Making It New
Andy Crouch's very fine Culture Making will be joining the short list of books that I read again and again, and fervently recommend to others, for insights into how we are to live as Christians. On behalf of one of my employers I have placed an advance order at my favorite bookstore, Byron Borger's Hearts & Minds, for ninety copies to share with my colleagues, and students in one of the undergraduate courses I teach will be reading Culture Making early in 2009.
Culture Making is rich in provocations—for example, in its re-telling over several chapters of the overarching story found in the Christian Bible and the implications drawn from this re-telling, or in its critique of H. Richard Niebuhr's Christ and Culture, or in its definition of cultural power as "the ability to successfully propose a new cultural good." I was particularly struck by the distinction that Crouch draws between cultural gestures and postures.
"Our posture," Crouch writes, "is our learned by unconscious default position, our natural stance. It is the position our body assumes when we aren't paying attention, the basic attitude we carry through life." In response to the various circumstances we encounter, we make a variety of gestures through the course of a day—Crouch lists as examples stopping to pick up mail, curling up in a chair to read to a child, reaching for something high on a shelf, embracing a spouse, or warding off the attacks of an assailant. "Over time," he suggests, "certain gestures may become habit—that is, become part of our posture":
I've met former Navy SEALS who walk through life in a half-articulated crouch, ready to pounce or defend. I've met models and actors who carry themselves, even in their own home, as if they are on stage. I've met soccer players who bounce on the balls of their feet wherever they go, agile and swift. And I've met teenage video-game addicts whose thumbs are always restless and whose shoulders betray a perpetual hunch toward an invisible screen. What began as an occasional gesture, appropriate for particular opportunities and challenges, has become a basic part of their approach to the world.
Expanding his observation into metaphor, Crouch makes this connection: "Something similar, it seems to me, has happened at each stage of American Christians' engagement with culture."
Crouch argues that American Christians adopted broadly four stances in relation to culture during the course of the 20th century, in each case taking an appropriate gesture toward certain elements of culture and inappropriately expanding it into a comprehensive posture toward the common culture in general. While some cultural products (like sex trafficking) demand outright condemnation from Christians, a posture of condemnation fails to account for the goodness of culture, warps Christian testimony to hope and mercy, facilitates hypocrisy, and—particularly in response to artistic works—comes across as "shrill and silly." Critique, by contrast, is an entirely appropriate response to works of art, the more so the better the art. But a posture of critique diminishes the delight to be taken in many good products of culture, and encourages a certain kind of cultural passivity that overemphasizes analysis and underappreciates participation and production. A pot of tea, a loaf of bread—the best first response to these is savoring consumption. But a posture of consumption limits us to living "unthinkingly within a culture's preexisting horizons of possibility and impossibility." Consumerism is capitulation to the existing culture at a deep level, allowing our very identity to be defined by what we can purchase. Copying from a culture is, at best, a recognition of "the lesson of Pentecost that every human language, every human cultural form, is capable of bearing the good news." But copying as a posture produces inauthentic, dated, and tame results.
Instead, Crouch says, the cultural postures Christians should adopt are those of cultivation and creation. Cultivators are "people who tend and nourish what is best in human culture, who do the hard and painstaking work to preserve the best of what people before us have done." And creators are "people who dare to think and do something that has never been thought or done before, something that makes the world more welcoming and thrilling and beautiful."
Another particularly helpful provocation comes in the chapter titled "Why We Can't Change the World." I confess to having often used the phrase "changing the world" as shorthand for "Christian cultural engagement." But Crouch challenges my language. He argues that we are confronted with a paradox:
Culture—making something of the world, moving the horizons of possibility and impossibility—is what human beings do and are 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.
And then he intensifies his message: "As it turns out, fully embracing this paradoxical reality is at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian culture maker."
At the center of Culture Making (around page 140 of about 280 pages, for those who count) is the acceptance by Jesus of the calling of the cross. Jesus' taking the folly and failure of humanity upon himself in his death and resurrection is the pivot of human history, the great act in terms of which all human culture-making is to be understood. And what the cross makes of human culture is surprising indeed: "The strangest and most wonderful paradox of the biblical story is that its most consequential moment is not an action but a passion—not a doing but a suffering." Among the consequences of the cross, Crouch suggests, are that—rightly understood—it prevents Christians from indulging in a cultural triumphalism (the conviction that Christian culture-making will somehow achieve the New Jerusalem within history) or progressivism (the conviction that history necessarily trends toward improvement).
There are several reasons, Crouch continues, why it is hubris for humans to imagine or plan that we can "change the world." Drawing on the examples of stock markets and Hollywood movies, he demonstrates how very difficult it is to predict what the outcome of a particular human action will be, given the multitudes of factors interacting to produce historical effects, the prevalence of unintended consequences, and the statistical likelihood of error in forecasting historical events.
"On a small enough scale," it's true, "everyone has the power to change the world." At the scale of a family, the family members can profoundly "change the world" for one another—can set bedtimes and vacation times, can decide on meal menus and nicknames, can develop common habits and patterns of living together. But on the scale of the world as a whole, "there are no sufficient conditions for cultural change." The larger the scale on which we dream of cultural change, the smaller the likelihood of our dreams being realized in a form close to what we imagine.
Worse, because of our sinfulness, even on the smallest scale we often fail to change things for the better—we fail to change our own bad habits and to cultivate good habits in their place. "On a daily basis we break our promises, indulge our addictions and rehearse old fantasies and grudges that even we know we'd be better off without." Human sin and folly profoundly foil us at every scale. And yet, Crouch reminds us at the conclusion of this chapter, returning to the paradox with which he began, "we are made to change the world." We must undertake that charge with humility, combined with confidence in God's working out his purposes within human history.
This chastened understanding of our calling must also inform our exercise of power. We are repeatedly tempted to use whatever cultural power we possess to move ourselves ever closer to further sources of power, to secure our own comfort and control over the world around us. The discipline of service takes us in the opposite direction, beyond comfort and control, and alongside relatively powerless people. Using the biblical examples of the Exodus and the Resurrection, Crouch argues that the discipline of service does not primarily entail using our power on behalf of the powerless but rather calls us to use our power alongside those who are less powerful, placing us in a relationship of partnership rather than in a relationship of asymmetrical charity.
So too the discipline of stewardship involves investing our cultural power—acknowledging that what power we have is in the first place a divine gift—to enable others (in particular those who appear to be powerless) to cultivate and create. It guides us toward such cultural investment "in places where there will only be a return on investment if God is indeed at loose and at work in the world."
But neither the discipline of service nor the discipline of stewardship requires Christians to withdraw from people who do exercise power, as if in fear of contamination, since, as Crouch writes, "if God's basic work is to build partnerships between the powerful and the powerless, to cut ourselves off from people with cultural power is to deprive both them and us of an opportunity to see God at work."
Culture Making undermines the rationale both for Christian withdrawal from the common culture and for Christian hubris with regard to "changing the world." I am sure that over time, shortcomings and unintended negative consequences of the arguments in this compelling book will become apparent. Other reviewers may notice some of these more clearly and more quickly than I have. But for now I cannot wait to see how readers of Andy Crouch's manifesto will be inspired to "make something of the world."
Gideon Strauss is editor of the journal Comment (www. wrf.ca/comment/).
Copyright © 2008 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.
See all comments