My previous entry in this series — read it here — ended with some thoughts on Andy Crouch’s discussion of the cultural impact of the Resurrection, arguably the most important event in history for Christians. Crouch was discussing how we measure cultural change and what brings about true cultural change, and made the insightful observation that an inverse relationship exists between the speed of a cultural change and the longevity of its impact. In other words, a cultural change that occurs quickly will likely have little to no lasting impact on the culture (and vice versa). The resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead is a perfect example of this: it was an event of unimaginable magnitude and importance that nevertheless took hundreds of years to have any significant amount of cultural impact.
This realization can have significant impact for Christians and our attempts and ideas for changing and affecting the surrounding culture. As Crouch writes:
…hope in a future revolution, or revival, to solve the problems of our contemporary culture is usually misplaced. And such hope makes us especially vulnerable to fashion, mistaking shifts in the wind for changes in the climate. Fads sweep across the cultural landscape and believers invest outsized portions of energy and commitment in furthering the fad, mistaking it for real change.
Of course, Christians aren’t the only ones guilty of this. But such a behavior is ironic, given the fact that our Savior’s resurrection and the movement surrounding it (i.e., the Church) was no fad and that it took centuries. Crouch will be further discussing the cultural impact of the Resurrection later in the book, which I’m looking forward to — his writing so far on the topic has been some of my favorite material in the book.
Of Culture & Worldviews
Alan Noble has recently begun a series of posts on the topic of worldviews, so I find it rather serendipitous that this portion of Crouch’s book also touches on some of the deficiencies of a worldview focus. For Crouch, the primary problem with using the worldview approach when it comes to understanding and changing culture is twofold. First, its focus is primarily on analysis as the agent of cultural change.
What is privileged above all else in the world of worldview is analysis. Worldview is a concept drawn from the world of philosophy, and in the world of philosophy the philosopher is king. Perhaps inevitably, people with strong analytical and philosophical gifts look at the evident problem of Christian disembodiment and propose not a profound program of embodiment but more thinking as the solution. And after we have done a lot more thinking, how exactly does the world change? Well, “then a miracle occurs.”
In other words, real-world cultural change — i.e., the “embodiment” that Crouch references — is only possible if we think about the culture long and hard enough.
The second problem is that the concept of “worldview” is simply too limited when it comes to discussing culture.
But “worldview,” when it means a set of philosophical presuppositions, is too limiting a way of analyzing culture. What is the worldview of an omelet? What is the worldview of the Navajo language? What is the worldview of a chair? The language of worldview is well suited to forms of culture that deal primarily with ideas and imagination — books like this one, poems, plays, paintings. Of all these artifacts we can easily ask what view of the world they presuppose. But it’s not so easy or useful to ask that question about omelets or lasers. Omelets do not arise out of a worldview — they create a world.
The minute we start trying to use worldviews as a way to explain culture, we are limiting the scope of, and simplifying, the discussion by default.
Changing & Cultivating the Culture
Christians often talk about having a good influence on the culture around them. This may be described as bearing a good Christian witness, or by being “salt and light”, or some other bit of “Christian-ese” jargon. But all jargon aside, how, exactly, does one do that? How does any real cultural change come about? For Crouch, the answer is rather simple and straightforward: “The only way to change culture is to create more of it.”
He uses the example of preparing chili for his family’s dinner. He and his wife love chili, but their children do not. If his children want to change the fact that chili makes a regular appearance at the Crouch dinner table, there are several strategies that they can employ. In the end, however, only one strategy will bring about any significant cultural change in their family: his children learning to successfully cook dinner themselves, and thereby bringing something new and exciting to the table.
Consequently, cultural change will only happen when something new displaces, to some extent, existing culture in a very tangible way. Our family eats dinner every night and, if our country’s prosperity continues, we will go on eating dinner every night. Our dinner-table culture will only change if someone offers us something sufficiently new and compelling to displace the current items on our menu.
For Crouch, what is true about his family’s dinner table holds true for the broader culture. But all too often, it is easy to fall into other strategies. These strategies include condemning culture, critiquing culture, copying culture, and consuming culture. All four of these can be used — either by children dissatisfied with their parents’ cooking, or by Christians dissatisfied with the surrounding culture — in an attempt to bring about change. And, as Crouch will point out in just a bit, they do have their place.
However, if Crouch is right, then none of these have the effect that creating new, compelling cultural artifacts — e.g., chili, chairs, works of art — can have. Crouch then goes one step further, pointing out that creation does not occur within a vacuum. It occurs within a tradition, with pre-existing materials, knowledge, forms, and ideas. Thus, Crouch points out that “creation begins with cultivation — taking care of the good things that culture has already handed us.” And though “cultivation” may not sound as exciting as “creation,” I find that it produces a welcome change in perspective.
Cultivation in the world of culture is not so different from cultivation in the world of nature. One who cultivates tries to create the most fertile conditions for good things to survive and thrive. Cultivation also requires weeding — sorting out what does and does not belong, what will bear fruit and what will choke it out. Cultivating natural things requires long and practiced familiarity with plants and their place; cultivating cultural things requires careful attention to the history of our culture and to the current threats and opportunities that surround it. Cultivation is conservation — ensuring that the world we leave behind, whether natural or cultural, contains at least as many possibilities and at least as much excellence as the one we inherited.
