Most people think culture means refined social customs and tedious, high-brow, institutions like Wagnerian opera -- and they would be partly right. Culture is comprised of all these things, but has a much broader meaning as well.
Even cultures that don’t have opera have culture. Henry Van Til explains,
Thus culture can be seen in every way people bring order to their natural environment, and fashion it to their satisfaction. It’s the process of civilization, in taking the natural and turning it into something ordered and refined. It’s the difference between basic communication and poetry (or slang), eggs and an omelet, stones and the cathedral of Notre Dame.
It’s the “L’escargot s’il vous plait” that precedes the preparing of a plate of snails, and it’s the practice of taking the bare, natural elements— gastropods, heat, garlic and butter -- and constructing a dish of escargot. And it’s the institution of escargot itself. A snail is natural, but sauté it, mash it into a paste, arrange it on a plate with a pinch of parsley garnish and it becomes culture.
In a broader sense, culture is a people’s self-expression, comprised of their music, art, architecture, fashion-sense, cuisine, literature, media, and language style; this includes high-brow, low-brow, and everything in-between. Some cultures converse in Shakespearian English, others text in lolspeak. The phrase: “This is the very ecstasy of love” is really no more “cultured” than the phrase “i haz a happy.”
Culture reflects the identity of the collective and the individual, and individuals of all strata of society: Charles II had a personal culture and so did Gunga Din. Charles II’s culture can be seen in his pompous wig, high-heeled shoes, excessive lace cravat, and effeminate mannerisms. Gunga Din’s culture can be seen in his ‘piece o' twisty rag an' a goatskin water-bag.’ We derive that Charles II had the more advanced and refined culture of the two (though Gunga Din was indisputably the ‘better man.’)
Here’s the rub: just because it all counts equally as “culture” doesn’t mean that it’s all equal… or good.
Modern anthropologists try to teach us that culture is neutral, since it’s just man’s way of expressing his identity, which he is free to do in whatever way he likes. But this is precisely why culture isn’t neutral: it’s the manifestation of man’s identity, the essence of which is his morality and faith.
A man’s culture tells us who his god is and how he perceives wrong and right. We can see this religion promoted in the books he writes, the buildings he builds, the paintings he paints, the music he composes, the clothes he wears, the songs he sings, the movies he makes, and the way he talks. These are all religious statements. So is the fact that some people will pay exorbitant amounts for something that they could find slithering through a puddle after a rainfall -- and the fact that they would eat them.
This is why the study of culture is important. History is the study of the consequences of men’s ideas. Culture is what those ideas look like, sound like, taste like, and how they manifest themselves in everyday life.
One of history’s best case studies of culture is Ancient Egypt. The Egyptian people achieved one of the most distinctive, comprehensive and enduring cultures of all time. They exemplify the act of civilization in conquering the elements and imprinting their ideology onto them; they brought their reality into a signature order and style that was imposed on every aspect of their art, writing and architecture. Why and how all this was done is still one of the great secrets of the ancient world. No wonder Western civilization has been fascinated by this culture for centuries, and many of her sons have traveled to Egypt to revel in the aura of mystery and plunder the treasures.
We are not going for the booty; we want the truth. We are going to Egypt to explore the mysteries: who were the Egyptians and what did they believe? What was the driving religious force in their lives? Who were their gods? We will be following the trail of culture clues they left behind: the pyramids, obelisks, hieroglyphics, sculptures, reliefs, tombs, sarcophagi, and mummies.
This expedition is going to be a crash-course in interpreting culture. It will teach us many things about how to look at other civilizations; to follow the externals of a society to their source: the basis of a people’s faith. But ultimately, I hope it teaches us to look at ourselves and ask, “What is the basis of my faith, and how am I communicating that in my culture?”