Review: ‘Culture Making’ by Andry Crouch

I think anyone who is passionate about anything–whether it’s the job they hold, their friendships, families, writing, art, music, whatever–eventually gets burned out on their discipline. As a writer, I love expressing myself through words and thoughts that form a coherent (and hopefully powerful) whole, but there are times where I just don’t feel I have the energy for it and then start to question if such a pursuit is still worth it.

I bring this up because reading Andy Crouch’s 2008 book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling was a good reminder to me not only of the potential I have to make culture but also that it is a gift to all mankind and a holy calling from God.

The first section of the book tackles the question of what culture is, and here, Crouch defines it as what we make of the world. As God is a creator, so are His image bearers. We make sense of the world by making something of the world. This happens in different ways and in different spheres, and our efforts are ultimately subject to change, due to time and technological advances. This section also includes a brief history on how Christians in America have, in recent years, responded to culture, including withdrawing from it, copying it, and seeking to transform it. Borrowing images from Genesis, Crouch argues that we are to be both creators of culture as well as cultivators of it.

The second section of the book examines the biblical story as a whole, starting from Genesis, incorporating events such as creation, the events in the Garden of Eden, the building of Babel, the calling of Israel, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, Pentecost, and the coming new heavens and earth. Crouch examines what culture was created in each of these instances, and I think he makes a great point in his chapter on “the glorious impossible”.

Crouch points out that the first city in Scripture, Babel, is built with evil intentions, and it’s the last thing you’d expect to find in God’s new world. But we turn to Revelation and find that what awaits the redeemed is not another garden like Eden but a city! For Crouch, John the Revelator’s vision of New Jerusalem descending from the sky and coming to earth is indicative of God’s redemptive power:

“Somehow the city, the embodiment of concentrated human culture, has been transformed from the site of sin and judgment to the ultimate expression of grace, a gift ‘coming out of heaven from God’” (122).

Crouch is clear, though: we cannot change the world. Part of this unfortunate fact is due to the fact that people can never predict the unintended consequences of what they’ve created, and part of it is due to the fact that you’re going to change the world for the better. Additionally, Crouch points out that in Scripture, the term for “world” is used in a negative sense and is seen at odds with God. Crouch rightly points out that we are at war with spiritual forces of evil, and here in this discussion, I found what is (I think) one of the best quotes of the book:

“Beware of world changers—they have not yet learned the true meaning of sin” (200).

We can, however, be involved in the work that God is doing and has already done through the Exodus and the Resurrection—two incredibly powerful events that shaped the cultures of Israel and the church, respectively. This will include a shift in our thinking, as we must remember that God works in both the powerful and the powerless (he spoke both to Moses and to Pharaoh, after all).

And we must beware of the lure of power, as no one can ever be sure of how much power they have and will never think that they have enough of it. We must instead seek the disciplines of service and stewardship to protect ourselves from the tempting offer of power.

“Just as the only real antidote to the temptations of money is lavish generosity, so the only real antidote to the temptations of power is choosing to spend our power in the opposite of the way the world encourages us to spend it: not on getting closer to the sources of additional power or on securing our own round-the-clock sense of comfort and control, but spend it on getting closer to the relatively powerless” (228).

So instead of seeking power, we can instead ask what cultural good have we successfully proposed, with whom are we sharing it, and whether our own transformation is taking place in the process (235). We also must recognize that cultural goods start small, within a tiny community, and expand from there. In his chapter “Community”, Crouch argues that the optimal community settings start with three people and expand to both 12 and eventually 120 members.

“This is why most books include acknowledgments. Read the acknowledgments carefully—sometimes you have to read between the lines—and you’ll invariably find a few key people thanked especially profusely (the 3), another group of people given particular mention (the 12), and a host of others whose names couldn’t be omitted without the author dishonestly taking more credit for the final product than he really deserved (the 120). Of course, the numbers won’t always line up quite precisely, but the proportions will always be roughly 3 : 12: 120—and the inner concentric circle, the small group without whom the book simply would never have been written, will never be much more than 3” (240).

Everyone has these types of communities—those that begin with the tightest-knit group (the 3) and go from there. And readers familiar with the gospels will instantly recognize the significance of these numbers, as Jesus had both three different types of disciples: the three (Peter, James, and John), the Twelve, and the 120 mostly unnamed people who continue to follow him after the Resurrection and before the events of Pentecost. The challenge for us is to figure out who in our lives belongs to these different levels of community.

Cultural creativity also comes from our awareness that our lives are a gift and acting, as Crouch describes it, as children of grace. As children of grace, we should expect grace to lead us to places where people are hurting. (A personal thought from the reviewer: is there really other place in which graces is needed?)

“So where are we called to create culture? At the intersection of grace and cross. Where do we find our work and play bearing awe-inspiring fruit—and at the time find ourselves able to identify with Christ on the cross? That intersection is where we are called to dig into the dirt, cultivate and create” (262).

I’d recommend buying this book, although I was disappointed that the author didn’t recommend practical things that people can start doing to either create culture (or at least be aware that they are) or cultivate it. There are a lot of great ideas in this book, and the writing is of a high quality as well. The lack of practical advice is my only real criticism, but other than that, there shouldn’t be anything keeping you from adding this to your bookshelf or e-reader.

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3 thoughts on “Review: ‘Culture Making’ by Andry Crouch

  1. Eric November 19, 2012 / 8:52 pm

    I’d be interested in your response to one criticism I’ve heard of the book. This criticism is simple: Crouch defines culture as “what we make of the world”. This makes everything culture. Then Crouch talks about culture as if it means what people normally mean when they say “culture”, either mainstream culture or being in touch with current popular culture. e.g., Crouch apparently discusses withdrawing from culture despite having defined culture so that this is impossible. Since you’ve actually read the book I’d be interested in your response.

    • Justin Boulmay November 22, 2012 / 12:10 am

      From what I remember (don’t have the book in front of me), Crouch’s solution was not to withdraw from culture but to create it. Since we create culture whether we mean to or not, I’d say that our goal here is to recognize our role as culture makers and how that can be used to the glory of God.

      As for whether Crouch’s definition differs from other people’s, I don’t think there’s as much of a distinction between his definition and, say, “popular culture”. Don’t pop musicians, for instance, make something of their world? (I think it also helps to know that Crouch understands that “world” here should be used in a limited sense.)

  2. Eric November 25, 2012 / 9:37 pm

    Hmm. It appears I was unclear. The comment was that Crouch cannot even discuss withdrawing from culture (whether to praise or condemn it) if culture is everything. If culture is “what we make of the world” then even the most insulated fundamentalist is fully engaged in culture – their own culture that they make in their bubble. To discuss the issue of withdrawing from culture requires switching over to something like the popular culture definition in which someone in a fundamentalist bubble has disengaged from a particular culture that is now called “culture” without modifiers. The issue raised was not whether Crouch differs from others in his definitions but whether Crouch differs from himself between chapters.

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