Crouch and Culture: Andy Crouch's Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling

The Christian religion is a paradox.  The kingdom of God, the New Testament tells us, is not of this world, yet the transcendent and spiritual God condescended and embodied himself in this world, inaugurating a message of a heavenly kingdom that was to be spread by earthly labor.  The physical and metaphysical are inextricably woven together.  People of faith walk a fine line: they are called to be witnesses in but not of the world. 

For centuries, Christian thinkers have debated the relationship between Christ and culture.  The questions raised by Reinhold Niebuhr’s mid-century Christ and Culture continue to guide discussion. Is Christ against or above culture?  Should Christians retreat from culture?  Should they transform it or seek relevance by adjusting to the spirit of the age?  Should they be culturally aware but stay silent about the hidden things of culture?  The genius of Niebuhr’s study is not that the answers to these questions represent different blue prints for considering culture, but reflect corresponding moods that every Christian faces while engaging culture at one time or another and with varying degrees of intensity.  Yet most evangelicals fail to read Niebuhr in this way.  Consequently, the numerous studies in the last half century have yet to settle the debate. 

If evangelicals are to have any headway in the discussion, defining culture needs to be as equally important as defining Christ.  Christians must recognize that theological truths are packaged differently and often understood in competing ways and in different historical contexts.  Indeed, theology is historical.  While Christ, his person and work, is unchangeable, culture is not.  Most Christians have resisted the notion that the meaning of Christ is always already embedded in a changing culture.  We can affirm that culture is unstable, dialectic, and discursive, but our pursuit of true piety would be pointless if we could never project, via faith, beyond the linguistic turn.  God, his work, and his word stand unmoved forever.   

In his latest book, Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling, author Andy Crouch pursues a clearer definition that appropriately touches on contemporary discussions without relegating traditional Christian belief.  The result is a well-written discussion that attempts to move passed Niebuhr’s interrelated moods to conscious action.  “Culture is what we make of the world,” Crouch believes, “the name for our relentless, restless human effort to take the world as it’s given to us and make something else.”  Making the world includes imbuing it with meaning.  Thus as an activity, culture making is likewise “meaning-making.” This culture/meaning-making can only be done by human beings, who, reflecting their creator, have the freedom to reach the limits of their cultivating activity, working in accordance with the created order.  This may remind readers of Terry Eagleton’s trenchant discussion of culture and nature in The Idea of Culture: “Meanings can mould physical responses, but they are constrained by them too” (87). 

Much of the first part can apply to cultural activity in general, but Crouch, as is clear in the second part of the book, has a more specific audience—namely, the evangelical community.  Christians are tied to a gospel message that is itself cultural, centering on a world-wide message of creation, fall, and redemption.  In discussing the relationship between culture and the gospel, Crouch contrasts the imagery of the garden and the city, both of which are employed to illustrate not only the fall but also redemption.  The garden not only represents the initial act of creation by God, but also humanity’s duty to be cultivators, submitting with integrity to the limits of the natural order in exploring the boundaries of cultural freedom.  For Crouch, the garden is not in tension with the city.  The two are bedfellows.  Cities likewise manifest the peak of human wickedness and the realities of divine redemption.  They “are the place where culture reaches critical mass—where culture overtakes nature as the dominant reality that human beings must make something of” (116).  The city of Babel in Genesis 3 represents the desire of humanity to usurp the sovereignty of God.  The curse of Babel was the scattering of language—hence, the dispersion of culture.  Again, Crouch is abreast of current theory: at the center of culture is language (text).  Yet “just as the curse on the citizens of Babel was a dramatic divine intervention in human affairs, so its reversal comes as a gift—a supernatural (or more to the point, supercultural) overcoming of separation” (149).  In the heavenly city of Revelation 21, “God walks among redeemed humanity…not just on garden paths but also on city streets.”  The gospel, in a sense, redeems Babel: it brings together the nations of the world as Acts 2 clearly shows: “Nations was now a word of inclusion, not exclusion” (155).  “Completely unlike Babel, with its attempt to reach the heavens by building upward toward heaven, this city is not a human achievement.  It is a gift, just as the first creation was a gift” (163).  

The coming of redemption and the anticipation of the heavenly city was inaugurated by Jesus Christ.  The term transformation presupposes both a state of being and a way of living.  Through his death and the historically pivotal reality of the resurrection, Christ released humanity from the bondage of sin.  Consequently, a changed state generates a new way of living.  Culture, an activity done by humans, requires a public—a culturally educated public shaped by a shared meaning that is always engaged with the past and the present.  Echoing Marx’s discussion on Feuerbach in the nineteenth century, Crouch reemphasizes the importance of changing the world instead of describing it: “culture is not changed simply by thinking” (64).  The great commission is opposed to a privatized faith; the message of the gospel must be cultivated in public; more directly, it must be made public.  Early Christians “were not cut off from their neighbors [rather] the culture they created was public and accessible to all” (156).  This revolutionary and truly inclusive faith was grounded in a divine kingdom that produced “an alternative culture where grace and forgiveness are the last word” (146).

Crouch concludes with one final issue familiar to cultural theorists—namely, power.  Like culture, power is present in every facet of human life.  Indeed, there is no way of separating cultural identity from power.  Not only does it need careful attention but also harnessing.  The negative aspect of power is the human effort to usurp the authority of God, “an all-too-accurate summary of the human quest to secure enough power to become finally free from dependence on God” (227).  Put another way, cultural oppression from any sector is simply humanity’s desire to be God.  The positive aspect of power, on the other hand, relegates the self to empower the powerless.  On this point, the Christian has a unique standpoint.  Mimicking the cultivating activity of the creator, Christians are driven by a new kingdom ethic: to love God and neighbor.  The Christian’s cultural identity is not one suffused with pride or self-affirmation, but one shaped by self-sacrifice that pursues the elevation of others.  As “custodians of God’s resurrection power in the midst of the world,” Christians are to serve the needs of culture (231). 

