In his book The New Testament and the People of God, NT Wright provides a framework for evaluating culture. In his context, he is providing a helpful framework for understanding the cultures of Jesus, Paul, and the early church, but this tool can also be used to understand our culture – or how culture works more generally.
His framework is simple. Any culture will have stories, questions, symbols, and practices that serve as entry points to understanding what that culture is all about. Noting that humans use stories to make sense of the world around us, Wright argues a fundamental function of culture is to provide just such a narrative. He goes on to say,
… from these stories one can in principle discover how to answer the basic questions that determine human existence: who are we, where are we, what is wrong, and what is the solution? All cultures cherish deep-rooted beliefs which can in principle be called up to answer these questions. (pg. 123)
In any culture, this story (and the way it answers fundamental questions) is embodied in cultural symbols, into objects or practices that serve as touchstones to reinforce and root us in the story, values, and practices of the culture. For instance, in Christianity, the sacraments of baptism and eucharist serve as symbols. They are embodied retellings of the narrative that fundamentally makes us who we are. In the same way, from the earliest days of the church, the cross has been used as a symbol in Christianity to call us back to our identity and values. These symbols serve to root us in our narrative, to remind us of the sorts of things we should value, do, and be. Holidays, ceremonies, family traditions, rites of passage, flags, statues, and memorials all serve within a culture as these kinds of symbols – and as such, they are formative.
All this is to suggest that our symbols are never “just symbols.”
Good or bad, they are never amoral “parts of our history.”
They are meant to communicate something about what a culture or people group holds valuable or sees as the way forward in the world. This is precisely why such symbols are created in the first place.