As some might know, I have a complaint concerning the way evangelicals engage culture. The way we engage culture is either to reject it all or embrace it all. Our culture habits, I contend, have been formed under a 50 year Niebuhrian hangover where we view culture in singular unilateral terms. To compound the problem, we regularly make Jesus Christ into a principle to be translated (or not) into it (instead of concretely embodying his way into the world). This is the influence of Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture.
Culture is more complex, multiple and diverse than that. It is ubiquitous as well. It cannot be escaped. And Jesus the Christ is not a principle but an historic incarnation of the second person of the Godhead. God began his work in the world (Missio Dei) by actually entering into the world for the reconciliation of the whole world to Himself. To be His people, is to engage the world in all its complexity for the incarnation of the gospel via the formation of a people. This people, is a cultural expression of the Holy Spirit as an extension of God’s Missio begun in the sending of the Son.
To be “this kind of people” requires a more complex understanding of our cultural task than the aforementioned Niebuhrian categories we have been offered in Christ and Culture. This is why Andy Crouch’s new book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling is important. For Andy does what few others can do. He puts forward an understanding of culture that encompasses all its complexity. He delineates the task of “culture-making” for the Christian with great subtlety. He does all this in a prose that is artful, compelling and highly accessible.
In the first section of the book (entitled “Culture”) Crouch surveys and describes the complex phenomenon of “culture” and the ways we engage it. A highlight here is chapter 5 entitled “Gestures and Postures.” Here Andy traces the attitudes of Christians towards culture in N. America from post Civil War times when evangelicals burst forth with a swirl of culture creating activity including many institutions of enduring significance. Then came the European influences upon mainline Christianity and the fundamentalist cultural “retreat.” Then came the neo-evangelicals attempt to engage more actively and critically American culture. Francis Schaeffer is a highlight here. Then came the Jesus people and CCM industry. After this the consumers of culture. Through this history, Crouch outlines several “postures” towards culture illustrated by this brief history including condemning, critiquing, copying and consuming culture. Then lastly he describes what it might look like to be gardeners of culture, a metaphor I am already fond of (see here). Here we have a taste of the serious, reflective, complex, yet balanced approach to culture that Crouch is calling Christians to in our time. Here we find a basis for a more complex engagement with culture that I think is essential if we would be missionaries in the new post Christendom worlds many of us are ministering in. Yet this is not a dull textbook account. It is wonderful writing. This chapter, to us a clichÃ©, is worth the price of the book.
In the second section (entitled “Gospel”) Crouch gives us a masterful reading of the development of culture according to the Scripture from Genesis to Revelation. In the third section (entitled “Calling”) Crouch writes directly concerning the calling we Christians have “to make culture” amidst the world. Here in Section 3, Crouch again offers keen insights. He asks “What does the calling to be a culture maker look like?” In answering this question, Crouch does not offer intellectual slogans (praise God!). Instead he offers many serious reflections on this task. He asks us “Culturally, can we change the world? His answer: “Yes and no.” (197) For engaging the culture is complex, largely out of our control. Yet if we follow the distinctive template of God’s work in culture (Luke 4) God can inhabit our culture-making in unforeseen graceful ways. This means that that changing/engaging culture cannot simply be accomplished with money. Rather in order to transform culture “new structures of possibility” must be created that do not exist yet. (222). This is the task of the artist. Crouch suggests, that in engaging this task as Christians, we will find that God is at work in the exact places where “the impossible seems absolute” (216). We will discover that 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). We will engage culture-making both with power (and those who have it) and our lack of it – emphasis on BOTH! He advocates that “culture-making” be pursued on the ground level in our local communities in what Crouch describes as the “3, 12, and the 120.”(this I loved!!). We are to look for grace where divine multiplication happens that far exceeds our efforts.
Here is Crouch’s summary paragraph:
So do you want to make culture? Find a community, a small group who can lovingly fuel your dreams and puncture your illusions. Find friends and form a family who are willing to see grace at work in another’s lives, who can discern together which gifts and which crosses each has been called to bear. Find people who have a holy respect for power and a holy willingness to spend their power alongside the powerless. Find some partners in the wild and wonderful world beyond church doors. 263
Getting back to my first paragraph above, I have abhorred evangelicalism’s Nieburhian simplistic views of engaging culture as the church. I have found these views unworkable for those of us who seek to “incarnate” the gospel as communities of Jesus in our cultural contexts. I have found most Christian artists too ready to hop on board with the American culture-industry being seduced by its power and thereby becoming ineffectual and eaten alive by the cesspools that exist out there. I have found us largely ineffectual in the task of redemptive culture making in our time.
Andy Crouch’s book is a step in a different direction. It is not a call to reject culture nor transform culture (naively thereby becoming the culture). It is a complex call to culture-making as Christians. There is a danger in his subtle Reformed Kuyperian “Common Grace” that runs through out the book. The role of the church as a bearer of culture and inhabiting witness to redeemed culture is lacking. Because of my admittedly Anabaptist sensitivities, some of what Crouch says makes less sense without a stronger ecclesiology. Nonetheless!!! I could easily frame this whole book within a more acceptable (to me) ecclesiology/epistemology. So none of this detracts from the book for me. What Crouch describes is a road map for missional communities and their task to artistically engage their cultures in culture making! For out of who we are in Christ, we can neither withdraw nor naively hop on board (copy or consume) the current culture industries of our time. We need to engage in culture-making which inevitably means rejecting some things, yet sometimes aligning with what God is already doing, always distinctively “being the presence of Christ.” Crouch gives us ways of thinking that help us do exactly that! He gives us much help as communities who seek to incarnate (making cultural) Christ in the world. I’ve been blessed to read the book. I’ll use sections of it in my upcoming classes on “church and culture.” I will recommend it to all my Christian artist friends trying to figure out the cultural task of our time when there simply is no unified culture left to engage, except the Culture Industries of a Fallen Empire i.e. Hollywood et. al. Any other takes on Andy’s “Culture Making” out there you’d like to share?