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On the Importance of Analyzing Culture

Those of us in the Western world are living in a time & culture which would be easy to analyze, answer, and shape. Most of us aren’t concerned about mere existence and survival.

Yet we often choose to consume culture & let our lives be overtaken with its worries.

It’s important to be aware of the context of culture: ideas, worldviews, philosophies, morals, and the physical outworking of those things. People do not change their morals or worldview merely by single contacts with those different from their own, but rather through prolonged and consistent experiences that confirm each other over time.

That’s why media is powerful. Media is both a reflection of culture, and a catalyst. That makes it both one of the most easy and the most difficult parts of culture to analyze.

What Analysis Is

We can examine things like art on a deeper level than simply seeing whether Scripture speaks to it or not. We can ask of media: Is this good or bad art, and why? We can compare it to the nature of God and Truth. By analyzing an aspect or product of culture and its context and worldview, we can understand why Jazz is confusing, Picasso is bizzare, and villians are glorified in certain films.

To analyze art and media, I think, is simply to examine the story being told on a deeper level, being aware of the philosophies that drive it.

Reasons for Analyzing Culture

  1. It prevents you from mindlessly consuming and accepting whatever ideas come your way.
  2. It makes you more aware that every person has a worldview which comes out in all he touches — especially art.
  3. It allows you to understand the context of a culture, and compare it to absolutes.
  4. It allows you to understand the ways a particular piece of art not only reflects but influences culture, and possibly why the art can be labeled as either good or bad craftsmanship in itself .
  5. It lets you understand the shifting waves of culture around you compared to the foundation of Christ on which you stand.
  6. It gives you the ability to speak to the context of the culture, and adapt your life and methods to best answer the difficult issues of it — while not falling into the same ideaological traps (whether philisophically or artistically).
  7. It helps put aspects of life, particularly art, in context and helps sharpen the understanding of what is good art and how to make it.

The Un-Reasons to Analyze Culture

These are not good reasons for analyzing the art & media of a culture:

  1. To be contrary — to criticize anything & everything that might come out of culture or be widely accepted by it.
  2. As an excuse for consuming culture.
  3. To construct conspiracy theories.

Should We Merely Analyze?

Art can be enjoyed, as with any other aspect of culture — like food, holidays, etc.

Analysis is great for building an awareness of and ability to answer a culture, but does it contribute anything useful?

I would say that reviewing/analyzing culture is not equal to active/proactive contributions to it. Reviewing is merely reactive commenting, which is much easier to do, but makes little to no impact.

Analysis is a tool to discover and ponder ideas contained by culture & media, and the most powerful way to practically utilize it is to help us discern the direction of a society and purposefully move ahead of trends. It is useful for calling attention to danger, but that is not its primary use if we are to have a positive and definite influence.

We must shape culture, not merely react to it.

So should we listen to those who merely analyze culture, but don’t show an inclination to actually shape it?

Final Thought: A Renewed Mind

A while back, I saw Romans 12:2 in a new light.

“Do not be conformed to this world…”

After noticing a particular word choice in a German translation, I dug a little deeper. Often we think of this phrase to mean “don’t act in the same way as the sinners around you.”

The Luther translation reads: “Und stellt euch nicht dieser Welt gleich…” or, “And have not the same mind as this world…”

The Greek word here for “world” is αἰών, which carries the meaning of “age” (as in the “spirit of the age” — or zeitgeist).

Thus: instead of having the same mind & living out the ideas of the culture & age in which we live, we are to be renewed in mind by the Spirit.

This renewed mind allows us to look around at the culture and its facets, aware of its philosophies — while never being shaken or moved from the foundations of absolutes and Truth.

The Roaring Masses

This era is the most well-documented in history. With so many free and convenient means of publishing available, even the most obscure, bizarre, and weak voices have no trouble at least being recorded. It’d be a historian’s dream: access to every heartbeat of a civilization.

