Culture Making

  • Andy Crouch
  • May 7, 2010
  • Series: Volume 13 - 2010

Andy Crouch, Culture Making.  Downers Grove:  InterVarsity Press, 2008.  268 pages.  $20.00.  ISBN 978-0-8308-3394-8.

Culture is all around us.  We cannot escape it.  How should a Christian respond to or interact with their culture?  Culture is perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of life to define and describe, let alone challenge or change.  In Culture Making, Andy Crouch takes a look at the nature of culture and the Christian calling to be creators and cultivators of culture.

Through time spent as a campus minister at Harvard and as a senior editor at Christianity Today, Andy Crouch has experienced life amongst influential culture makers, both Christian and secular.  This experience is brought to bear on the Christian community in Culture Making.  Crouch attempts to lay out a tangible understanding of culture, a biblical picture of culture making, and prompt Christians to cultivate culture that glorifies God.  Crouch’s writing is clear and easy to read.  While not the most scholarly treatment of culture, Culture Making does draw from a larger tradition of social and cultural theory.  Throughout his book, Crouch makes reference to seminal works such as Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity, and the works of prominent sociologists and anthropologists.

            Crouch takes up defining culture as his first task, ultimately defining it as what we make of the world—in the fullest sense of the word “make.”  Culture, then, is both how humans understand and interpret the world around them as well as what they create from what is around them in the world.  This definition is satisfactory in that it encompasses the breadth of culture without limiting it to the realm of the abstract.  It maintains culture as a concrete concept that can be understood—even if only partially—and eventually engaged while also allowing room for culture to shift and change as it inevitably does.

            Crouch further clarifies his understanding of culture by providing five questions that are used to diagnose the impact of any form of culture:  What does it assume about the way the world is?  What does it assume about the way the world should be?  What does it make possible?  What does it make impossible (or at least difficult)?  And what forms of culture are made in response?

            These questions allow one to probe culture for the way it understands the world and the way it shapes the world.  It helps one understand how culture changes, in Crouch’s words, the “horizons of possibility and impossibility.”  This is as true for the small-scale culture of a family as it is for the global culture of corporations and nations. 

With his understanding of culture established, Crouch explores the nature of cultural changes.  He is well aware of the fact that culture changes, but contends that change does not necessarily mean improvement.  He also identifies an inverse relationship between the rate of cultural change and its impact.  Crouch argues that widespread, lasting change typically occurs slowly, while rapid change is often replaced by the next fad.  Crouch warns his readers not to put their hope in a Christian silver bullet that will redeem culture overnight.  He proposes, rather, that true cultural transformation will be the result of incremental changes over time. 

With this in mind, Crouch addresses the current Christian emphasis on worldview.  While recognizing the significance of worldviews and creating a biblical worldview, Crouch maintains that Christians have equated worldview with culture, which has led to an emphasis on worldview analysis.  He argues that while worldview is part of culture, culture is larger than worldview and even the most careful worldview analysis cannot change culture on its own.

After examining the nature of culture, Crouch turns his attention to methods of cultural change.  He argues that the most effective means of changing culture is to create and cultivate new culture and cultural goods.  If culture is what we make of the world, then the only way to understand the world differently is to make something different of the world. 

Crouch discusses four unsatisfactory postures towards culture that Christians have historically taken.  They are condemning, critiquing, copying, and consuming culture.  While he acknowledges the merits of each of these responses to culture, he summarily shows why each is ineffective at truly transforming culture.  He then proposes an alternative approach to culture for Christians:  creation and cultivation.  Creation means bringing something into being from the world that was not previously there, such as the artist with his canvas.  Cultivation means tending to something, maintaining it, and making it more productive, like a farmer with crops.  Crouch argues that humans were created as creators and cultivators, and when they act as such they are functioning in their God-given roles as his image on earth.

Section two expounds the idea of humanity’s call to be cultivators and creators through a biblical theology of culture-making.  Crouch starts with God’s creation of culture in the Garden and with his charge to Adam to be a culture maker, reasoning that the act of naming animals is making something of the world, and thus making culture.  In the Garden, humanity is called to create and cultivate, to make something of the world that God has given them. 

With the fall, humanity and its culture making enterprise turns from God, seeking to supplant God through cultural achievement.  Thus, Crouch reasons, much of the biblical account is a dichotomy between man’s misguided attempt at creating culture and God’s attempt to call his creation home through his own culture making.  Crouch sees the creation of Israel, Jesus’ death on the cross, and the new heaven and earth as acts of culture-making.  Each of these acts open up new horizons of possibility for mankind’s restored relationship with God. 

Crouch further defends man’s culture making mandate by arguing that in the new heaven and earth God will redeem and maintain the very best of human cultural achievement.  While this may be a bold interpretation, it does explain Isaiah’s vision that the coming redeemed city will include ships from Tarshish and wood from Lebanon (Is 60:9, 13).

Although Crouch does not provide detailed exegesis or engage in scholarly discourse, his interpretations throughout this section are consistent with orthodox, mainline Protestant theology and interpretation.  His interpretations and resulting conclusions are sound, making a strong case for mankind’s call to be cultivators and creators of culture.

The final section deals with practical implications of Crouch’s view of culture making.  In an unexpected twist, Crouch begins this section examining the reasons that people cannot change the world.  He wants to caution his readers that no one person can change the culture of every person living on earth.  Most large-scale cultural change begins small and grows over time.  Even the resurrection, probably the most significant culture making event, initially only changed the culture of a few individuals.  Although Christianity experienced rapid growth, it still took many years for the culture created on the cross to move the horizons of possibility for millions. 

Crouch also argues that culture creation and cultivation is best done in community.  He commends his readers to create and cultivate culture in expanding cultural communities, beginning with a small, intimate group that can work together, moving out to a larger community that can disseminate the new culture to a larger audience. 

Unfortunately, after shifting the horizons of possibility for Christian culture making, Crouch does not provide much guidance for operating in this new space.  Perhaps he is leaving that up to the creativity of his readers, but some concrete examples of Christian culture making would have helped anchor these new horizons.

Culture Making provides a fresh look into an ancient concern:  how do we make something of the world around us?  Specifically, Crouch is concerned with the Christian enterprise of culture making and cultivation that he sees as the answer to a pagan culture that is drawing mankind away from its Creator.  This thoughtful book is accessible to many different readers and will be a thought-provoking aid to anyone concerned with transforming culture for the glory of God.

Robert Smith
Denver Seminary

May 2010