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Q & A
Q&A: Let’s make culture, not just critique it, author says Robin Russell, Mar 17, 2009
Andy Crouch, formerly with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at Harvard University, is a senior editor at Christianity Today International. A classically trained musician, he has a master’s of divinity degree from Boston University School of Theology and has produced the documentary Where Faith and Culture Meet.
In his new book, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (IVP Books, 2008), Mr. Crouch says it’s misguided for Christians to engage in “culture wars” by fighting perceived offenses or imitating secular entertainment. Instead, he challenges Christians to create culture afresh. He spoke recently with managing editor Robin Russell.
What is it about our culture that makes Christians think we’re at war? I think it’s an unfortunate metaphor. There are a couple of issues that are very fraught; we know what they are. But to speak of a war implies two opposing sides that relate to one another as enemies. That’s not actually the case at all.
Define “culture.” Ken Myers, the former NPR journalist who now runs the Mars Hill Audio Journal, says, “Culture is what we make of the world.” It’s this human project of making actual cultural goods out of the raw materials of nature. But it’s also the human endeavor to find meaning in a world that is pregnant with meaning and yet doesn’t just disclose its meaning to us. So making stuff and making sense would be my simplest definition.
Christians, you write, don’t really do well at “engaging” the culture. It’s a verb that’s been widely used in church circles. What we mean is that we pay attention to it and criticize it. If you know what’s on television, and you hate all of it and you know why, you’re “culturally engaged.” But you’re not imagining what you could create as an alternative. Or we mean that our church has become very culturally relevant: “Oh, yeah, we’re like totally engaged with culture. Our rock band sounds just like a billion secular rock bands.” If all we’re doing is just imitating it, copying it, borrowing from it, I think we’re short of what human beings are called to be doing in the world, which is to cultivate and create.
Where else do Christians err in dealing with cultural trends? I talk about four inadequate responses. Condemning culture: to spend most of our energies decrying what’s happening and perhaps withdrawing from it. Critiquing culture, which is that we become very expert interpreters of the culture around us. But I have yet to discover an analysis that has really changed culture.
Another thing we’ve done is copy culture: to see the culture doing something interesting and replicating it within the walls of the Christian community. But even when that copying is very creatively done, the cultural goods produced rarely touch the world. If rock and roll is a great musical form, then Christians should be creating great rock and roll that reaches our neighbors, not just one another.
Finally, I think the thing a lot of us do now is just consume culture: We lay back, see what’s on TV and watch, and let the culture define our values for us. None of those postures really capture the biblical vision for human beings: that we’re made in the image of a creative God who has given us a world to cultivate.
Why is it that so much of Christian film or fiction is not up-to-par? Many non-Christian creative efforts are not up-to-par either; only a few things get to be the best of the best. Of course, the winner of the Pulitzer Prize for literature last year was Gilead by Marilynne Robinson, which is a transcendently, transparently Christian novel. So we need to not beat up on ourselves too much.
And the writer and director of what I believe is the best film of 2008—Wall*E—Andrew Stanton, is an evangelical Christian. This is an extraordinary work of artistic excellence, of formal innovation, of storytelling—in every way it’s just astonishing. Pixar’s movies are among most culturally influential things out there. And many of the people involved in creating them are very serious about their Christian faith.
That being said, why does it still feel that we don’t do this very well? I think that often in churches you hear very little about cultural creativity. What’s subtly communicated is, it’s not important. So you’re going to be formed in your cultural imagination somewhere else. And you’re likely to wander away from the church. If we could do a better job of recognizing it, we’d find that more people who have a vocation culturally would find more room in our churches. You get what you celebrate.
You say it’s important for people to be “cultivators” first. Explain. This was a surprise to me. I thought I was going to write a book about creativity for cultural creatives: people who work in music or film. But the more I thought about the biblical vision, the more I saw cultivation: Keeping what is already good, good. The truth is there are many things that have been handed on to us. First of all, the gift of the natural world that is so abundant and fruitful. And then all the best of human culture that’s come before us. We need to think, “What part of culture am I responsible for taking good care of and passing on to my children?”
Can you give an example? I’ve become very committed to baking bread. There’s something amazing that happens when you bake your own bread—the process of kneading. How simple it is, and yet how amazingly complicated bread is. There are things you have to learn. It’s a cultural inheritance we have. Now, I could just let some bread expert do all that and it would show up in plastic bags in my grocery store and that would be it. But I find that I want to know how this works culturally, and I want to be part of teaching my children to do it.
The other thing I’ve started cultivating is the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. I play piano, and Bach is this amazing treasure trove of music. The scary and strange thing about culture is that it’s a generation away from being forgotten. I feel it’s sort of my cultural calling to learn Bach and play Bach in my home so my kids hear it as they grow up, to teach them to play instruments, and then to play it for other people.
And the next step is then to create something new? Cultivation gives us the skill and insight to start to recognize what’s missing in the world. Any human culture is incomplete and misdirected and broken. The only way that human culture changes is if someone introduces something new. Once it’s present, it reshapes the horizons of possibility for the people who have access to it. It can start on a very small scale: starting a neighborhood block party in a neighborhood that’s never had one. Or on very large scales: the passing of a new law or starting a new business. This is really how culture changes: when human beings create. I don’t think that’s an accident, because that’s what it means to be in the image of God.
You write that it’s OK to start small. All culture starts small. I mentioned Wall*E. A feature film that can be seen by tens of million of people over its lifetime begins with an absolutely small group of people sitting in a room with an idea. And they recruit a few friends. You may end up with 500 people in the credits, but the creative core is always a small group of people—without exception. So while all of us feel like, “I can’t change the world; there’s not much I can do.” Well, that’s true. There isn’t much you can do. But there is something you can do. And there’s something that you and a small group of people around you can create that no one else in the world can create.
What are some other examples of culture-making? My friend Gary Haugen, founder of International Justice Mission, a human rights organization that works in places where the poor do not have access to the law. So Gary has teams who take cases through the court system and they’re getting convictions of people who have abused power in some way. This is actually changing the culture in countries where people have essentially given up on the law. It’s an example of starting very small, with just one client: one widow in Zambia whose property’s been stolen under the pretense of traditional African family arrangements after her husband dies. You get one conviction and that sends a pretty strong message.
A totally different example is a mother-daughter book club in Palo Alto, Calif., that was started by several families, not all of them Christians. When their daughters were about 7, the moms said, “Wouldn’t it be great to accompany our daughters through all that’s come into their lives and have some material for conversations?” They’ve been meeting for almost 10 years now. They’re cultivating a different way of being adolescent. They’re giving their girls a way to not just flee into peer relationships but to stay in relationship with adult women. And they’re cultivating literacy and reading.
We don’t have to start everything. But seeing that opportunity and joining it and helping make it happen—I think Christians belong there just as much as we should be starting things ex nihilo. We should both be innovators and joiners of the best cultural goods our neighbors are producing.