When Tom Clancy’s fictional character Jack Ryan became President of the US, he learned how little he could change. If Barack Obama pushes for a college football playoff, he’ll learn that talk of changing the BCS is closer to BS. The Bowl Championship Series is a story about the power of culture – and why making culture ought to be a priority for faith communities.
The President-elect recently said there should be an eight-team playoff (over three rounds) to determine a national champion. While not his highest priority, Obama added, “I don’t know any serious fan of college football who has disagreed with me. I think it’s the right thing to do.” A playoff might be the right thing and most fans want it, but institutions more often shape society than the collective efforts of individual fans – even presidents. The overlapping networks of institutions in this case are university presidents, ESPN, and Madison Avenue. They constitute a culture called money. Look no further than this year’s #1 team, the University of Florida.
For years, the Gators played no more than 10 regular season games. University presidents stood opposed to a playoff system, citing the sanctity of students’ studies during finals. But the advent of cable TV and ESPN changed all that. ESPN now has a $2 billion deal with the Southeastern Conference as well as a $500 million pact with the BCS. They pay if you play – on their terms. This year, Florida played 12 regular season games in addition to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, which they won. Their 14th game this season will be the BCS Championship game on January 8th in Miami. So much for the sanctity of study time.
This is all well and good for ESPN, but what does it have to do with faith communities? A lot. The first charge in the Bible (Gen. 1:26-30) is to “cultivate” the garden, from which we get our word culture. Making culture therefore “stands as the first and fundamental law of history.”1 But you have to know what is meant by culture to see why making culture is a priority.
Culture is first of all power – think of social and financial capital, knowledge, credentials, and cultural accomplishments – that generally permits or prohibits what people can do. For example, culture is the power to punish drivers caught cruising faster than 55 on the freeway.
Second, culture is individuals and institutions that earn credibility and end up with the power to define reality itself. They have the power to name things, such as the speed limit. Interesting – naming things is the first recorded activity of Adam. Yet the biblical vision is never individuals acting alone. When God said, “Let us make man in our image… and let them rule,” he intended that institutions, marriage being one, make culture. Culture is a product, if you will, manufactured by institutions and those who lead them. This is why the Apostle Paul warned the Romans about rebelling against authority and what God has instituted (Rom. 13:1-2). Institutions are like little kingdoms and are part of the created order, “founded in an ordinance of God,” Al Wolters writes.2
Finally, culture is a mood. If Barack pushes for a playoff, he’s going up against the glory of college athletics that causes otherwise sane alumni to tailgate in ghastly outfits and eat gastronomically challenging food. That’s mood, baby. They couldn’t care less about the ESPN money involved. They glory in the game, and that’s how God created us to live. We should enjoy life the same way kids enjoy riding bikes – no longer attending to all the dynamics involved. I’m not saying we should be careless, but can you imagine how arduous life would be if we had to be cognizant of how culture influences our every decision? God wants us to make culture so that we glory in it instead of griping about it. Doesn’t that sound more attractive?
Imagine a world, for example, where our definition of reality is taken seriously and acted upon by leaders in business or media. Imagine sending your kid to a state college that takes your faith seriously. Wouldn’t your faith flourish? This is why culture matters – it permits faith to flourish or prohibits flourishing. It enriches or impoverishes human life. Culture is “not merely art, music, and scholarship, but also such things as our economic and political life, religion, the church, education, the media, marriage, family life, and entertainment. To be a cultural being is, quite simply, to be human.”3 In many ways, culture makes us fully human.
And that’s what Jesus was after – to restore us to being fully human. There is challenge, however, since many faith communities place a higher priority on saving souls than making culture. “Jesus never talked about making culture. He came to save the lost.” Of course, the key is asking what did Christ mean by save? The Greek word for salvation came from the medical community, meaning restoration to health. Saving the lost was not simply offering forgiveness, but also offering a kingdom – a culture, that is – where faith would flourish. This is why Jesus opens his gospel ministry: “Repent, for the kingdom of the heavens is now available” (Mt. 4:17).
And it’s why Christ closed his model prayer with “thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory” (Mt. 6:13) – the three aspects of culture. Making culture is simply “thy kingdom come, thy will be done on the earth.” Winston Churchill said we make our buildings and then they make us. We make culture and then it makes us, as God intended life to be. The good news is that Jesus’ disciples made this a priority and created new institutions that were eventually taken seriously by leaders in the Roman world. It’ll take some time, but I bet we can do something similar, so that leaders in our modern world take faith seriously.
1 Albert M. Wolters, “The Foundational Command: Subdue the Earth” (Toronto: Paper given at the Institute for Christian Studies, 1973), p. 8.
2 Albert M. Wolters, Creation Regained: Biblical Basics for a Reformational Worldview (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), p. 22.
3 Brian J. Walsh and J. Richard Middleton, The Transforming Vision: Shaping a Christian World View (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1984), p. 55.