Pros: Thought-provoking and thoughtful; coherent and wise; great food for discussion and action
Cons: Only that I don't own my own copy yet
There are books that inspire conversation. And there are books that both inspire and change conversation.
That last is what I'm betting (and hoping) that Andy Crouch's excellent book Culture Making is going to do within Christian communities and also in the wider world those communities serve.
I absolutely loved this book. The main reason I've not yet reviewed it (though I finished it, reluctantly closing the covers, about two weeks ago) is that I'm still mulling over much of what it has to say. I'm coming to realize that mulling it over is something that I will likely be doing for a long time though, and well into repeated readings. I'm also coming to realize that mulling isn't enough, not if I agree with one of Crouch's main points about human beings and culture: the best response to culture is to make more, and to make it as creatively, lovingly and wisely as we know how.
So here I am, creating my own little piece of culture in response to culture by shaping a review.
For those who aren't familiar with him, Andy Crouch used to be the editor of re:generation quarterly, a Christian journal that has sadly gone out of business. He's written other books and numerous articles for journals such as Christianity Today. He's a musician and served for ten years as a campus minister at Harvard. You can get most of that from the back of the book or from a quick internet search. What I'd like to add is that he's one of the most thoughtful and coherent writers on Christian faith and culture I've come across in years, and I do a lot of reading about the intersection of faith and culture or faith and creativity.
Culture Making is not a book that sets out to prescribe the ways Christians should think about culture, though Crouch spends a good bit of time helping us to think about ways that people of faith have thought about, and responded to, culture in the past. Written from a deeply orthodox Christian perspective (small "o" orthodox; Crouch is protestant) these reflections take for granted both the innate goodness of God's created world and the broken or bent nature of all culture and culture-making activities in a world that has fallen from the Creator's original intentions.
Culture, defined as "what human beings make of the world," is not an option. We're surrounded by culture all the time, whether or not we recognize it as such. One of my favorite parts of the book is the opening section where Crouch helps readers to reflect on actions as simple and seemingly innocuous as the building of the interstate highway system and the making of an omelet. Neither of these actions is inherently good or bad, but each of them is far more complex than we've ever stopped to think about. Crouch offers a set of questions we can pose when looking at a cultural artifact or an act of culture-making, questions that have to do with what such acts suppose about the world, what those actions make possible, what they make impossible or more difficult, and what new kinds of culture are created in response to those actions. It's a thought-provoking set of questions designed to get you thinking about complex creative interactions.
Those early chapters alone make the book worth reading, but there's more, much more, to come. Crouch delves into a helpful look at four common responses that Christians often make to culture. Depending on whether or not a particular work of art or popular culture seems inspiring or alarming, those responses include condemning, critiquing, copying, or consuming. As he cogently explains, any one of these responses may be a valid and appropriate response, or gesture, at any given time. He argues that problems arise when gestures become postures so that a given person or community becomes known for a standard or stock response to culture without taking specifics into account. He shows how, through history, the Christian community has often gotten stuck in one of those postures. He also argues persuasively that the current "default" mode for many evangelical communities is consumption. Our main calling, however, is not to get stuck in any of these "postures," no matter how helpful and appropriate some of them may be as gestures, but to rediscover our Biblical calling to be creators and cultivators (or artists and gardeners).
Do you see what I mean about a book's ability to change conversations? One thing I like about Crouch's writing, besides its elegance and economy, is that he provides new parameters and language for discussing things both within and without the community of faith. Although I would say this book is primarily one addressed to the church, and calls the church to look hard at its complex history with culture and its calling to value and create culture, the language Crouch uses isn't "churchy" language. This is a book I feel I could fruitfully discuss (and would like to!) with non-Christian as well as Christian friends.
I know that as a Christian I was well-served by the opportunity to read and reflect on these ideas. The theological meat of the book is contained in section 2, when Crouch presents a clear, concise Biblical theology of culture, from the Garden (in Genesis) to the City (the New Jerusalem in Revelation) with particular attention paid to the stories of Babel and Pentecost. He mines the Biblical story for riches regarding human endeavor and creativity and human relationship with a creative Creator God.
The final section, simply titled "Calling," presents some of the most provocative ideas in the book. Crouch looks at the transformative power involved in creativity, as well as its limitations (one chapter is actually titled "Why We Can't Change the World") and the importance of crafting culture within community. Here he presents some of the most intriguing ideas I've heard in a while about our need as human beings to find partners who can help us start and sustain our creative endeavors. He calls this communal pattern "the 3, the 12 and the 120" and shows how most influential culture-making has its genesis in small groups of people innovating together, whose influence reaches its full potential in ever slightly larger concentric circles.
It's rare that I come away from a book as challenged and excited as I did this one. It made me not only want to dust off old manuscripts (hey, maybe I should get back to that novel!) but to rethink all the small, myriad ways I "create culture" each day, from the meals I cook and serve my family to the ways I set up the online course I teach to the ways our family cultivates traditions and customs unique to us.
As I said earlier, this book is a conversation inspirer but also a conversation changer. If you're a Chrisitian who cares about the intersection of faith and culture, you will want to "read, mark and inwardly digest" the reflections on offer in Culture-Making. It belongs on your shelf next to Sayers and Niebuhr and O'Connor and L'Engle and Seerveld. If you're not a Christian but are still interested in considering faith and culture, I would still encourage you to read this book. It's beautifully written, biblically sound but not full of churchy language, and will provide thought-provoking ideas about what it means to be a human being made in God's image, a human being called by God to cultivate and create.
Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling
by Andy Crouch
InterVarsity Press, 2008