Society & Politics

Book Review of Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling


Charlene Kwiatkowski

So you want to change culture? Make culture. That is the essence of Andy Crouch’s book Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling, which won Christianity Today’s 2009 Book Award for Christianity and Culture. Culture is a loaded term, especially for Christians who have often had a misguided and ambivalent relationship to it. As the subtitle states, Crouch sets out to show that Christians need to recover our creative, culture-making mandate that God designed us for.

To do this, he breaks the book into three sections, which answer the questions what, why, and how. The first part on Culture takes a sociological approach, unpacking what culture is and what have been evangelical Christians’ typical responses to it. The middle part on Gospel explains through the Scriptures why we should care about culture making (short answer: because God does), and the final part on Calling covers the practical component of how we can best fulfill our culture-making mandate by reflecting on power, community, and God’s grace in our lives.

As soon as I read the in-depth passage about the cultural possibilities of the omelet, I knew that Crouch was coming at culture from a broader definition than I was used to. He engages with the previous seminal work on this topic, Christ and Culture written by Richard Niebuhr in 1951, and yet simultaneously expands and specifies the discussion. He suggests that a more accurate title for Niebuhr’s book today would be Jesus and the Cultures as people and culture are always embedded in specific historical contexts.

Crouch defines culture as what we make of the world by creating cultural goods or artifacts (such as language, laws, snow angels, chairs, and even omelets), and also what we make of the world in terms of how we understand the world. Often, how we make sense of the world is by creating more culture. For example, the possibility of eating eggs created new ways of cooking them, creating new possibilities of what could be eaten for breakfast (enter the omelet). A key phrase Crouch repeats is that culture moves the horizons of the possible and impossible.

In many Christian circles, what we make of culture leans toward the negative and reactionary. Crouch outlines four responses or “gestures” that aren’t necessarily bad, but become dangerous when they get too familiar and are the only way we know how to respond to culture, thus developing into default “postures”: condemning, critiquing, copying, and consuming. I found Crouch’s differentiation between gestures and postures helpful in giving space to when one of these four gestures may be appropriate, and yet also cautioning when a repeated gesture of condemnation, for example, becomes problematic given the nuances and complexities of many cultural goods. Repeated knee-jerk gestures form bad posture that is hard to break and misaligned with our biblical call to act: to be culture makers.

Instead of falling into the easy “critique” trap in analyzing Christians and culture, Crouch offers two alternatives drawn from the biblical story: a call to create and a call to cultivate. These gestures are akin to an artist and a gardener, both of which reflect our identity as divine image-bearers of a creator and ruler God.

With these two alternatives of creating (putting something new into the world), and cultivating (caring for what is already beautiful while weeding out what is harmful), Crouch seamlessly transitions into the second section that reads the story of Scripture as a story of culture. I found this theological underpinning the most interesting section of the book as I had never read the story through the lens of culture—a lens that made a lot of sense given Crouch’s well-supported, insightful analysis. Crouch applies the language of cultivating and creating to explain the Bible’s purposeful movement from Genesis to Revelation, or from garden to city: culture is both a site of human rebellion and God’s mercy. Through human sin, culture can be at its worst (e.g. Adam and Eve’s fig leaves, the tower of Babel, the cross), but through God’s redemptive hand in culture, it can also be at its best and most glorious (the leather skins God makes for Adam and Eve, Jesus’ last supper).

Given Crouch’s assertion that culture is God’s original gift to humanity, he does not shy away from declaring the delight, joy, and beauty that culture can bring. At the same time, he is quick to assert that it is God who ultimately transforms culture—not Christians. We can certainly join God in making culture, but there is a touch of divine grace involved in our efforts when our cultivating and creating changes culture in such a way that brings glory to God.

Crouch’s posture of humility underscores the final section on Calling, particularly the chapter, “Why We Can’t Change the World.” While the title initially struck me as odd given the convincing rallying cry Crouch had set forth until now, it injects a strong dose of realism into what could otherwise be construed as naïve optimism. Among other factors, Crouch raises four caveats: 1) the world changes us more than we change it; 2) not many people can or are called to change culture at the global level whereas many of us can change culture at the local level; 3) there are many conditions outside of our control that affect whether our cultural good has the import we hope it has; and 4) it’s hard enough to transform ourselves, let alone all of culture. We need God’s help.

In the concluding chapters, Crouch helps us assess in which arena our culture-making abilities can gain the most traction. He calls us to consider the type and scope of power we have or have access to, the community that surrounds us, and the place(s) we experience God’s transforming grace at work in our lives.

I appreciate that Crouch doesn’t overlook our smaller acts of culture making, such as at the family level (the sphere he says is the smallest yet most powerful), but as an aspiring writer, I was left wondering what place cultural goods have if they never move beyond the individual sphere. As much as we hope otherwise, sometimes stories go unpublished, songs don’t get performed, and paintings don’t get hung in a gallery. Is there a culture-making value in these goods even if they don’t move anyone’s horizons but my own?

Overall, I found Crouch’s blend of optimism and realism, sociology and Scripture, analysis and anecdotes effective and inspiring in making the case for Christians to recover our creative calling—so much so that I became rather antsy by the end, ready to stop reading about culture and get on with making it.

Source: Marketplace Institute

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