I can still remember the first time I experienced a Bible overview. I had already been a Christian for five years but it really blew my mind to see how all the events and characters of Scripture knitted together into a coherent, unfolding narrative of God’s dealings with his world. That was almost two decades ago now, yet I still feel a sense of excitement when I hear or read of how the whole Bible unfolds as one story from Genesis to Revelation.
A Cultural Overview
Since those days, and having trained as a philosopher, I have often thought how interesting and useful it would be to develop a cultural overview to set alongside a Bible overview. What I mean is, it would be helpful to have an outline of the key commitments and turning points of a culture that you could compare with the twists and turns of the Bible.
There are of course many difficulties in conceiving such a project, not least that it risks assuming culture to be unified, linear and progressing in a given direction. Yet the difficulties by no means make void the idea.
Cultural Storyboarding is a tool I have developed that makes a small contribution to this greater vision of a cultural overview. It is intended to provide a picture, not of a national culture, but of a particular local culture (for example the culture of your workplace or your sports club), or a particular cultural milieu (say a branch of industry or an academic field of study), or even the worldview of a single person.
It breaks a local culture down into seven key questions that can be loosely mapped onto a creation-fall-redemption-consummation schema, and makes it easier to compare a local culture to the Bible’s storyline.
Here are the questions that we use to generate our Cultural Storyboard:
- What are the historical origins of this local culture? What (if anything) is it reacting against or trying to renew?
- What language does this local culture use to talk about the world? Is everything seen in terms of “inputs” and “outputs”, for example, or profit and loss? What does it see? What does it count and measure?
- How would the local culture finish this sentence: “At the end of the day, what we deal in is…”
- What is assumed rather than argued for in this local culture? What does everyone agree on but no-one ever mention or question?
- What do you never need to defend in this local culture because no-one would dream of arguing against it?
- What is the implicit or explicit view of what a human being is and what we are for?
- Possible responses might be “we are most fundamentally intelligent animals”; “we are understood as data processing machines”; “we are treated primarily as consumers” or “we are here to have fun and enjoy ourselves”…
- What is measured or talked about most in relation to human beings?
- What language is used to refer to human beings in this local culture (both adjectives and nouns)? What does that language tell you about the culture’s anthropology?
- What is/are the major problem(s) that this local culture sees in the world?
- What is the worst thing you could possibly say or do in the eyes of this local culture? What would get you frozen out and rejected?
- Who are the “baddies”?
- What are the “boo words” in this culture (the words that are almost always used in a negative way, or that sum up what the culture stands against)?
- What is the solution to the problem identified in the “ethics” section?
- What is the local culture fixing, and how is it fixing it?
- What is it most proud of? What does it want everyone to know about itself?
- What is a virtuous thing to do in this local culture? What is the best thing you could possibly do to be esteemed by its members?
- What do you have to say in order to get accepted in this local culture?
- What are the “hooray words” in this culture (the words that are almost always used in a positive way, or that sum up what the culture stands for)?
- How does the culture know whether the solution given under “soteriology” has worked?
- What is the measure of victory/success?
- How does the culture argue for the appropriateness of this measure of victory? How (if at all) does it justify that this is the right measure?
- What meaning(s) does all of the above give to human history and human life? What does a life well lived look like for this culture?
- If the leaders of this local culture became the leaders of the world, what would the world look like? What is the “heaven” of this local culture?
- If everything that this local culture fears or hates happened all at once, what would the world look like? What is its “hell”?
- What bigger story is this local culture part of? Where does it fit in the overall picture of society?
I’ve Storyboarded my World. Now What?
First of all, well done! You’ve taken an important step toward better understanding, serving and speaking into one of the local cultures of which you are part.
Now you can take your answers and set them alongside the biblical story of creation, fall, redemption and consummation. Here is a set of questions to help you do that:
- What elements, commitments or values do the bible and your local culture share, and what do you think accounts for the overlap?
- Where are the Bible and the local culture most at variance, and why?
- At what points does the Bible’s story highlight deficiencies or confusions in the local culture?
- Does the local culture draw attention to any features of the biblical story that Christians tend to under-play or airbrush out?
- What points of contact are there between the Bible and the local culture where fruitful conversations might begin?