With the assertion that culture is God’s original gift to mankind, Andy Crouch in his book Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling (2008) speaks to a Christian audience, motivating them to rightfully understand their calling and responsibly participate in the world as culture makers. He intends to offer a new vocabulary, a new story and new set of questions, to ultimately validate that culture is not about us, but about God.
The author begins by pointing out the unproductive nature of the fallacious conception of ‘culture’ as merely a metaphysical thought system. He builds his thesis by suggesting a conception of culture both beginning and ending with “specific cultural goods” (p. 29). This, he argues should motivate Christians to be effective in their God-given mandate to facilitate a culture of creation and cultivation. As image-bearers of God, he argues, mankind is destined to find true fulfillment only by their complete dependence on God. Crouch intends to encourage his readers to recognize that the task of analyzing culture is not an alternative for the creation of real cultural goods. He builds his case towards the broader conclusion that “[t]he only way to change culture is to create more of it” (italics included, p. 67), and consequently persuade our neighbors to opt our new proposal by setting aside some existing set of cultural goods.
Crouch engages with the ongoing discussions about culture by pursuing a sociological approach in unpacking a more refined definition of it. He does this also by giving due consideration for traditional Christian belief and response thereof. He states that culture—is what we make of the world that God has created, both materially and intellectually. This definition enables an analysis of different horizons of culture and frees it from a limited understanding of it as pop-culture or high-culture, and thereby preventing it from any susceptibility to under appreciation. Culture encompasses everything that involves our creativity and has its consequent influence on the world we live in; whereby the author claims that we also derive meaning.
We cannot separate ourselves from culture, Crouch argues, because it is what we were made to do. Going a step further, he elaborates that “Culture is not just what human beings make of the world; it is not just the way human beings make sense of the world; it is in fact part of the world that every new human being has to make something of” (Italics included, p. 25). Crouch spends substantial amount of time discussing the ways in which social patterns are affected by various cultural artifacts, and how it sometimes make things possible that were impossible, and other times make things impossible that were once possible in very concrete and tangible ways.
Crouch applies five diagnostic questions, which I think are important in recognizing the various manners in which cultural artifacts has its impact in our society. He suggests asking: 1) What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world is? 2) What does it assume about the way the world should be? 3) What does it make possible? 4) What does it make impossible or difficult? 5) And what new forms of culture are created in response to this artifact?
Crouch makes a valid point that culture making is people (plural) making something of the world and that it cannot be done in solitary manner. Therefore culture exists in various spheres, which overlaps and has influence on each other; and just as there are different “encapsulated traditions of world making” (p. 44), so culture happens at many different scales.
The author goes on to argue that, “there is no such thing as “the Culture”” (p. 49). The only meaningful use of this phrase is embedded in a longer phrase: ”the culture of a particular sphere, at a particular scale, for a particular people or public (ethnicity), at a particular time” (p. 60). It is only when we find our place in the world as culture makers and pay attention to the different dimensions can we attempt to make something of it. The obvious outcome of this ‘making something’ is that the culture changes, and Crouch prefers to refer to this change as integrity instead of progress.
Furthermore, Crouch goes on to discuss about worldviews and recognizes it as an element of culture. However, I think his case is weakened when he slightly undermines it by holding a position against the claim that “we can think ourselves into new ways of behaving” (p. 64). I think he fails to give worldview analysis its due place, especially when the scriptural exhortation to believers is to be transformed by the renewing of mind (Romans 12:2). Crouch also suggests that “[t]he first responsibility of culture makers is not to make something new but to become fluent in the cultural tradition to which we are responsible” (p.75). However, he does not explain how this fluency is possible, by not getting oriented to the different worldview that underlies various cultures in the first place.
Crouch is unequivocal in his suggestion that we ought to be culture makers, however I like his emphasis on the notion that underneath almost every act of culture making we also find countless small acts of culture keeping. He elaborates on the different postures (4 C’s)—condemning culture, critiquing culture, copying culture, and consuming culture–adopted by Christians throughout history to bring about change in their culture. However, he argues that these approaches are inadequate, and insufficient means of changing the culture if we adopt them as individual postures to all cultural situations. Crouch recommends adopting any of the divergent approaches relevant to a given situation only if it is undergirded by the overarching biblical posture of being creators and cultivators. This is the posture that Crouch recommends we should adopt in our contemporary society and move towards a cultural maturity.
In support of this posture, in the last six chapters of the book, the author spends substantial amount of time drawing instances from the bible reflecting on man’s responsibility to be creators; and how Jesus being a cultural being demonstrated the right way to transform culture through his utter dependence on God, contrary to the cultural embodiment of independence from God as found at Babel. He also discusses effectively how culture permeates God’s saving work, not only in the present age, but also in the age to come as revealed in the book of Revelation.
Even though the author presents a convincing argument for creating culture, his intention is not to create unrealistic optimism. This is reflected particularly in the chapter “Why We Can’t Change the World” (pp. 187-201), where he points out four realities in dealing with culture. First, even though we are created to make something of the world, we ourselves are more impacted by the world we live in. Second, we have the capacity to bring about change only in small scales of culture, not everyone is able to bring about change at global level. Third, there are many factors that are beyond our control that determine whether our artifacts have the desired impact or not. Finally, the fact is that we find it difficult to transform ourselves, how much more the culture. We need to have unwavering confidence in God who is ultimately able to change the world.
In concluding his discussion, Crouch helps his readers to understand the practical aspects of culture making by exhorting them to reflect on the power they have, the community they live in, and the areas in their lives where they experience God’s transforming grace. He re-emphasizes the point that “God never allows human culture to become solely the site of rebellion and judgment; human culture is always, from the very beginning, also marked by grace” (p. 124).
There is much that I appreciate about this book and find relevant for Christian ministry. Especially, I find Crouch’s analysis of the Christian posture towards culture, and his proposal to reawaken the initial mandate given to mankind to be the creators and cultivators in the world much needed and productive. There is however a lack of discussion in this book on one of the important aspect of Christian faith alongside culture making—the proclamation of the gospel. Crouch does not discuss much as to how they both fit together, so that we are not only working towards creating culture that will promote human flourishing here and now, but also preparing people for the future that awaits them when they die.
I will wholeheartedly recommend this book to anyone who is interested to learn more about culture and how to respond as Christians. I believe, as the title suggests, the author has been successful in presenting his case for the need to recover our creative calling, in not just engaging with the culture but also creating it.
Crouch, Andy. (2008). Culture making: Recovering our creative calling. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.