By Mariah Secrest
Last month we ran a review of Andy Crouch’s book Culture Making. I can’t recommend this book highly enough; I still find myself mentally referring to some of the concepts in my daily goings-on as well as in the way I think about the world. It’s a work that is both scholastically brilliant as well as deeply creative, seamlessly bridging philosophy of culture with praxis. Since I realize it is tacky to cajole, manipulate, or bribe you to read Andy’s latest read, instead I decided to let the author himself entice you. The following is an interview with Andy about the ideas leading into Culture Making.
WRECKED: For our readers who haven’t had a chance to read the book, can you give a summary of how you define culture?
AC: Culture is more than what we often think it is. We often use the word to refer to “high” culture: classical music, theater, paintings, and so forth. But it’s much more than that. The best definition I know comes from the journalist Ken Myers: Culture is what human beings make of the world, in both senses. It is the material stuff we make from the raw material of creation, and it is also the meaning we make, the sense we make, of the world we find ourselves in. When you realize it’s not just about art, but about anything human beings make of the world, you discover that culture is something we all have a stake in, and all have a responsibility for.
WRECKED: What inspired you to write a whole book on Christianity’s role within our culture? Why did this book need to be written?
AC: There were multiple reasons I suppose. The seeds for the book were planted while I was in campus ministry. [Andy was a campus minister at Harvard University for ten years.] I found myself asking why, in a Christian sense, my students were there at all-for that matter, why I had been in college myself a few years before. To what end do we go to college? Is it just to evangelize? Or is there some fundamental reason to be there? The answer, I came to realize, had to have something to do with our calling to be equipped to participate creatively and effectively within culture. At the same time, when I did hear Christians talk about culture, I thought we were missing some essential ideas. We often spoke as if culture were something outside of us, or as if there is only a single monolithic culture (“the” culture). We used words like “impact” to refer to culture, even though I had learned through reading sociology that cultures in their very essence are designed to resist rapid change. Finally, I felt like our posture towards culture was inadequate: we were too often defensive and withdrawn on the one hand, or uncritically consuming the worst of our culture on the other hand.
WRECKED: In your book you describe some of the various trends that Western Christianity has followed concerning its reaction to the surrounding cultures. Can you talk about each of those and why you feel they are or are not effective?
AC: In the twentieth century, conservative Protestants adopted a series of postures toward culture that were understandable at the time, but in the long run were not very beneficial. The fundamentalists tended to condemn culture. “Come out and be ye separate” was the touchstone verse. But culture is not optional, and the great irony is that if you think you can withdraw from it, you end up tending to absorb the very things that you’re working against without even realizing it.
The children of the fundamentalists moved towards critiquing culture. They were analyzing and interpreting the world around them as a stepping stone to evangelism. The problem with only analyzing culture, however, is that you are still fundamentally reacting-not offering anything new and all too often having very little influence.
Then you have the music that came out of the Jesus Movement, which was largely about copying culture. The idea was that there is nothing wrong with the cultural forms around us, like rock and roll music, but what we needed was to infuse those forms with Christian content. But is this really all we’re called to create-culture that has an upfront Christian message? I think many of us sense that the music that came out of what eventually was called Contemporary Christian Music, even when some of it was artistically excellent, was a tiny subset of all the songs that Christians might want to sing.
Now, today, it seems to me that the primary posture of most Christians toward culture is neither condemnation, nor critique, nor copying, but simply consumption. There is nothing wrong with consuming cultural goods-we have to consume food to live, after all!-but if the main way I identify myself is by what I consume, then I’m not living the life God intended for me. The postures God originally intended for us, I’ve come to believe, are cultivating and creating. Not condemning, critiquing, copying, or consuming.
WRECKED: Why do you think as Christians we should care about how we are perceived by those who are not part of the Christian faith?
AC: Well, in one sense, we shouldn’t care, simply because we can’t really control how people perceive us. So I’m only worried about others’ negative perceptions of Christians if the perceptions ring true. If we’re perceived only as endless critics and the reason we’re perceived that way is because it’s true, then we have failed and need to respond. If our neighbors are offended by us, let’s make sure they are offended by the right things, rather than by our failure to be what God created us to be.
WRECKED: Do you have any stories from people who have read this book and been inspired to create and tend culture as a result?
AC: Well, creating culture takes time, and the book has only been out for a few months! But the truth is that people are already doing this in all sorts of places in extraordinarily creative ways. Last week I was in Atlanta visiting the founders of the music project Fringe Atlanta (insert link- www.fringeatlanta.org) One of the four founders is a world-class violinist, and she and her friends have created a whole new series of chamber music. Every concert is accompanied by a contemporary art show, and features a DJ spinning loops, documentary films, and a well-stocked bar for intermission. (The bartender is the pastor of the church where the concert is held, by the way.) They’ve jettisoned the cultural baggage of classical music that makes young people think it’s irrelevant, and their concerts are selling out. Most people at their concerts are under thirty-it’s like being at a club, it just happens that the main event is Schubert or Bartok. What I love about Fringe is that they are cultivating-keeping something that is already good in our cultural heritage good-and they’re also creating something new. That’s such a model of what Christians could and should be doing.
WRECKED: What do you hope happens as a result of people reading this book?
AC: I hope we will stop thinking of culture as something “out there” and start realizing that opportunities to cultivate and create are right around us. I hope we will find a few friends and ask: what is already good in the world around us that
we could help to keep good? What is missing in our own cultural context that we could create and offer to the wider world? What would be audacious acts of cultural creativity that would reflect the wild goodness of God? And I hope that we will become more hopeful-that we will become people who participate in our culture not out of a sense of despair or criticism, but out of hope that God is at work in history, and will take our small efforts and multiply them in ways we never could have imagined.