Making Sense of “Culture Making”, Part 3: In The Beginning

In the first section of Culture Making, Andy Crouch took a fairly high-level view of “culture” and discussed such topics as defining culture, evaluating cultural goods, methods for bringing about and measuring the value and longevity of cultural change, and even a brief summary of the American church’s engagement with the prevailing culture. As we enter the book’s second section, and specifically, its sixth chapter, Crouch shifts from this high-level view to one that is very particular and focused. Specifically, he focuses on the Bible and its distinctive insights (if any) into human culture. Fittingly, he starts at the very beginning, with the book of Genesis and the story of Creation.

I find delving into Genesis, particularly its first couple of chapters, to be eye-opening and feel like I learn something nearly every time. Perhaps this is due to the sheer number of methods that have arisen to interpret Genesis, from the very literal to the scientific to the poetic. Obviously, this can produce no small amount of discussion, debate, and even tension — one need only glimpse at the spectrum of responses to Christianity Today’s recent cover story on the historicity of Adam to see that. Crouch addresses some of the issues surrounding interpreting Genesis later in the book, so I’ll touch on them later in this article.

Crouch starts with an overview of the Creation story itself, specifically Genesis 1:26-28, the passage that includes the “cultural mandate” and then explores the scope of the responsibility that God gives to humanity within that passage:

The author clearly intends us to grasp the extent of human beings’ responsibility — they are made to rule not just a few easily domesticated animals like cattle, chickens and goldfish, but the whole panoply of the animal kingdom. It’s extraordinary that a biblical author who had seen neither airplanes nor submarines, and for whom boats were small and rudimentary affairs, could anticipate humankind being able to “rule” over fish and birds in any meaningful way. Either the author’s conception of rule and dominion is much less about the naked exertion of power than we might imagine, or this text anticipates millennia of cultural developments that would eventually bring us to the point where we truly have the power to shape the destiny of most species on the planet. Perhaps both. In any event, repetition and comprehensiveness of description makes it plain: human beings will be responsible for the creation in its totality, not just for their immediate neighborhood.

Several years ago, Ann Coulter said, in her inimitable fashion, that God gave us the earth to rape and do with as we please. And while she might’ve been trolling a bit with her comments, that sentiment sadly does seem to be prevalent amongst Christians when it comes to the topic of caring for the Earth. Perhaps it’s driven by a belief that it’s all going to burn when Jesus returns, or that Jesus will return before it’s all used up — so why care about it? Perhaps it’s driven by political and/or philosophical concerns over the environmentalist movement. In any case, I’ve encountered many Christians who express ambivalence when it comes to caring for this planet. However, when I read the “cultural mandate”, and think about the immense responsibility that Crouch outlined above, I’m filled with awe, humility, and even a bit of fear. This world is our home, a gift from a good and loving Father that we are meant to enjoy, explore, and — as we’ll see — help to flourish and become even greater. To do otherwise, I think, is to display a deep ingratitude and even arrogance for such a magnificent gift.

But how and why do humans bear this responsibility? Certainly not because we’re the biggest or strongest creatures roaming the earth. The answer lies in the same passage: of all of the myriad facets of creation mentioned in the Bible, of all of the creatures roaming the earth, humans alone are made in God’s image and bear His likeness. But what does that mean? As has been impressed upon me lately, the term “image of God” is one that Christians like to throw around a lot without giving much thought as to what it means. For Crouch’s purposes, the answer is hinted at in everything that has been seen of God up to this point in the story, specifically His “purposeful and energetic desire to create”:

…when the human beings, male and female, are created “in God’s image,” surely the primary implication is that they will reflect the creative character of their Maker.

This reflection of God’s creativity manifests itself in several ways:

