purposes in life is to look for beauty, receive it as a gift from God, and steward it for the life of the world and for His glory. Our ability to image forth this beauty is not simply a divine gift; it is an act with divine magnitude. It is God’s name in us and at work through us to humanize a dehumanized people and draw them back to their Maker. As expressed in Gregory Wolfe’s Beauty Will Save the World, Hans Rookmaaker argued that Christ came to make us fully human, not simply Christians, so the Christian understands that the biblical view of liberation and humanization includes all people, regardless of race, creed or gender. For this reason, Christians humanize those around them and invite others into a more human life under the open sky of God’s grace. Beautiful work—whatever form it takes—humanizes and liberates.

We image forth the beauty of God in the little, often-overlooked things we do every day. We will image forth that beauty in more and more ways as we become deeper, more reflective people who consider “the lilies of the field” (Matthew 6:28, ESV) along with the broken cedars (Psalm 29:5) and the Leviathan (Job 41:1). Let us consider the frailty and mortality of man (Psalm 8:4), and behind all these, working in and through and among them, we will see the wondrous hand of God (Psalm 111:2).

True cultural change ultimately takes place on a broad, societal level. The Isaiah 61 passage describes a people group’s commitment to the beauty of restoration. The hope of cultural cultivation is a societal-wide focus impacting every corner of life, including public policy and judicial decisions. In our desire for communal healing, however, it seems we easily forget where all this change begins. It begins with individuals who take ownership of their small sphere of influence in their homes, school hallways and conference rooms. Lasting cultural change has those kinds of humble, overlooked roots, and we should not expect legislation to fix what isn’t happening at an individual level. Very few of us make public policy, but the great call to cultivate is given to each Christian—whether young or old—and God equips us to make those incremental changes each and every day. As evidenced by the major recent cultural changes in sexual ethics, public policy comes on the heels of momentum begun long before by individuals who understand the power of story to shape the cultural imagination.

Cultural cultivation can seem like a daunting task, but it is less daunting when we read Nehemiah 3, in which every kind of person was helping build the wall, even a man and his daughters (v. 12) and two men who could only help just outside their front door (v. 23). We do what we can with what we have, don’t we? That is all God calls us to do.

Let us not despair, as this cultural cultivation is taking place all over the world in overlooked corners. For example, a kind of groundswell of cultural cultivation is taking place in little out-of-the-way Christian schools, like The Oaks Classical Christian Academy where I have spent nearly 20 years teaching. It’s a place where parents, students, teachers, administrators and volunteers press toward a common culture of restoration and peace. It is certainly not perfect, but I have learned the value of cultural cultivation by being a part of The Oaks, where the real difficult work involves daily recalibration as we remind each other of the ultimate aims found in Micah 6:8. It’s a place where we try to work to the glory of God, with Christ at center stage. It’s a place where self-sacrifice and thankfulness are taught and practiced. You can find that same kind of institutional commitment to cultural cultivation at hundreds of schools springing up all over the world. In my opinion, our emotional, physical and financial efforts should go toward supporting those efforts at cultivation rather than worrying about whether we are winning or losing some ethereal “culture war.”

Let us keep our eyes fixed firmly ahead and look to the Author and Finisher of Faith; after all, this entire generative work is an act of faith in a God who equipped us to create and then uses us according to His designs for something which, when seen from the other side, is truly marvelous. We cannot control the results, but we can control the preparation and execution of what we do for cultural cultivation. So keep working, dear friend, whatever the work. Keep enfleshing the ideas God gives you, and leave the harvest to the God who gave you those ideas.

Remember, also, that the Holy Spirit is the helper who spurs you on and guides your thoughts, inspiring the bright fire in your heart and mind. Consider yourself the Holy Spirit’s messenger and your words lit from within by His vitality, ready to warm the hearts of men. Or, to put it another way, you are the seed. This mindset of potent smallness is the way Jesus described faith, and it is the way I encourage you to see yourself. You are small but charged with faith. Make visible the latent power of God at work in you generatively. Be the boy with his five rolls and two fish in Luke 9 who is a perfect picture of generative living. Like that nameless boy, we offer the little we have, not knowing whom God will feed, nor how. The Christian’s life is a journey of trust; living by faith, he must trust God to give him purpose and ideas, as well as equip him to form them into a cohesive and beautiful whole. He must live freely from his limited self, knowing it is all God asks him to do.

This, my friends, is the hope we hold most precious—that God will use the gifts He gave us for a good purpose, using our small offerings to generate from cultural decay—in ourselves, in others, in the world around us—something beautiful and good and true…and lasting. To God be the glory for His ultimate cultural cultivation of which we get to be a humble part!

EDITOR’S NOTE: A longer version of this article was originally published in a three-part series by the author at Used by permission of the author.


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Ben Palpant lives in Washington State with his wife and five galloping children. He received his undergraduate degree from Whitworth University and teaches at The Oaks Classical and Christian Academy. Palpant is the author of several books, including A Small Cup of Light and Sojourner Songs: Poems.

This Feature Story Appears in:

Spring 2018 Edition of Today’s Christian Doctor