Why Institutions Matter – Pt. 2

Michael Metzger

Faith communities and believers are called to love their neighbors. Shalom is how they love their neighbors. Shalom means our faith flourishes to the degree that culture-shaping institutions in the wider world flourish. All institutions flourish to the degree that they are informed and formed by a biblical definition of reality. But why would a business, for example, adopt a culture informed by a biblical definition of reality? It probably wouldn’t – unless believers saw it as their job description.

The Human Job Description
In Genesis 1:26-28, “God assigned to us collectively the rule over all living things on earth,” writes Dallas Willard. Have dominion is translated “kultur” in German – our word “culture.” Faith communities are to make culture. This is called the Cultural Mandate, or, as Willard describes it, the human job description.

Our human job description has never been rescinded. Even after the fall, the Cultural Mandate was restated (Gen. 3:23). It was reissued after the flood (Gen. 9). “This means that God’s intention and desire for redemption is cosmic in scope,” Al Wolters writes. “Not only are people to be redeemed, but the cosmos (or culture) is on God’s heart.” “Our fundamental makeup is unchanged,” writes Willard. “The deepest longings of our heart confirm our original calling. Our very being still assigns us to ‘rule’ in our life circumstances.” Making culture is foundational to the church. But what is culture?

Culture is the governing ideas, images, institutions, and items that shape a society’s understanding of reality. Let’s parse that out. Culture is ideas, it is worldviews and assumptions, such as “distance is bad and I ought to be in touch all the time.” It is images, such as film and art and music and advertising and the stories we tell about worldviews and assumptions. It is institutions such as AT&T, Apple, and the FCC that transmit those ideas and make items, such as iPhones and iTunes. Collectively, a matrix such as this one defines what constitutes the good life – gotta have an iPhone.

Culture forms the total and largely invisible matrix of meaning that frames our thinking, guides our actions, and informs what we make and what we long for. We make culture, but more importantly, culture makes us. Mobile technology is simply one example. Ideas about “being in touch – all the time” are mixed with images in advertising of how cool it is to be in contact with all your friends all the time. Institutions such as the Internet and Apple and phone companies create “cool” items such as phones and Twitter and – presto – you have a culture that doesn’t think twice about checking texts and tweets every few minutes. It’s a routine ritual, like enjoying a warm shower. That’s culture.

Here’s the important insight: To have cultural impact, these ideas must be embedded in stories that are reinforced by storytelling institutions, such as the academy, art, media, advertising, entertainment. Again Willard, “Ideas and images are the primary focus of Satan’s efforts to defeat God’s purposes with and for mankind. When we are subject to his chosen ideas and images, he can take a nap or go on holiday.” Making culture is the human job description. But why is making culture so critical to shalom? Because cultures promote, permit, or prohibit individual behaviors.

Cultures Promote, Permit, or Prohibit
The U.S. is a car culture. Americans could take mass transit, but most of time, it’d be an arduous trip. Car travel is easier, since car culture is institutionalized. Robert Moses did as much as anyone to institutionalize car culture. He built most of the freeways and bridges that sliced and diced New York City. And when Moses built Long Island parks, he ensured few African-Americans would be able to get to them. How?

Moses considered African-Americans inherently “dirty.” Since the lower classes rode buses, including African-Americans, Moses ingeniously engineered the Long Island bridges to insure that buses “would never ruin the beauty of his bridges or carry poor people along them to his state parks.” For example, he had the Henry Hudson Parkway bridges built with maximum headroom of thirteen feet in the middle yet only eleven feet at the curb. The buses of that day were taller than eleven feet and had to drive on the curb lane. Commuting could only be done by car. For a bus to make it to a state park, it had to navigate long and arduous back roads.

Bridges barring African-Americans from enjoying the beaches is an example of a lack of shalom. The degree to which our socially constructed world is consistent with a biblical definition of reality is the degree to which a person or society will experience shalom. How do we create synergy between the two? Moses headed up over seven culture-shaping institutions, including Park Commissioner, Construction Coordinator, and member of the City Planning Commission. Culture is institutionalized habits. Institutions shape habits. How? That’s Part Three of The Clapham Institute Manifesto, “Why Institutions Matter” – published next Monday.


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  1. “have dominion” is not directly translated into the German word Kultur. . . .

    Kultur is culture – or cultivate, for the verb.

    To “have dominion” would be Herrschaft – which literally means the state of being ‘lord’.

    The argument you are trying to make is just as easily made all in English, by stating the connection between having dominion and ‘cultivating’ something, and then moving to ‘culture’. The move to the German does not cut out any of those steps, except that – because many of your readers probably don’t speak German – they might be tempted just to take your word for it that it’s a single step. . . .

    That’s fine for making your immediate point, but does not set your readers up to be able to defend the point, beyond a “Metz said so.”

  2. I like what the bible says in most translations…”subdue it (earth)” that sounds (to me) like making culture and a whole bunch more…and Metz didn’t say it! Not that there is anything wrong with that…

  3. If you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend Andy Crouch’s book “Culture Making.” He gives a really good working definition of culture and then builds a biblical case (similar to what MM has outlined above) for believers to be involved in making the culture.

  4. Good things have been written on changing organizational culture from the top – CEO, Commissioner, etc. Much less has been written on changing org culture from the middle.

    Any recommendations for material aimed at those trying to influence cultural change from positions of more limited power?

  5. There ya go! 2 different takes on making the same point about culture, that does not rely on a tricky translation to German, then back again. Good work, Jeffrey and David!

  6. Bill, “Culture Making” does an excellent job of giving examples how to influence culture wherever you are, ie Andy’s wife in her college laboratory.

    Mike, way to re-frame Schaeffer for us. Most business won’t want to adopt a culture that follows God’s created order until the logical conclusion of the assumptions they base their structure on begins to haunt them. Eventually, they may realize that their “culture” has very little to do with our “humanness” at all, and in fact treats us much more like machines.

    However, if a friend who understands God’s created order, and has felt the tension of the dilemma that this businessman finds himself in decides to enter into his friend’s quandry, he may just be able to show how the order that existed before any of us got into business is good and fun and joyful to cultivate.

    Thanks for continuing the series.


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