What is culture?

Lesson Materials

In this session, David looks at differences in culture from a Western Perspective. Sharing stories from his own travels and others, David illustrates how culture is every part of our lives through how we dress, how we interact with others and more.

TEACHING ON CULTURE  |  Session 2 -  What is Culture?


1/ Examples

2/ What is Culture?


Includes e.g:

        • How we traditionally behave
        • Family traditions
        • Dress
        • Arts
        • Taboos 
        • Relationships
        • How society is organised


Seen by anthropologists as: ‘the integrated system of learned behaviour patterns which are characteristic of the members of society and which are not the result of biological inheritance’ [1]


Relationships between culture and human beings is similar to the relationship between water and fish!  Humans are totally and inextricably immersed in culture – Charles Kraft.


‘Culture can be defined as the way of life of a particular society, including its patterns of thought, beliefs, behaviour, customs, traditions, rituals, dress, language, art, music, and literature.  These particular systems of beliefs and practices are based on the assumptions people make about themselves, about the world around them and about ultimate realities.  Cultures involve the worldviews, social structures, and institutions that give meaning to life.  Cultures provide people with the means of expressing their deepest feelings formalised in ways understood and accepted by those around them.’ [2]


“Every human culture is an extremely complex mixture of brilliant truth, marred half-truths and over resistance to the truth. Every culture will have some idolatrous discourse within it. And yet every culture will have some witness to God’s truth in it. God gives out good gifts of wisdom, talent, beauty and skill completely without regard for merit. He casts them across a culture like seed, in order to enrich, brighten and preserve the world. Without this understanding of culture, Christians will tend to think that they can live self-sufficiently, isolated from and unblessed by the contributions of those in the world. Without an appreciation for God’s gracious display of his wisdom in the broader culture, Christians may struggle to understand why non-Christians often exceed Christians in moral practice, wisdom and skill. The doctrine of sin means that as believers we are never as good as our right worldview should make us. At the same time, the doctrine of our creation in the image of God, and an understanding of common grace, remind us that non-believers are never as flawed as their false worldview should make them.” [3]


“Cultural diversity was built into the Christian faith…in Acts 15, which declared the new Gentile Christians didn’t have to enter Jewish culture…The converts had to work out…a Hellenistic way of being a Christian.  [So] no one owns the Christian faith.  There is no ‘Christian culture’ the way there is an ‘Islamic culture’ which you can recognize from Pakistan to Tunisia to Morocco.” [4]


2/ Understand Scripture


    • Scripture is largely written from an Eastern perspective.  We tend to read it from a Western cultural perspective and therefore miss some of the insights e.g.:
    • Hospitality – Abraham and his visitors
    • The Parable of the Friend at Midnight
    • The Parable of the 2 sons
    • What is the main purpose of the story of Joseph:



        • A visionary, purpose driven person may say – story of a man with a vision who saw it all come true in the end.
        • A theologian might say – Sovereignty of God – God brought about His purposes despite all the problems.
        • Great American Dream – however low you fall you can still achieve greatness – a former slave can become Prime Minister of Egypt.
        • Prophetically inclined people may say – he fulfilled the prophetic calling to bless the nations.
        • In the study, the Westerners said – however difficult life became, Joseph remained faithful to God.
        • The Africans all gave the same answer – It doesn’t matter how long or how far a man is away from home, he never forgets his family.



    • Kenneth Bailey – “Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes” - SPCK Publishing (21 Mar. 2008) - ISBN: 978-0281059751.
    • Kenneth Bailey – “Poet and Peasant and Through Peasant Eyes” - William B Eerdmans Publishing Co; Combined ed edition (1 Aug. 1983) - ISBN: 978-0802819475.



© David Devenish

What is Culture? - Teaching on Culture - Session 2 - Bournemouth - March 2015

[1] Charles H. Kraft: Christianity in Culture, Orbis, 1994, p.46 quoting Hoebel E Adamson: Anthropology: The Study of Man, 4th ed. McGraw-Hill, 1972, p.6

[2] David Zeidon Contextualisation, unpublished paper

[3] Tim Keller, “Center Church”

[4] Andrew F Walls, “The Expansion of Christianity: An Interview with Andrew Walls”, Christian Century, August 2-9 2000, p.792