Review: Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling
I went to a liberal arts school.
Why did I bother?
Why did I bother learning the history of art or music? Why not just learn what it takes to make money now?
Andy Crouch answers with a book-length "because God said so." That’s what you’ll find in Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. This is an expansive book that travels through sociology, through the whole storyline of Scripture, and into practical suggestions.
But it’s not what you might expect coming from a centrist evangelical like Crouch (he’s worked for InterVarsity and Christianity Today and sits on the boards of Fuller Seminary and Books & Culture). This book is not a rah-rah for Christians "engaging the culture." It’s certainly not a piece of theological sophistry designed to permit Christians to watch Rated-R movies (Crouch only recently got his family a television). Crouch is not even very sanguine about the likelihood that any given Christian will change the world for the better. He’s actually afraid that Christians are more likely to be changed by the world then to change it—and he’s afraid that many evangelicals are being changed by the world for the worse.
And yet the Bible starts with a clear call for all God’s image bearers to subdue the earth and have dominion over it—to "make something of the world," as Crouch helpfully summarizes it. There are humble, God-focused ways of obeying this command, a command the Bible never abrogates. And, Crouch says, we must by God’s grace try. Culture forms the horizons of possibility and impossibility for every human being on earth; we should therefore, starting with our own families, take culture making seriously.
The heart of the book comes in a taxonomy of ways you can approach any given cultural artifact, from highways to ham radios. Crouch distinguishes between "gestures and postures": you can’t keep the same posture toward all offerings of culture, he says. You can’t condemn everything or consume everything. Crouch suggests instead that we should view his characteristic responses to culture as gestures, something you do depending on the occasion. He starts by describing four such gestures:
• Condemning culture
• Critiquing culture
• Copying culture
• Consuming culture
One or another Christian group has made each of these a consistent posture, Crouch says, and that concerns him. Some Christians (guess who?) characteristically condemn culture and withdraw from it (Crouch’s critique here has more nuance than I can provide in a single-sentence summary; it’s well worth your reading). Heady evangelicals—Francis Schaeffer is Crouch’s patron saint example—critique it. The Jesus Movement and CCM copy culture. And most modern evangelicals simply consume it. Crouch says, however, that none of these gestures should become postures. Some cultural goods should be flatly condemned, others carefully critiqued, others copied, many just consumed. It was here that I read an extremely powerful quotation I’ve thought of often:
Most evangelicals today no longer forbid going to the movies, nor do we engage in earnest Francis Schaeffer-style critiques of the films we see—we simply go to the movies and, in the immortal word of Keanu Reeves, say, "Whoa." We walk out of the movie theater amused, titillated, distracted or thrilled, just like our fellow consumers who do not share our faith. If anything, when I am among evangelical Christians I find that they seem to be more avidly consuming the latest offerings of commercial culture, whether Pirates of the Caribbean or The Simpsons or The Sopranos, than many of my non-Christian neighbors. They are content to be just like their fellow Americans, or perhaps, driven by a lingering sense of shame at their uncool forebears, just slightly more like their fellow Americans than anyone else. (p. 89)
Picking up the argument again: we can’t stop with these four gestures, and here Crouch gets to his major contribution by adding two more C’s. Christians should have the ongoing postures of…
• Creating culture
• Cultivating culture
We should care for, preserve, and develop what is good in the cultural traditions we’ve received (p. 97). (Read this Times article, for example, to see how careful cultivation of the Western piano tradition has pushed human creation and achievement higher; or watch this fascinating documentary to see how typography advanced with the creation of Helvetica.) Within the space created for us by previous generations, we should add to those traditions by creating new cultural goods. This, Crouch will argue, is something God designed us to do from the beginning.
Crouch spends part two of his book telling the story of God’s world from that beginning to its intended end, and you may be surprised to find what the Bible says about the culture(s) of eternity. Part three provides practical warnings (a great deal of them) and suggestions for working with God to carry out the culture-making commands of Scripture.
I have a few complaints about Crouch’s work: he wastes three pages needlessly dismissing a straightforward reading of Genesis 1–2 (which he elsewhere relies upon—strange), he assumes that Mother Teresa was a regenerated person, and he makes a few minor overstatements. But if you are smart enough to get through this book, you’ll be smart enough to spot those errors—errors which I do not think affect the substance of the argument.
This is not a book full of vague platitudes about "engaging the culture" or "redeeming" it. It’s a careful scriptural study. And Crouch is not a theonomist; he doesn’t ever recommend the violent takeover of public institutions. His ambitions seem a good bit more realistic. Someone who is premill and pretrib (like this reviewer) need have no problem with his eschatology.
If you take your liberal arts education seriously, read this book.