Evil is present in every culture we enter in our world. In every culture we enter in our world, good is present. Since culture expresses the shared values of the people who live in and shape it, culture will be a mixed bag of good and bad until Christ returns. Each human culture will continue to express some things that reflect the image of God in humanity and the truths evident through natural revelation, and also to express values that proceed from the depravity and rebellion that entered the world after the Fall. Cultures codify and establish values as habit, custom and practice; some of these are the most exalted values, and others the most debased practices. At first glance, this leads me to think that culture is neutral – a medium that can be used for good or evil.
But when I think about a more basic definition of culture, and of good and evil, it moves me toward a high view of culture. Adam and Eve, before the Fall, would have established human culture for the first time, since creating culture – by which I mean establishing ordered ways of relating to each other and our surroundings according to our values – is a way that humans express the capacities that are part of being made in the image of God. Culture will continue to be part of human life in the new creation – prophetic visions of the New Jerusalem picture work, music, art, food and other products of culture as continuing, though purified of evil and placed under the perfect rule of King Jesus. Culture is an enduring thing, that is not intended by God to be used as a tool of evil. Culture in its pure and authentic form, without the distortion of sin and evil, is a good and godly thing.
A biblical definition of evil does not view it as an equal force that opposes good. Rather, sin is a somewhat unoriginal expression of enmity toward God and opposition to good. It depends on taking the things God has created and distorting them. Evil – and the Evil One – use things that God created good in wrong ways, for harmful rather than edifying purposes. Evil can not create things to oppose God on equal terms, but must distort and pervert the things God has created.
Thus I think it is only appropriate to take a high view of culture, in spite of the wrong and evil things cultures institutionalize around the world, and have condoned throughout history. As God’s church spreads to every last culture on earth, seeds of potential are planted in each culture to be transformed into a unique expression of what culture is supposed to be. The good news of the kingdom of God challenges believers in each culture to ask “How does our cultural way of life look different if Jesus is king over it?” Without losing the richness of expressing values in different ways and through different practices, each culture can be transformed to better express kingdom values. As believers look at their people’s way of life with a commitment to building a biblical worldview, they can discover creative ways to merge traditional values with gospel values. Yes, parts of different cultures will sometimes be lost – but, ideally, it will only be because they do not live up to what culture is supposed to be. Followers of Christ in each of the cultures that exist today will strive to express a facet of what culture was created to be, until the day when all of the distortions will fall away and all cultural diversity will be grounded in the goodness of the Creator of culture.
This high view of culture ought to help the Christian to look at whatever cultures are represented around him with an eye to see all about them that promotes truth, beauty and human flourishing, and to embrace those aspects. The Holy Spirit can help us to be discerning in bringing areas of the culture that are recognizably tainted by sin and brokenness under the light of the Word of God. The Spirit can use believers living on mission in other places to humbly prompt believers native to that culture to work at transforming these cultural patterns in a way that fits with the sound values of their people, yet brings new areas of community life under the rule of God.