Culture Making (Book Highlights)
“Culture—making something of the world, moving the horizons of possibility and impossibility—is what human beings do and were meant to do. Transformed culture is at the heart of God’s mission in the world, and it is the call of God’s redeemed people. But changing the world is the one thing we cannot do. As it turns out, fully embracing this paradoxical reality is at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian culture maker.” –Andy Crouch
Downers Grove, Ill. InterVarsity Press, 2008.
Andy Crouch’s book Culture Making has three main purposes: First, he offers Christians a new vocabulary to talk about “culture.” Second, he provides a new look at the “old story”—the Christian gospel. Third, he presents a new way of thinking about the calling of Christians in the world.
What is culture?
In Part 1: Culture, Crouch begins by defining culture, a term often used but rarely understood. For Crouch, culture has two aspects. On one hand, “Culture is what we make of the world” (23). On the other, “it is in fact part of the world that every human being has to make something of” (25). Culture defines the boundaries between what is possible and what is impossible, between what is real and what is not. It is the construct within which we live, and is as inescapable as the air we breathe.
While culture forms the realm of possibilities for each of us, this does not mean that culture is a monolithic and unchanging entity. Culture comes in a variety of scales, ranging in size from the family to whole civilizations. As these families or civilizations interact, they inevitably change their respective cultures. Most of these changes are imperceptible at the time, but Crouch notes that the most enduring cultural changes are those that take place over a long period of time.
Only when creating cultural products in the public spheres of art, science, education, music, and politics can Christians hope to truly transform prevailing cultural models.
Christians have long assumed one of four postures towards culture—either condemning it, critiquing it, copying it, or consuming it wholesale. While each of these stances can be appropriate towards certain cultural goods, none ought to become the default posture of a Christian in society. Instead, Crouch commends cultivation: “The only way to change culture,” he says, “is to create more of it” (67). Only when creating cultural products in the public spheres of art, science, education, music, and politics can Christians hope to truly transform prevailing cultural models.
The gospel and culture
In Part 2: Gospel, Crouch turns to the Bible to inform his discussion of culture. God, as Creator, made culture, which is seen in his decision to place Adam in a garden, itself a cultural artifact. Culture, then, was no accident, but an intentional feature of God’s creation. And in commanding Adam to work the Garden of Eden, God invited him—as he invites us—to share in the task of culture-making.
Even though culture was initially part of God’s good creation, it soured with the Fall. But God continued to use culture even in his plan of redemption, choosing the people of Israel to carry his message to the world, eventually orchestrating the coming of his Son, Jesus.
Jesus’ existence was thoroughly cultural. He came at a definite time, in a definite geographical area, and lived a culturally Jewish life. Yet within this culture, Jesus offered a new cultural pattern, one of obedience to God rather than disobedience. Both Adam and Israel had failed in this: “The first Adam took his God-given freedom to make something of the world and chose a course that distorted the world; the second Adam laid aside both his human and divine creative powers” (142).
Culture will not disappear, but rather will find its rightful place within God’s kingdom.
Jesus’ new cultural pattern most often manifested itself in his teaching on the Kingdom of God: “In the kingdom of God a new kind of life and a new kind of culture become possible—not by abandoning the old but by transforming it” (146). Jesus, by willingly suffering on the cross, offered a creative cultural replacement that had not been seen before.
The gospel story ends with an unveiling of God’s final restorative act as depicted in Revelation. As Crouch reads it, not merely humanity but culture itself will be fully and finally restored in the new heavens and new earth. Culture will not disappear, but rather will find its rightful place within God’s kingdom. Our activity in heaven will be full of redeemed and God-honoring culture.
Christian life in culture
Crouch ends with Part 3: Calling, examining how Christians ought to live in light of the biblical picture of culture. He believes that while we can change the immediate culture around us, it is presumptuous and impossible to “change the world,” as Christians are often urged to do. The larger the scale of a certain culture, the less likely it is that one person can truly impact it. However, this is cause not for defeatism, but humility. While we cannot change the world, we can make real changes in the small culture around us: “Every cultural good, whether a new word, law, recipe, song or gadget, begins with a small group of people” (239).
The distinction between secular and sacred will dissolve as Christians seek to live lives of love in all spheres of culture.
The challenge for Christians, then, is to find their calling in the midst of their culture. To do this, Crouch recommends looking to where God is at work in redeeming culture and to join him there. “God is at work precisely in these places where the impossible seems absolute. Our calling is to join him in what he is already doing—to make visible what, in exodus and resurrection, he has already done” (216). God invites us to challenge the reigning power structures by living according to a biblical culture, one in which power is not wielded for personal gain, but is used in the service of others and for the glory of God.
Once we recognize that God is the one who is truly at work in any area of culture, our efforts to join him there will be taken with gratitude and humility. They will also be taken with a measure of freedom, since Crouch believes that “our most important cultural contribution will very likely come from doing whatever keeps us precisely in the center of delight and surprise” (252). The distinction between secular and sacred will dissolve as Christians seek to live lives of love in all spheres of culture. Christians will ask themselves where they find God multiplying their efforts, where the world is in great pain, and where they feel God quickening their heart to joy. And they will gladly take up their calling, knowing that while they cannot “change the world,” they can join God as he transforms the culture around them.
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