Years ago, my mental image of culture was of a monolithic structure of values, behaviors, and events that were largely counter to my Christian beliefs. My understanding of culture has grown from a reductionistic imagining of two conflicting cultures—Christianity and the society we live in—to appreciating multiple subcultures, realizing that my work can make an impact on the subcultures of which I’m a part, enjoying aspects of my family, neighborhood, and church cultures which are unique, and critically evaluating the culture of our country, of which I’m also a part. 

I earned a Master’s Degree in Communication and Culture in 2011, and one of the first, and most impactful, classes I took was Cultural Hermeneutics, the objective of which was to give students a framework for interpreting culture. Merriam Webster defines culture as, “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group” or “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization.” (Culture Definition & Meaning – Merriam-Webster accessed on 6/14/23.) Andy Crouch, in his book Culture Making, writes simply, “Culture is what we make of the world.”  (Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, [Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2008], 23.)

My professor, Dr. Kevin J. Vanhoozer, saw culture as “works” and “worlds” of meaning. He would say culture thus refers to the activity, and the results of this activity whereby form and meaning are given to material, through the work of human spirit/freedom. Culture refers to the work of “spirit” on “nature.” Human beings create culture by inscribing themselves–forming shapes and signs and so making their “mark”–upon the world.

Creating Cultural Works
Christians create cultural works, whether we realize it or not. We create works and worlds of meaning in the way we live our lives, the way we relate with others, with the work we’re doing, and as we entertain, show hospitality, develop new projects, and many other activities. 

Andy Crouch writes, “If God is at work in every sphere and scale of human culture, then such supernaturally abundant results are potentially present whenever we take the risk of creating a new cultural good” (italics mine). (Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, pg. 254.) 

This is worth some thought. What works and worlds am I creating? How might they be interpreted? Am I willing to risk putting it out into the culture? Do I trust God or am I weighing risk vs. results?  

Personally, I want the works and worlds I am creating to influence not just the Christian subculture, but the broader culture. I’m doing my best to follow God’s lead and to trust him to do his will with what I’m creating.  That’s all any of us can do.

Interpreting Cultural Works
I dusted off my notes from cultural hermeneutics to remind myself of how to interpret cultural works, and I’ll share what I (re)learned. There are important questions we must ask. 

  1. What, exactly, is the work? A movie, article, commercial, painting, concert, sermon, social media post? 
  2. What is it communicating? 
  3. From what perspective are the creators speaking? 
  4. What is an appropriate Christian response?

What is the work?
Let’s examine the extremely popular Apple TV show, Ted Lasso. Ted Lasso was a college football coach who was hired as a soccer coach by a team in the UK. Rebecca, the new owner of the team, hired Ted, who knew nothing about soccer, seeking revenge on her ex-husband. However, Ted’s positive energy, kindness, and humor sent the team on a different trajectory. Coming out in August of 2020, mid-covid, it was just what we needed. It became a cultural event.

What is it communicating?
To be clear, I am not a professional critic, but to me Ted Lasso communicated that effective leadership is not as concerned with winning as it is with the development of the players, that a coach with a positive attitude is far more effective than a grumpy mean-spirited coach, and that community and kindness are important. A prominent subtext was that everyone’s life is complicated. Those messages are all true and worthy.

There are objectionable behaviors and language too. Ted Lasso contains the common message that sex is no big deal, that it’s OK to play around, that no one will get hurt. There are F-bombs galore, which I just don’t understand. Is it evidence of inarticulate writers or is it a feature of the Hollywood screenwriter culture? Or both? I digress.

From what perspective are the creators speaking?
Jason Sudeikis and Brendan Hunt co-wrote Ted Lasso. According to Wikipedia, Sudeikis has a history in improvisational comedy, was a member of Second City Touring Company, a writer and actor for Saturday Night Live, and has had many roles in movies and television. Hunt’s resumé isn’t quite as accomplished, but he also has had success as a comedian and has film and television credits. 

The story’s origin was a humorous 4:41-minute video produced in 2013 for NBC Sports with the theme of a U.S. football coach attempting to coach soccer. In 2019 Sudeikis and Hunt wrote the screenplay for Ted Lasso, and Sudeikis says that he changed the character of Lasso to be more positive, kind, and inclusive because he was tired of the negativity in politics.

“You know, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world,’” Sudeikis told The Observer, paraphrasing Mahatma Gandhi… “Part of the joy of getting to do this neat job I’ve got to do is the wish-fulfillment. Not just getting to play the characters, but also, what do you want to put out there into the world?” (Italics mine.) (Jason Sudeikis says he changed Ted Lasso character because of Donald Trump | CNN accessed 6/25/23.)

Whether he realized it or not, Sudeikis understood the culture and worked to create a world of positivity, kindness, inclusivity, community, and strong leadership. The world noticed. 

How Should Christians Respond?
In general, my response is to talk up the positive messages and communicate what I liked about the show. In other words, focus on what is true. Christians are too often challenging the negative, and sometimes that’s appropriate, but perhaps it is more effective to put the spotlight on what’s good, right, just, and true. If I still had young children at home, we wouldn’t watch it because of the language and sexual content. It’s a fair criticism to point that out for families and others who might be offended by the content, but otherwise, I focus on the good messages.

I believe there is something constructive in most cultural works that we may have gotten out of the habit of recognizing. There is also always something negative in any cultural work, for even the best script, piece of art, or menu creation was created by flawed human beings. If Christians have a reputation for recognizing and praising the good and true, maybe more people will listen.  

Does it Matter?
I can tend to think, What’s the point of spending the time to analyze a work and respond? There are much more influential voices than mine. True, but I believe it does matter.

We are small. We can’t compete with Netflix, The New York Times, or celebrities in establishing or validating culture. But God works in and through the small. Jesus explained that the Kingdom of God is like a tiny mustard seed, a teaspoon or two of yeast, a pearl hidden in a field, which are all examples of small things that make a large impact. We cannot influence the culture, but never forget that God in us can use us to accomplish his purposes. 

I’ve come to see that cultures are not diametrically opposed to Christianity. Yes, parts of them are, but other parts are beautiful representations of how God expresses himself in and through the works and worlds of meaning created by people like you and me. 

Christians willing to take the risk of creating cultural goods can influence our families, churches, neighborhoods, and the broader culture by creating works and worlds of meaning and we can build up our cultural awareness by analyzing other works. 

For me, I’ll ask God what he wants me to create and trust him to use it to his glory.

Photo by Elijah Macleod on Unsplash

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