Making Sense of "Culture Making", Part 1

I’ve recently begun reading Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling by Andy Crouch and will be blogging my way through the book, i.e., marking down intriguing ideas, attempting to digest what Crouch writes, and thinking about its implications.

1. What is “culture”?

Crouch — a former columnist for Christianity Today and currently the editorial director of the Christian Vision Project at Christianity Today International — begins his book in a fairly ambitious manner, by attempting to define what, exactly, culture is. And as he does so, it quickly becomes apparent that our commonplace understanding and definition of culture is probably too small. Crouch’s basic definition, which he borrows from Ken Myers is that “Culture is what we make of the world”. He elaborates:

Culture is all of these things: paintings (whether finger paintings or the Sistine Chapel), omelets, chairs, snow angels. It is what human beings make of the world. It always bears the stamp of our creativity, our God-given desire to make something more than we were given.

But culture is not just what we make of the world in the first, most obvious sense. Culture is also what we make of the world in a deeper sense of that phrase. When we find ourselves perplexed by a scene in a movie or the lyrics of a song, we say to our friends, “What do you make of that?” We aren’t usually asking our friends to write a new scene or sing new lyrics — we aren’t asking for more creation. We mean, what sense do you make of it? We are asking for interpretation.

[...]

So how do we make sense of the world? The two senses turn out to be more intertwined than we might have thought. We make sense of the world by making something of the world. The human quest for meaning is played out in human making: the finger-painting, omelet-stirring, chair-crafting, snow-swishing activities of culture. Meaning and making go together — culture, you could say, is the making of meaning.

This necessarily means that culture encompasses a whole lot more than we probably think it does at any given moment. We often think of culture as something to do with art, be it “high” culture, “low” culture, “pop” culture, etc. But culture is far more complicated, thorough, and holistic than that. And as such, it has far deeper and more pervasive effects and ramifications than we might imagine. Culture isn’t just something in the ivory tower of academia, or the art gallery, or the symphony hall: culture is something that affects us in every aspect of life, right down to the mundane and ordinary. It makes things possible, and it makes just as many things impossible. (Here, Crouch uses the example of highways, a cultural artifact that makes possible more efficient transportation and commerce but also makes previous forms of transportation, i.e., horse-based transportation, impossible.)

To that end, Crouch proposes five questions that might help to make sense of a particular cultural good or artifact, be it a finger-painting or a highway:

  1. What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world is?
  2. What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world should be?
  3. What does this cultural artifact make possible?
  4. What does this cultural artifact make impossible (or at least very difficult)?
  5. What new forms of culture are created in response to this artifact?

2. How does culture change?

One of the most intriguing aspects of the book so far occurs in the third chapter (“Teardowns, Technology and Change”), where Crouch talks about cultural change, i.e., how culture develops, evolves, and progresses. First, he addresses the problem of improving culture, a problem that starts with the very notion of improving culture.

…the language of improvement can be dangerous and misleading when applied to many of the most important features of culture. Language, like lasers, changes. Yet is twenty-first-century American English an improvement over the Anglo-Saxon of Beowulf? This is not an easy question to answer. Human languages, as they develop, do not seem to become either more complex or more simple — or, strangely enough, they seem to become both. The language of Beowulf includes grammatical “cases,” different endings signaling a word’s function in the sentence, that have all but disappeared from modern English. So English has become simpler. On the other hand, the number of words in modern English vastly outnumbers the vocabulary of Beowulf‘s first listeners. In this sense English has become more complex. As far back as historical linguists can peer into the processes of change that gave us our modern languages, there is no clear pattern of either progress or decay. Long-lost languages were no more or less complex than our own. As far as linguists can tell, language is always changing — but it never “improves”.

What is true for language is true for many cultural goods that rely on it. Is The Great Gatsby an improvement over Beowulf? Is The Waste Land an improvement over Dante’s Divine Comedy? These questions are not only difficult to answer, they strike us very possibly absurd. Indeed, one of the simplest ways to distinguish between the subjects we call the “sciences” and the subjects we call the “humanities” is that the humanities deal with topics where there is no unambiguous measure of improvement. Charles Townes’ Nobel Prize-winning paper of 1958 describing the laser is no longer read by working scientists — it has long since been superseded. But serious students of literature still read The Waste Land, Beowulf, and Homer because, while the stories told by the great writers and poets may change, they never improve.

To be fair, Crouch is not saying that we can never see improvements in culture, just that any such improvements are much more complicated than we think, and that they may not be absolutely or completely good or positive in their scope. So, rather than talk about culture in terms of change or improvement, Crouch suggests thinking in terms of “integrity”.

We can speak of progress when a certain arena of culture is more whole, more faithful to the world of which it is making something. That world includes the previous instances of culture created by generations before us.

