Over the next five years, how will you fulfill the cultural mandate?
Ask that question among a group of neocalvinists and you’re likely to get a diverse range of answers. Some people will tell you about the novel they are writing or series of paintings they are completing or the non-profit business they are starting. But there is one obvious response you are unlikely to hear: Making babies.
The failure to mention the begetting of children is striking, since the foundational verse for the cultural mandate is Genesis 1:28:
And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”
Few people who have read that verse—from the original Hebrew audience to the modern Bible reader—could mistake the meaning of “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth” (the confusion typically comes in interpreting the phrases “subdue it” and “have dominion over”). The intention appears to be quite clear. So why do neocalvinists resort to such curious exegesis?
Consider, for example, Eric O. Jacobsen’s recent Comment article, “Neighbourhood Grace.” Jacobsen wrote, “The neocalvinist tradition holds that this reference to ‘filling’ means the development of cultural goods . . . It is, first and foremost, an affirmation of their vocation to repair cars, clean teeth, hem pants, lend money, and prepare and serve food. Before we ask them to ‘do more to support the district,’ we can begin by affirming what they are already doing.” While the verse no doubt does commend dentistry and tailoring, the term “filling” refers, first and foremost, not to the creation of cultural artifacts, but rather to producing culture-makers.
As I examine my own well-intentioned reasons for previously misinterpreting that verse, I suspect the problem arises because we tend to explain it to younger people—usually students in high school, college, or graduate programs. Because we have been conditioned by our own meritocratic culture to expect that childbearing is a task undertaken after one’s education is completed or nearly completed, we downplay its relevance when explaining the purpose of the cultural mandate. Since our audience is preparing for vocation and avocation, we want to ensure they understand that their role as producers of culture is not only worthy and significant, but is also a God-given mandate.
While this emphasis is good and proper—and a necessary corrective to too many traditions that downplay the importance of culture—we may be creating a harmful misperception of the true meaning of the cultural mandate. In focusing on what we consider to be important, we may miss out on what God considers of ultimate importance.
Consider that when Scripture tells us what happened to Adam’s surviving sons, it notes that Cain built a city but says only that Seth produced a child. Or, as theologian Peter Leithart recently noted,
Cain’s descendants build cities, develop metallurgy and music, tame flocks. Seth’s descendants have nothing but dates and numbers. That is to say: Cain has all the stuff, but time belongs to Seth.
We don’t want to create a false dichotomy between creating cultural artifacts and siring children. But we should also not forget that in God’s story, the latter is of infinitely more importance. The Bible lists hundreds of names of people whose sole reason for being mentioned is that they produced another generation of God’s people. While we may grow weary of reading these lists of “begats,” our Lord obviously considers the acts of siring worthy of mention in his eternal and holy word.
Naturally, few Christians from the Reformed tradition would dispute the importance of childbearing—at least not openly. Our actions and language, though, tend to betray our true concerns and priorities. We may not be so elitist as to think that repairing cars or hemming pants is inferior to writing novels or creating sculptures. But we are likely to be made uneasy by the idea that the newly-married teenage mother has fulfilled the cultural mandate in a way that is more profound than the creation of War and Peace.
Again, this is not to say that we have to choose between creating art and making babies. If Tolstoy was able to produce, within a span of five years, four children and one of the world’s greatest novels, we too should be able to reconcile the dual requirements of the cultural mandate.
Of course, just as not everyone is called to be artist or an entrepreneur, not everyone is called to be a parent. But while some of us are blessed with chastity or suffer from infertility, most of us are called to be fruitful, to multiply, and to fill the earth. We must recognize that this is not a task to be undertaken lightly, nor something we do when we aren’t carrying out the “more important” task of creating culture—when it comes to fulfilling the cultural mandate, having children is our most important task. Once we view the cultural mandate from God’s perspective, it becomes apparent that the production of folk culture pales in importance to the culture of producing folks.