So, how does the Church do?
In the final portion of the book’s first section, Crouch gives a frank assessment of the American Church’s history of cultural involvement. He begins with a bit of a whirlwind tour through twentieth century Church history, beginning with the adoption of Darwinism and Biblical criticism by American elites around the turn of the century, which helped bring about the growing fundamentalist/mainstream schism. From there, he then explores the various “gestures” that the conservative Protestant church has adopted throughout the ages. Crouch identifies four primary gestures, which he touched on earlier. They are:
- Condemning Culture: This is the stereotype of ultra-fundamentalist preachers railing against the sinfulness of Hollwood, etc. and encouraging their flocks to withdraw from sinful “secular” culture. I this know all too well, having grown up in a fairly conservative church. But as Crouch points out, the problem of such an approach is that it’s an inherently negative one that focuses on the dangers of the world and not its delights. What’s more, it assumes that one can easily separate the “sacred” from the “secular”, thus implying that “the culture” is something out there that can be completely avoided as needed.
- Critiquing Culture: This approach, which was heavily influenced by the work of Francis Schaeffer’s L’Abri ministry, adopts a more analytical approach to culture. But it is a primarily intellectual approach that focuses on worldview analysis, which Crouch previously discussed, privileging cultural analysis over other approaches. It is here that he throws out one of my favorite quotes: “It is perhaps not unfair to say that to this day, evangelicalism, so deeply influenced by the Schaeffers and their many protégés, still produces better art critics than artists.”
- Copying Culture: This approach can be easily summed up in three words, “Contemporary Christian Music” (aka, “CCM”). It seeks to find that which is popular or influential in the prevailing culture, and then create a form of it that is palatable for Christians. Essentially, it adopts the form of, say, popular music but radically changes the content. But being so focused on creating palatable content creates a “puritanical approach to content” to ensure that it meets the necessary standards in order to be produced.
- Consuming Culture: As Crouch sees it, this is the prevailing approach of the modern Church. Christians no longer condemn, critique, or copy the prevailing culture. Rather, they just consume it like everyone else, perhaps even more so. As he puts it, “[Christians] are content to be just like their fellow Americans, or perhaps, driven by a lingering sense of shame at their uncool forebears, just slightly more like their fellow Americans than everyone else.”
Crouch makes the very important point that these gestures are not, in and of themselves, wrong or to be avoided. For example, there are times when it is certainly appropriate to condemn certain facets of culture. (“The international web of violence and lawlessness that sustains the global sex trade is culture, but there is nothing to do with it but eradicate it as quickly and effectively as we can.”) Likewise, there are times when it is proper to critique, copy, and even simply consume culture. The problem arises when “these gestures become too familiar, become the only way we know how to respond to culture, become etched into our unconscious stance toward the world and become postures.”
For example, if our cultural “posture” is one that is characterized by condemnation, then it:
…leaves us closed off from the beauty and possibility as well as the grace and mercy in many forms of culture. It also makes us into hypocrites, since we are hardly free of culture ourselves. The culture of our churches and Christian communities is often just as lamentable as the “secular” culture we complain about, something our neighbors can see perfectly well. The posture of condemnation leaves us with nothing to offer even when we manage to persuade our neighbors that a particular cultural good should be discarded. And most fundamentally, having condemnation as our posture makes it almost impossible to reflect the image of a God who called the creation “very good” and, even in the wake of the profound cultural breakdown that led to the Flood, promised never to utterly destroy humankind and human culture again.
I really like this analogy of “gestures” and “postures”. I also find it rather convicting. As I’ve mentioned earlier, I come from a fundamentalist/conservative background that definitely adopted a condemning posture towards “the culture” at large. And so, I’ve often wrestled with having strong reactions whenever I hear someone condemn the culture — not because I think they’re condemning the culture incorrectly or condemning an improper target, but rather, because they have the temerity to condemn anything at all in the first place.
On the flipside, I wrestle with simply wanting to consume culture with hardly any thought given to what I’m consuming. Sometimes I cover that up with talk of “grace” and “Christian liberty”, but most of the time, it’s because I’m just lazy and complacent. Crouch’s discussion of postures here encourages me to take a step back and look at my own cultural postures, and when I do, I see that they need some work. If I’m to have any sort of posture, then I want to have the posture of cultivation.
In wrapping up the chapter, Crouch returns to this idea of cultivating culture, drawing parallels between artists and gardeners, and ultimately asks some pointed questions of the Church.
I wonder what we Christians are known for in the world outside our churches. Are we known as critics, consumers, copiers, condemners of culture? I’m afraid so. Why aren’t we know as cultivators — people who tend and nourish what is best in human culture, who do the hard and painstaking work to preserve the best of what people before us have done? Why aren’t we known as creators — people who dare to think and do something that has never been thought or done before, something that makes the world more welcoming and thrilling and beautiful?
These are good questions that seem simple on the surface. But the more we think about them, the more they can significantly impact how our churches minister to those around us, and how we reach out to and serve our friends, neighbors, co-workers, etc.
That concludes the first section of the book. In my next article, I’ll begin making my way through second section of the book, which takes this ongoing discussion of culture and begins to look at it through the pages of the Bible.