If truth be told, I scan Facebook a lot. Like everyone else on Facebook, I see all the debates raging back and forth—homosexual marriage, abortion, gun rights, political debates, and more—and in all the stuff that gets slung back and forth, I don’t know if there’s a single person who stops to recognize that the way their message will be received is in large part determined by the culture to which their audience belongs. Most likely, culture never entered their mind when they shared that meme or wrote that post because they assumed that the people who would read it share the same culture. Well, they are wrong.
So to help all of us out, here is an admittedly oversimplified definition of culture. Don’t let it sound boring to you, either, because the good stuff comes only when you understand this foundation; and trust me, it is good stuff. Okay, so here are four layers of culture based on what we would observe, in order, if we were to go into a different culture:
- Behavior—what is done?
- Values—what is good or best?
- Beliefs—what is true?
- Worldview—what is real?*
Each layer of culture is driven by the one below it, but to help us see how that works, let me give some examples so we don’t get lost in anthropological mumbo jumbo. We’ll consider a devout Hindu and someone whose culture has been influenced by the Christian worldview, walking through how they answer each question associated with the layers going in reverse order from what’s written above.
- What is real? Hindu: Karma is real. What you did in a previous life determines what you’re getting now. Christian-influenced: God is the creator of all things, including you and me as unique individuals.
- What is true? Hindu: You deserve your low status. Christian-influenced: God died to save sinners and adopt us as His sons.
- What is good or best? Hindu: That I treat you as your born position deserves so that we both gain good Karma for our next life. Christian-influenced: I treat you as God treated me, regardless of position or status.
- What is done? Hindu: Oppression or reverence, as position deserves. Christian-influenced: Equal and loving treatment for all mankind.
Or consider a more western-culture version:
- What is real? Atheist: Only what can be scientifically proven. Christian: God and His created universe.
- What is true? Atheist: People are only highly evolved animals. Christian: Humans are created in the image of God.
- What is good or best? Atheist: Potentially anything, whatever leads to the greatest expedient practical benefit. Christian: God’s will is the highest good.
- What is done? Atheist: Anything—abortion, euthanasia, divorce, promiscuity, etc. There’s no ultimate consequence for your choices, so choose to live however you want. Christian: Following the example of Jesus.
What this shows us is that most of what we debate about is behavior, or perhaps the values behind them, but few of us recognize that disagreement at a deeper level of culture creates a gap that cannot be bridged by arguing at a shallower layer of culture.
What’s more, getting someone to agree with you about behavior is terribly superficial if their conversion didn’t touch what they believe to be real. For example, a Hindu might “believe in Jesus,” but in reality only be taking Him to be one more god among all the others that they worship because their worldview didn’t receive Him as the only God. Or, frighteningly, we might convince an atheist that an unborn child is a vital human life, but if they hold fully true to their worldview, that still does not produce morality or ethics because you cannot scientifically establish absolute rights or wrongs; that belongs purely to the realm of philosophy and religion, which science cannot explain. They could still logically reason within their worldview that it’s better for both you and that baby for it to die because it would detrimentally effect “quality of life” for both you and it. In fact, this is the entire argument behind eugenics, which tries to control human population by “trimming off” what it perceives as negative to society through means of abortion, euthanasia, and in extreme cases like Hitler, genocide.
But while I can (and want to) get on a soapbox because of my horror at such practices, that does nothing if I only reach people at the level of their behavior, values, or even their belief system. What really has to change is peoples’ worldview, and our own as well, so how do we do this?
Well, because our worldview defines what we believe to be real, experience is the powerful dictator of this layer of culture. It’s very hard for us to deny the reality of what we experience. For this reason, when someone experiences God through His intervention in their lives—a healing, miraculous provision, a supernatural sense of His love or presence, etc.—they immediately realize that all they saw before was blindness compared to the reality that just opened before them.
Also, Hebrews 4:12-13 says, “For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” Certainly, if God’s word pierces between soul and spirit, then it gets as deep as our worldview. I believe that God sends out His word and it always bears fruit (Isaiah 55:10-11). I also believe that God sometimes takes His word—His scriptures—and makes something stand out to us in a particular moment for a particular reason. When we are able to “hear” what God is saying to a person in a given moment and say it to them, it opens them up like nothing else and paves the way for them to enter a new reality.
Once someone’s reality changes, so does their belief system, and then so do their values, and then so do their actions. But when we only aim at actions, we never change their reality. It’s like cutting the head off a dandelion, but not getting the roots.
But I said that we also need to do this in our own lives. Why? Because there are two different kinds of belief systems—operating and theoretical. Operating belief systems are what you truly believe that then influences your values and actions. Theoretical belief systems are like rote creeds that you can recite, but it doesn’t affect how you live.** For example, every Christian will tell you that they believe God loves them, yet, from my experience, the vast majority of them actually believe that they are broken, rejected, unloved, despised, ugly, unwanted, and so on. The former is only a theoretical belief system that has little to no power in their life, while the latter is the operating belief system that leads to genuine actions.
However, if we experience an aspect of God’s nature—His love, healing, provision, protection, etc.—then His reality becomes our reality and our theoretical belief displaces the former operating one. Now, suddenly, we truly believe that God loves us. We say that it went from head knowledge to heart knowledge and we experience freedom from doubt and confidence to minister that reality to others who need it.
Thankfully, God is the ultimate reality, which means that we have every reason for hope both for ourselves and for everyone around us. For as we pursue not just a soapbox regarding how people live, but instead pursue God’s reality within which we live, we can get under the surface issues to people’s hearts, as well as our own, and see God transform us all into everything He created us to be.
* Loyd E. Kwast, “Understanding Culture,” in Perspectives Exposure: Discovering God’s Heart for All Nations and Our Part in His Plan, ed. Meg Crossman (Seattle, WA: YWAM Publishing, 2003), 87-89.
** Loyd E. Kwast, “Understanding Culture,” in Perspectives Exposure: Discovering God’s Heart for All Nations and Our Part in His Plan, ed. Meg Crossman (Seattle, WA: YWAM Publishing, 2003), 88.