“Culture” is a word often used but rarely understood. To some it connotes art, music, and fine dining. To others, it expresses a unique ethnic or national heritage. For some, it is the battleground on which the “culture wars” are fought.
Andy Crouch would have us understand “culture” as including all of these, but so much more. In Culture Making, we come to see culture as “the name for our relentless, restless human effort to take the world as it’s given to us and make something else”. As Christians who believe that the universe was created and is ruled by a sovereign God who designed man in His own image, this has huge implications. If we are to image our Creator, then we must exercise our capacity for creativity. God has given us the world and charged us to “work and keep it” (Genesis 2:15), which we may see as our cultural mandate.
Crouch’s book is broken into three parts, labeled Culture, Gospel, and Calling. In Part 1, he gives instructions on how first of all to diagnose the importance and impact of a given cultural artifact (which can be anything from languages to omelets to iPods). He asks five questions to accomplish this: (1) What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world is? (2) What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world should be? (3) What does this cultural artifact make possible? (4) What does this cultural artifact make impossible (or at least very difficult)? (5) What new forms of culture are created in response to this artifact?
For examples of how these questions are asked and answered, check out the author’s blog, Culture-Making.com, which includes a weekly “Five Questions” post. Definitely recommended!
Our task as creative imagers of God requires much more than mere diagnosis, however. We must have a robust understanding of what culture is and how it changes (which the author provides), and then ascertain our role in culture making.
For me, by far the most helpful chapter in the book was called “Gestures and Postures”, which examined four primary ways in which Christians have traditionally engaged culture: Condemning, Critiquing, Copying, and Consuming. Each of these he calls “gestures”, saying that each is an appropriate response to culture in certain situations. He warns, however, against adopting a “posture” of condemnation, critique, copying, or consumption, in which we engage ALL culture with the same response. This has been the error made by most Christians throughout history.
Instead, Crouch suggests that the biblical model of “good postures” are those of Creation and Cultivation. These “postures of freedom” allow Christians to respond appropriately in every situation, using the four gestures listed above as well as pro-actively creating new culture and cultivating existing culture.
Part 2 looks at how creation and cultivation are modeled for us in the Bible, by Old and New Testament saints as well as by God himself. While at times I believe Crouch overstates his case, I greatly enjoyed the tour through Scripture presented from a perspective I’ve never considered before. Even in the places where his interpretation of Scripture is different from mine, or, more commonly, ambiguous (for instance, Crouch seems to vacillate between viewing the Genesis account of creation as a historical record and as a poetic, non-historical story), my understanding of Scripture was strengthened through approaching it in a different light.
Part 3 digs into the practical application of this understanding of culture. The first chapter in this section is provocatively titled “Why We Can’t Change the World”. Crouch’s point is not that we are incapable of making any difference in the world, but that individually we are incapable of producing cultural artifacts that will “change the horizons of the possible” for everyone, everywhere. Instead, he says, we ought to focus on making positive changes within our own world; having a good impact within whatever sphere of influence we may have.
The only way culture is changed on a large scale is through community. Believers in particular are to work cooperatively to create and cultivate culture that will benefit the world. Crouch encourages us to see where God is working, and to get involved. The pattern he sees in the Bible and throughout church history is one of God using the powerful alongside the powerless. Though power is often abused, it is actually a good gift of God that is meant to be used to aid those who do not have power… though every person has some level of power within a certain context. It is only by the cooperative efforts of believers that see every human as an image-bearer of God and therefore a potential creative culture-maker that the church and individual Christians can fulfill their cultural mandate to exercise dominion over the world.
Though there are many points of contention where I would likely disagree with Crouch’s interpretation of Scripture, these are relatively small concerns compared to the benefit of many of the practical and theoretical suggestions in this book. As the author says, “the pursuit of a common good requires working in common with people who will not agree with us on every point.” I am more than willing to work with Crouch and others like him in order to help all Christians come to a better understanding of our mandate –and our potential – to make a real difference in our world (even as we await the arrival of God’s eternal and perfect kingdom) through culture making.
This is a book you should read. Buy it here.