Story, Value, and Becoming More Real
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Cult / Cultivate / Culture

January 23, 2024

Steven Garber

What Those Words Mean and Why They Matter


Words matter.

And from the very beginning of time, they have, Father Adam and Mother Eve asked to name the animals in the Garden of Eden. A butterfly and a bird. A sheep and a goat. A cow and a horse. A lion and a tiger. An elephant and a rhinoceros. And on and on and on. In one of Bob Dylan’s most playful songs ever, he remembers this moment in our history with a lyrical surprise, ending his song, “God Gave Names to All the Animals,” with the snake that bites in more ways than one. The Story of Stories begins there, because it must.

Knowing the world requires that we understand the world, and crucial to that task is that we name our world well. A butterfly is not a rhinoceros. Take the words, “cult,” “cultivate,” and “culture,” for example. Etymologically rooted in the same reality, they give us important windows into who we are, into why we are, and into what we are to do with our lives, which at the end of the day is what vocation is about for everyone everywhere.

While staying in a Swiss village several years ago, I walked past a small church building, and seeing a sign on the door, written in French, “The cult is meeting down the mountain this week” I immediately groaned, wondering what had happened to the centuries-long Protestant commitments of the congregation— until I remembered that in romance languages like French, Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese, the word “cult” is not pejorative as it is in English; rather it describes common beliefs about life and the world, communal convictions about the nature of reality, of what is and what is not, of what matters and what does not.

A few moments later I found my way into my computer’s wonders, and sitting on a small bench near the church, I began to study the word’s history. What is it? And where does it come from? Not surprisingly the word itself has its root in other words, notably “cultivate,” which remembers Genesis 1, and the first of all human vocations, to cultivate the cosmos. To know and to love the created order— can you make a fire? can you bake bread? can you make a musical instrument? can you make a hammer? What is possible to be done on the face of the earth? How about a boat? How about a house? How about a poem? How about an iPhone? Centuries and civilizations later we have learned more than ever imagined about the world, and what we can do within it.

Made in the image of the Creator, we are called to be creative, and our deepest humanity, our truest humanity, requires that of us. When for thousands of reasons we cannot, and we do not, we languish, feeling in our very bones that this is not the way it’s supposed to be, that we were made for more than this. The worst faces of capitalism and Marxism both falter here, bringing egregious suffering, in the vanity of their imaginations insisting that human beings can work at work that is mind-numbing and soul-crushing, and still be human, and we cry out for more.

The great Czech playwright-who-became-a-politician, Vaclav Havel, in speech after speech all over the world, argued that “the secret of man is the secret of his responsibility”— at the heart of what it means to be human is our responsibility, our ability to respond. To act and reflect on our actions. To think and to rethink. To see and to hear the world around us, then to care for it, our responsibility woven together with our creativity to make the labors of our lives more fully human.

This is what it means to cultivate, and is the work of the work of cultivation, of planting seeds that grow and then grow some more, weeding out what is not needed so that a deeper growth, a more fruitful plant will come into being.

That is as true for the ideas of our hearts as it is for the fields of our dreams, as true for novelists and painters as it is for farmers and gardeners. Some sentences work, and some don’t; some colors work, and some don’t; some seeds bring beauty, and some don’t— and wisdom comes when we try, and try again, which is why “cultivating” is perennial work, season after season, year upon year.

But if “cultivate” is the oldest word, rooting us in the genesis of life and the world, then “cult” teaches us that what we believe about its meaning matters more than we imagine. As sons of Adam and daughters of Eve we believe all kinds of things about what is real and true and right, and they are lead us to very different conclusions about God, about the human condition, about history. In the broadest of brushstrokes, we see ourselves as atheists, as pantheists, as theists; but to tease this out, we are evolutionary materialists and street-level hedonists, we are Buddhists and Hindus, and we are Jews, Christians and Moslems— each different, and the differences makes for differences about what life means, about what the world means, about what work and worship mean, about what love and learning mean. Yes, each one is its own “cult” with its own cultic commitments about everything that is.

And those cultic commitments define the good life differently, and therefore what makes for a good society— yes, what in fact “culture” is and isn’t.

“What is it that makes for human flourishing?”

This is the most far-reaching question of all, as its answer is formed by what we believe it means to be human. Serious hedonists are not serious Buddhists who are not serious Jews. We see the meaning of meaning with different eyes, eyes that are profoundly shaped by our cultic commitments about the nature of reality— and that has cultural consequence.

Two examples of this.

I have a dear friend who is an African, Eliud Wabakula. Eliud has recently retired from his work as the Archbishop of the Anglican Province of Kenya, the pastor to the pastors of seven million people. A good student as a young man, early in his life he was chosen by John Stott to be one of the first Langham Trust Scholars, sent to Toronto, Canada for his PhD in theology. After his return to Kenya, he worked as a priest and then bishop for many years, and then was asked to take up the work of archbishop. Once we had lunch together in Washington DC, and we talked about our lives and loves. I told him about the work of the Washington Institute for Faith, Vocation and Culture, and wrote on a paper napkin, “faith” and “vocation” and “culture.” Immediately he responded, “But that is the problem of the church in Kenya, and in all of Africa. We have disconnected faith from vocation from culture, teaching a belief in Jesus who has nothing to say about vocation, and we have corrupt cultures everywhere.” He saw the integral relationship of cult to cultivate to culture, that the ideas and words were twined together in both the church and the world— and that getting them right has meaning for who we are and the way we live.

Another very good friend is Charlie Peacock of Nashville, a musician and producer of musicians, with a history of serious reflection on the meaning of music for both the church and the world. We have talked for years about the vocation of the artist in a pluralizing, secularizing society, in our own ways giving the labor of our lives to nourishing more honest and holy music, a music that is more truly human. Once along the way he invited two friends to join him for a few days of conversations with young musicians who wanted to enter into the world of recording, hoping against hope to become professionals in their own unique ways. Charlie curated the time together, speaking into the imaginations and longings of these gifted young men and women; the British poet and author Steve Turner took his turn, drawing on years of intimate interaction with musicians on questions of meaning and purpose; and then me too, adding what I could to the conversation. At one point I asked a question to the group which has now run through my life for years, asked and asked again in many places with many people:

“Can you sing songs shaped by the truest truths of the universe in language the whole world can understand?”

To put it another way, “Is it possible to imagine an art that is honest to your deepest commitments about what is real and true and right, and still communicate to the watching world?” Can one’s faith form one’s vocation in ways that speaks to the culture, a common grace for the common good? Or in the end, are those separate boxes? Different compartments of a sadly compartmentalized life?

Again and again the question is about the relationship of cult to cultivate to culture. What do they mean? And what do they mean for each other? The reality is that they depend on each other, that in fact they cannot be defined apart from each other, one written into another which is written into another, their very meaning integral, not incidental, to each other.

Yes, a more seamless life, one where the whole of life— love and learning, worship and work —is more coherent, more the way it should be and someday will be, becoming the tapestry of who we are, of why we are, and of what we do with our lives. And all of this born of a rereading of a word on the door of chapel in the mountains of Switzerland.


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  1. Mark Green says:

    Thank you, Steve. Looking around here in Tashkent, with all its historical conundrums and continuing questions, wondering how the truth applies here, in the now of this moment.

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