So how are we to deal with power in order to initiate meaningful cultural change?  Crouch reins-in those who believe culture can be changed through a revolutionary one-sided putsch.  He likewise implicitly challenges those at the top (or middle) who feel that their social status justifies their imperial leadership from the top.  Significant cultural change can occur not only at the top but from the bottom—from the marginalized, the oppressed.  “Our ability to change culture,” Crouch concludes, “is a matter of scale,” and it must be done at the local level (196, 239).  Cultural change begins with our immediate relationships.  The impact we have on the few around us will cause a ripple effect that will multiply the immediate influence.  In the end, however, it is the sovereign God who “is at work lowering the high places and raising the low places—so that all flesh, low and high, will see his glory together, the glory of the one who brings the possible out of the impossible, the one who raises the dead” (212).  All flesh, as a public, will share a cultural identity cultivated by a righteous creator. 

Crouch has certainly provided an appealing study that should, at the outset, move Christians to make more relevant their understanding and engagement of culture.  While mindful of current theory, Crouch also resonates with the discussions with modern Christians. For instance, the differing human responses to God, especially as it manifests in cultural production has been referred to as the “antithesis” by nineteenth-century Protestant statesman and university founder Abraham Kuyper.  Accordingly, there exist only two types of cultural attitudes: opposition to God and submission to him.  The fall makes us enemies of God; our submission to him only comes through his gracious work of redemption.  In either case, whatever we do as culture makers reflects one of two opposing positions.  Kuyper’s followers, most notably Herman Dooyeweerd, argued that the antithesis is the deep “pretheoretical” religious ground motive of all of life.  For those following Kuyper and Dooyeweerd, therefore, culture/meaning making is at root a religious activity. 

A further elaboration of the antithesis, however, by Crouch would have sharpened an already fascinating study.  How close is the relationship between the antithesis and culture?  Would the elimination of human pride in the new heavens abolish the antithesis as it is reflected in cultural products?  This is something that needs further discussion.  The new city will be, Crouch says, “furnished with culture” (169)—and not just culture created by Christians.  “Cultural goods too will be transformed and redeemed, yet they will be recognizably what they were in the old creation—or perhaps more accurately, they will be what they always could have been” (169).  Concerning the meaning of culture, Crouch seems to equivocate.  He initially presents culture as activity.  Yet he also presents culture as things.  What is the relationship between the two?  This confuses categories.  Perhaps we should consider culture as the language that springs from our interaction with the material world.  It is not simply what we do, but the burgeoning text that immediately appears from what we make.  In this ways, culture is purely phenomenal.  At any rate, if we were to follow Crouch, we would be forced to inquire as to what these transformed cultural items would look like.  Avoiding this potential question, Crouch indulges the reader with his own ideas of what cultural items will be in the new earth:My own personal list of ‘the glory and honor of the nations’ would surely include Bach’s B Minor Mass, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue and Arvo Part’s “Spiegel im Spiegel”; green-tea cr�me brulee, fish tacos and bulgogi; Moby Dick and the Odyssey; the iPod and the Mini Cooper.”  Yet these items, he continues, will not “appear without being purified and redeemed” (170).  Pride and idolatry play a central role in Moby Dick and the Odyssey.  To remove—i.e., purify—such elements would eliminate these products.  What is more, why does he privilege these?  If the works of non-Christians are included, then could we not include Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange, P.T. Anderson’s Boogie Nights, or Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita?  While creation groans, speculation will always accompany the knowledge of consummation. 

Crouch’s use of scripture may be questioned by readers as well.  What things are to be taken literally and what things are to be taken figuratively in the Bible, especially the book of Revelation?  How would he deal with texts like 2 Peter 3, which states that the things of this world will be burned up with the coming of the new heavens and new earth?  Likewise, Christians need to consider their citizenship in this world.  I Peter refers to New Testament Christians as aliens and exiles scattered throughout the world, a clear parallel to the literal Babylonian captivity in Jeremiah 29.  In neither the Old nor New Testament are Christians encouraged to involve themselves in culture production.  Of course, if culture is unavoidable, then an exiled identity is itself a cultural identity.  Captive Hebrews in the Old Testament and persecuted Christians in the New have been given a cultural identity vis-�-vis the powers and principalities of this world, but this is not goal to which believers should aspire to.  In other words, we should be involved in making an “exiled” culture. 

Finally, there is too facile an association between Babel and the divine city of Revelation.  Does the coming of the Holy Spirit in Acts 2 and the reality of inclusion in Acts 15, erase cultural differences?  Babel was a curse, but the coming of an inclusive faith is a blessing to a culturally diverse world.  As D.A. Carson writes in his Christ and Culture Revisited, “it is not transparently clear whether the multiplicity of languages in itself was a good or bad thing [conversely] at Pentecost God did not give the gift of one language, a kind of restoration of the pre-Babel situation; rather, he gave the gift of many languages, so that the one message could be heard in all the relevant languages, thus preserving the diversity” (Christ and Culture Revisited, 74).  This raises the issue of what a specifically Christian culture really is, since our faith can be separated from our cultural identity.

Such observations in no way undermine such a timely and accessible study.  Perhaps those among the faith community will ponder their place in culture.  We may not always have to get the ideas right before we act.  Many would reject such rationalism.  Crouch offers a more philosophically pragmatic approach.  When Christians live their other-worldly life, while in this life, they cannot help but to be culture makers. 

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