I find this definition as intriguing as I find it frustrating: I like the sound of it, but find it ambiguous and open-ended. It seems to beg a lot of questions. Crouch does flesh this out a little bit by using the example of a house (i.e., progress for a house means “effectively adapting a building to the requirements of its surroundings and the needs of its occupants.”) But even this leaves a lot of room for interpretation — but perhaps that as it should be. It’ll be interesting to see if and how Crouch further develops this line of thinking later in the book.

3. The speed & longevity of cultural change

Crouch makes a much more provocative point with regards to changing culture when he begins discussing the rate and impact of cultural change. Indeed, this might be my favorite part of the book so far. His essential point is that there is an inverse relationship between the speed of a cultural change and the longevity of its impact. In other words, the faster a cultural change occurs or is implemented, the lesser its ultimate amount of cultural effect and the sooner its effects disappear, and vice versa.

Some significant cultural changes – e.g., revolutions, revivals – may seem to occur in a heartbeat but that’s only because we look at them in hindsight or from a very narrow perspective. He uses 9/11 as an example, here. On that terrible day, a group of men radically altered life here in America in the span of just a few hours. In other words, a huge cultural change whose repercussions are still felt nearly a decade after the fact occurred in a very short amount of time. However, the reality is more complicated.

From the point of view of many Americans, September 11 was a revolution, but for the terrorists themselves that was just one day in a much larger process with a history stretching back at least to the Crusades and a future expanding to a far-off but devoutly hoped for culmination of a worldwide caliphate, and indeed an envisioned afterlife of heavenly rewards for their martyrdom. Nothing that matters, no matter how sudden, does not have a long history and take part in a long future.

Crouch then provides another example that should hit home more squarely for Christians: the Resurrection. According to Christians, the resurrection of Christ from the dead is the most important event in history, the greatest of all revolutions. However, as Crouch points out:

…the cultural implications of Jesus’ resurrection, one day or one week after the event, were exactly nil. The following Sunday, according to the Gospels, the witnesses to that earth-shattering event were hidden in an obscure corner of Jerusalem in fear for their lives. The event that would do more than any other in history to alter the horizons of possibility and impossibility had not yet had the slightest effect on the life of a typical resident of Jerusalem. Arguably, it had not even had much effect on the few who had seen evidence of the event with their own eyes.

After a very brief overview of Christianity’s history and development, he concludes that “the resurrection of Jesus, the most extraordinary intervention of God in history, took hundreds of years to have widespread cultural effects.”

I find this thought rather encouraging. I’m part of a relatively new church plant (we’re in our third year of existence). One question that we’re constantly asking is, how can we significantly impact the city (and the culture) of Lincoln? We’ve identified some core areas that we want to focus on, such as artists and college students, and we’ve been working towards that goal. Like any start-up, a church plant begins with a lot of energy, momentum, ideas, and plans — you’re practically bursting at the seams. Then you settle down to the work of bringing those plans to fruition, and the work is hard. It takes time. You occasionally lose sight of your original vision because you’re caught in the day-to-day routines.

And so, the thought that that even the most significant event in human history took hundreds of years to achieve “widespread cultural effects” is an encouraging thought. It offers some much-needed perspective, especially in this fast-moving society in which we live, where change and upheaval seems to happen overnight. Christians — or anyone working towards cultural change (or integrity), for that matter — need not lose hope. Indeed, we must not lose hope, if history is any sort of indication. As I quoted Crouch earlier, “Nothing that matters, no matter how sudden, does not have a long history and take part in a long future.”

That’s a good place to stop for now — this entry is long enough as it is. In the second part of this series, I’ll post a few more thoughts on Crouch’s views regarding the Resurrection’s cultural impact, and then finish up the first section of the book, which deals with worldviews, the idea of cultural cultivation, and the various tactics that the American Church has used throughout its history to deal with culture.

About Jason Morehead

Jason Morehead lives in the lovely state of Nebraska with his wife, three children, zero pets, and a large collection of CDs, DVDs, books, and video games. He's a fan of Arcade Fire and Arvo Pärt, Jackie Chan and Andrei Tarkovsky, "Doctor Who" and "Community," and C.S. Lewis and Haruki Murakami. He's also a web development geek, which pays the bills — and buys new music and movies. Twitter: @jasonopus. Web: http://opus.fm.

  • Tim Lockwood

    Jason the distinction between science and the humanities is a good one.However there is a tendency that I have seen the tendency of people to equate technological progress with progress in film literrature music etc. I have met people who disdain literature film and music created before a certain time period equating old with inferior. This is especially true in regards to film where complaints such as where are the special effects why is it in black and white are common complaints about older movies.An interesting essay and the book sounds interesting as well Keep on writing

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