culturing your culture

An MHP Interview with Andy Crouch
Go to the website of any major Christian publisher and search for books on “culture”. What you receive is a virtual Noah’s flood of materials. We’ll use IVP as our example since the book touted in this piece hails from their hands, but any of them - Zondervan, Tyndale, Eerdmans, Baker - have warehouses of titles.

Here’s a IVP pick list: Emerging Culture, How to Win the Culture War, Engaging the Soul of Youth Culture, Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment, Thinking about Pop Culture, The Hip-Hop Church, Jesus Made in America, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. Or should we say, “Yadda, yadda, yadda” and invoke Seinfeld’s Kramer. For it’s Andy Crouch’s new book Culture Making that attempts to be the coffee table book about coffee tables. I suggested that there should be a package of clay that accompanies the book much like the little stand that Kramer’s book uses to become an actual coffee table, but this was likely cost prohibitive. At any rate, the world of culture books, let us say, is a Christian Charlie Foxtrot of dormant ideas that pass as passe when the sun rises the next morning. (And IVP’s list is a tame one.)

Account for all those hip sermon series by emergent church types, and we’re saps at the whims of culture.

Andy Crouch’s book is a bit different. It wants us to slow down our analysis and legions of criticism about culture and our interaction with it and actually create some of it... actually participate in the making of art and other expressions. He also seems to temper - in spurts at least - this idea that our actions should be directly related to evangelism, and world changing in the sense of a cross on every hillside.

In his chapter “Why We Can’t Change The World”, Crouch says:

"... I sometimes wonder if breathless rhetoric about changing the world is actually about changing the subject - from our own fitfully suppressed awareness that we did not ask to be brought into this world, have only vaguely succeeded in figuring it out, and will end our days in radical dependence on something or someone other than ourselves. If our excitement about changing the world leads us into the grand illusion that we stand somehow outside the world, knowing what’s best for it, tools and goodwill and gusto at the ready, we have not yet come to terms with the reality that the world has changed us far more than we will ever change it. Beware of world changers - they have not yet learned the true meaning of sin."

Although there is a back-and-forth on how to qualify and quantify culture and cultural expression. Many times the classic spheres of influence and long range effects of what we do are used as measures for successes or failure. For, Crouch says, “Culture is what we make of the world.” And certainly that’s part of it, but perhaps it’s less intended than actually setting out to sell a billion copies, oiling that marketing machine to osteen the masses.

For example, J.K. Rowling certainly had little thought of record book sales when she gave life to Harry Potter, but as an author she took pleasure to create a new world. Is it not in these types of co-creator acts that we find worship and celebration with the Arch Creator, who proclaimed his work “good” without need for audience? That’s not to belittle the fact that Harry Potter topped every sales record, but the beginning was not to produce a merchandising monster. Would not that be a most beastly motivation, the act of culturing your culture? Left Behind art?

I think Andy would agree. In his survey of cultural postures, he lands his claymation in this one line: “like our first parents, we are to be creators and cultivators...artists and gardeners.” Yes! Those gestures of condemning, critiquing, consuming, or copying are no good, he says, unless we are postured rightly.

And for the most part the posture of Culture Making is not the hunchback of other Christianity and culture books. A few weeks ago, I called Andy and we talked about his new book.

MHP: You say that culture is inescapable whether it be in my omelet or on my highway- so it's in everything. So what? For a person who doesn't analyze omelets or roads what is the message?

Andy Crouch: Culture, whether omelets or interstates, creates what I call the "horizons of possibility" for human beings. And Christians, at least, care very much about those horizons—both because we believe they are distorted and misplaced by sin, and because we have glimpsed another set of possible horizons. The biblical word shalom is one way describing a world where the horizons are in the right place. So if we're called to love our neighbor, we can't simply take the existing horizons for granted. Culture is cutting them and us off from God's shalom. So we're called to participate, in order to contribute to moving the horizons at least somewhat toward the reality that is disclosed in the gospel.

MHP: How does this message sit with a culture that is growing in its lack of literacy. Is the first act of culture cultivation helping people understand before they even try out avenues of adding to culture? Is that why there's a list of culture books like yours out there? Christian, it's not Kinkaid that we're after here. It's not Stryper... it's... what is it?