But oh, the poor historians who will attempt making sense of it all in a hundred years. How will they know what was important to a culture, when it had millions of worthless bits of data spreading throughout it everyday?

Contrived Memories

A parent can’t simply enjoy a child’s piano recital; he must also take video of it or pictures. A person won’t simply go out on an adventure or retreat to a quiet place for thinking; he will also share it via social networking. We’re consumers. Instead of doing something because it is good and right and beautiful, we engineer something because we have this faint tracing in our mind of those things which, a few generations back, used to be commonplace (but profound) happenings. Everything’s so very plastic-y nowadays. Actually, to my mind — plastic is a very good example of what I speak of. Things used to be made out of quality materials because that was the best thing to do. Now, in an effort to chase after maximum profit, we make imitations from cheap plastic. And plastic cannot truly replace something built of quality and principle; and so it is in life as well. Manufactured memories — are they truly memories at all?

What’s the reason for this manufacturing epidemic?

Waving Our Own Flags

We’ve abused the potentially useful powers of media and social networking because we all want to wave our own flags — and for as many people as possible to “like,” “RT,” or “+1″ them. We could create meaningful connections, but instead we vie for attention.

As a result, we’ve lost the ability to give and experience both simple and profound moments by seeking to manufacture them. By trying to be heard by the masses, we’ve sacrificed truth, aesthetics, authenticity, and deep relationship on the altars of the popularity gods. By immersing ourselves in the ocean of voices, we’ve isolated ourselves from reality.

Three Responses

There are three attitudes we can take towards the dilemma of media use and abuse surrounding us:

1) Run With It: it’s available to use and not going away. Might as well participate in and consume it rather than be left out to dry — besides, it’s fun, lets you have a voice, and can connect you to hundreds of people.

This is the worst option of the three, and the attitude of the majority.

2) Withdraw or Greatly Limit Participation; there are too many voices already, most of them irrelevant and worthless.

This response is appropriate for some people — many more than actually take this approach. (This has been my attitude sometimes — plus the feeling that since someone else will say it if I don’t, anyway, I might as well crawl into a hole and die unnoticed.)

3) Participate Intentionally. Because of the sea of voices, limit those you pay attention to so connections and relationships remain meaningful. When participating in the culture, focus on contributing things that really matter.

This is the best option for most, but only a small number of people hold this attitude in its pure form.

Instead of waffling between the first two attitudes (easy to do), how more impactful could it be to have a balanced and purposeful attitude toward the modernities that surround us? Certainly that balance would be difficult, but not impossible.


Ultimately, eternity is in mind. Is your voice going to matter in the end? Will you stand before God having nothing to show but a life of self-promotion? Or will your life be well-spent, consumed with bringing a little it of His Kingdom to this world, a little bit of light in the darkness, a small voice of worth in a deafening roar of vanity?

The apostles often engaged culture in the places they were: the Jews in the Synagogues; Greeks in their forums; common people in the streets; travelers on the road. (Ironically, modern popular Christianity has flipped this by trying to bring unbelievers into the Church.) They went to people where they were — but didn’t try to be everywhere at once, reach a certain quantity of people (though they cared about all), or gain followings of adoring fans. They brought light, healing, and truth to their audiences, and received no popularity in return. Instead, the masses taunted, tortured, and killed them.

Our attitude should be the same. Our culture has many meeting places, both real and digital. Not all of us are to embrace going to people in every place, but in the places we do go, we must bring ideas that matter. We need to serve, help, impact — not focusing on the quantity of people we touch, but on the quality of interactions with those in our circles. For some, that means reaching millions. For most, it means reaching only a few.

And that’s okay.

Don’t add your voice to the screaming, flag-waving crowds. Every person in that crowd is waving his own flag and screaming louder than you are. To leave a legacy and deeply impact people, you must do good work that matters and give it to people who care. And to have the time, energy, and mental clarity for this, you must limit the voices in your life to those which are meaningful and deep.

Let’s pull our eyes away from the masses — but not shun them — and focus on the things that really matter, the stuff life’s made of.