AC: I do think that one danger of my book and the title is that Christians might rush uncritically to create and contribute to what they think will change the world. Christian culture making requires a certain amount of preparation—a scriptural framework as well as cultural literacy. We haven't paid as much attention as we should to the need to patiently, seriously conserve culture, which after all is always only one generation away from extinction. It's amazing how fragile culture really is. There is a serious debate, for example, about whether the United States could land human beings on the moon today, because the generation that engineered the Apollo missions is retiring and all their tacit knowledge is being lost. The challenge is that this kind of knowledge is so much more about skill, discipline, and cultivation than simply analysis or awareness—you can have a cupboard full of recipes and yet not really know how to bake bread. So I hope that my book will not just add to the groaning shelves of Christian writing on culture, but encourage people to take up very specific disciplines of culture keeping, as well as culture making.

You talk about the workings of God and I wonder how these important cultural moments like the exodus and resurrection might play out in a global culture like our own... meaning, since so many points of information are splintered every which way, would the message be as monumental? And if not, does that effect the way in which God effects culture today... because certainly the resurrection was not the end but the dawning of more.

AC: Perhaps it is more difficult today to imagine a grand social movement. There is a sense in which our forebears picked some of the low-hanging fruit, so to speak: founding hospitals, establishing universal suffrage, ending chattel slavery. (Not that there isn't work still to be done in many parts of the world on every one of those fronts.) Today the mechanisms of culture are more fragmented and paradoxically both more global and more local. Our relationships are thinner, too. Facebook is great, but it doesn't substitute for being in the same town, working patiently together on change in that one place for many years. But I still firmly believe that the pattern of exodus and resurrection—God bringing life out of death, something out of nothing, raising the valleys and lowering the high places—is at loose in the world and in our human cultures.

MHP: Does God have a culture?

AC: I think culture was certainly God's idea—in a way, God's biggest idea—but it names the task that is distinctly for creatures made in his image. Culture is for us: it is what we are called to do. It is our response to the created world, and it has a cumulative quality that can only unfold over time. So God certainly has society, if you will—a relational reality that is the embodiment of Shalom—but because God is the eternal Creator, rather than a timebound creature, I don't think we can really say God has a culture.

MHP: The biblical vision of culture... does that involve miracles, plagues, white beards and concubines?

AC: Well, certainly the biblical record is chock full of cultural specificity, including some wild and crazy turns and twists, which I suppose is what you're getting at by mentioning white beards and concubines. Scripture tells a long, complicated story, especially in the pages of the Hebrew Bible, of a particular culture trying to work out this astonishing idea that our one god is not just our national god, but the one true God. It has all the particularity of any cultural story, and that's part of our heritage as Christians—but I would say that the biblical vision of culture, precisely as the universal nature of YHWH's identity sinks in, goes beyond any one culture to encompass all of humanity in its cultural diversity.

MHP: Does culture carry a dogma?

AC: There are some non-negotiable realities about culture, sure. Culture always happens between people. It also always happens through time. You could say there's a synchronic dimension—it has to be shared—and a diachronic dimension—it has to be handed on. For my children, for example, the world has never had anything but wireless phones. I don't think they've ever seen a phone with a cord attached. Unless I expose them to a corded phone someday, that part of culture simply won't exist for them. The other non-negotiable thing about culture is that although it is made up of concrete cultural goods, those goods always carry meaning along with them—often ultimate claims about the meaning of the world.

MHP: As believers, aren't we surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses... is that a public, a community? Is time perhaps part of culture and less so for the cultural landscape of Christians?

AC: Yes and no. It is certainly true that we are part of the communion of saints, living and dead, and in that sense we have a "public" that transcends time. And to the extent that we know their stories, know their work and writings, and most of all know the God who knows us all, they can shape our own culture making.

I remember being on the island of Lindisfarne off the coast of England a few years ago and feeling an extraordinary sense of my fellowship with, and accountability to, the great monk Cuthbert. At that moment he was as real to me as any contemporary. And yet in another way, we only know about Cuthbert because someone—a long chain of someones—passed on his story down to our time and place, through culture. The communion of
saints gives us a perspective on our moment in time, but it does not lift us out of our moment in time—we are still, like our neighbors, responsible for this place, here, now, and no other place or time.

Our culture making has to happen in response to our present world and moment, because, to paraphrase Tolkien, that is the only moment we have been given.

For more information about Culture Making by Andy Crouch visit InterVarsity Press. Interview and opening comments by Zach Kincaid.