  1. Creation brings being out of nothing: While it is true that only God truly creates ex nihilo, humans are also capable of creating out of nothing in a limited fashion. Crouch uses the example of human language, which is “so marvelously fruited, linguists have asserted, that every human being… has uttered a completely original sentence.” I experienced something similar when I was in a band, i.e., the creation of original songs. True, they might’ve been a little too influenced by our favorite bands, but they were ours nevertheless. Nobody else had created those particular combinations of notes, melodies, rhythms, etc., that arose in our practice space, and given the collection of tastes, perspectives, and styles that my bandmates and I brought to the table, nobody else could have.
  2. Creation is relational: In other words, the various aspects of creation are made for, and rely upon, one another. This can be seen in the pattern and structure of creation laid out in the first verses of Genesis, as well as in the fact that even human beings, with all of our ingenuity and intellect, cannot exist apart from the surrounding creation. Everything depends on everything else. This isn’t some cheesy, New Age-y business about the “circle of life”, but a simple fact of life. And this sense of interdependence serves as a sort of model for how we ought to perceive the act of creation. As Crouch so eloquently puts it: “Human creativity, then, images God’s creativity when it emerges from a lively, lovely community of persons and, perhaps more important, when it participates in unlocking the full potential of what has gone before and creating possibilities for what will come later.”
  3. Creation requires cultivation: True creation doesn’t happen willy-nilly, but rather, it is purposeful and done carefully and mindfully so as to bring about the best and most fruitful results. In a curious way, creation — which is often described in such terms as “boundless” and “limitless” — is actually a process of limiting ourselves. As we create, we make choices about what to do and what not to do. We test different approaches, media, ideas, etc., and discard those that don’t work. All the while, we are narrowing ourselves down to those elements that do work. In other words, “[t]he best creativity involves discarding that which is less than best, making room for the cultural goods that are the very best we can do with the world that has been given to us.” Fascinatingly, this is true of God in His creative work as well. We don’t like to think of God as being limited, and yet, as He created, He made creative decisions that, in effect, limited Him as He continued with the task.
  4. Creation leads to celebration: The Bible says that when God finished His creative work, He took a step back, evaluated it, and expressed deep satisfaction with it, i.e., “It is very good.” God was deeply pleased with that which He had brought forth, and likewise, creation ought to leave us feeling satisfied, pleased, and joyful. I’ve often encountered sentiments that creative works — e.g., films, music — ought to leave us restless, disturbed, horrified. And while there may be some truth to that, it often feels like precious little is said for creativity leaving us with a sense of satisfaction, pleasure, completeness, rightness, and in a word, joy.

One of the most common biblical “contradictions” that skeptics like to throw out is the disparity between the first two chapters of Genesis. Both chapters tell the Creation story, but they tell it differently. But from Crouch’s perspective, the chapters are different because they are focusing on different things: “If Genesis 1 is about humanity’s amazingly dignified position in the cosmos, Genesis 2 is about humanity’s call to culture.” And if there’s one key point that I think Crouch wants to drive home in his readers regarding Genesis 2, it’s that creation alone wasn’t all that God gave humanity in the beginning:

…it is not just nature that is God’s gift to humanity. Culture is a gift as well. In the biblical view culture is not simply something we have made up on our own — God was the first gardener, the first culture maker. As in Genesis 1, he asks us not to do something fundamentally different but rather to imitate him — in Genesis 1, to imitate his creativity and gracious dominion over the creation, and here in Genesis 2, to imitate him by cultivating the initial gift of a well-arranged garden, a world where intelligence, skill and imagination have already begun to make something of the world.

But in order to let us imitate Him, God has to “give us room” to do so. As was mentioned before, God has to begin limiting Himself. An example of this occurs when God has Adam name the animals in Genesis 2:19. Did God need Adam to name the animals, to tell Him what each of these creatures were as they went past? Of course not, and yet God limited Himself by turning over that all-too-important task to the one created in His likeness.

In order for humankind to flourish in their role as cultivators and creators, God will have to voluntarily withdraw, in certain ways, from his own creation. He makes space for the man to name the animals; he makes room for the man and the woman to know one another and explore the garden. He even gives them freedom, tragically but necessarily, to misuse their creative and cultivating capacities… Without this gracious carving out of space, they would never be able to fulfill their destiny as divine image-bearers; without the gift of a garden protected from the full wild wonder of the teeming earth and waters, they would be overwhelmed. God’s first and best gift to humanity is culture, the realm in which human beings themselves will be the cultivators and creators, ultimately contributing to the cosmic purposes of the Cultivator and Creator of the natural world.

Sadly, this is where the biblical story begins to go wrong. God necessarily withdraws, but nature, as they say, abhors a vacuum. The serpent enters the scene and casts doubt on the culture that God has left Adam and Eve, and by doing so, brings about shift in the duo’s cultural perspective and activities. After succumbing to temptation, the couple becomes ashamed, and their response is a cultural one — they create cultural goods (i.e., clothing) in an attempt to hide their shame. They are still creating and cultivating, but doing so from a skewed perspective.

Crouch’s point here, I think, isn’t to quibble over interpretations of the text, but rather to simply point out that we have been cultural beings from the very beginning. We were born into culture, we were given culture as a great gift, we were asked to create more of it and make it better — and tragically, we are incredibly skilled at breaking culture and using it for our own selfish ends. Indeed, as we move deeper into Genesis, we see the reality of Primo Levi’s statement that “it is not given to man to enjoy uncontaminated happiness.” As a result of that initial act of sinful consumption, all of our best and noblest cultural efforts have become twisted and tainted, driven by shame, fear, and selfishness.

In the Bible’s early chapters, this culminates with the Tower of Babel, as humanity unites and in their hubris, endeavors to build a city with a tower that will reach to the heavens and allow them to draw near to God whenever they wanted. In essence, it would let them wrest their destiny from God’s hands, and become equals with God:

…the city of Babel amounts to a massive declaration of independence from God: a defiantly human effort to deal with the world in its wonder and terror — and to put distance between humans and God in all his wonder and terror. Babel and its tower are the logical end point of the process that began when the man and woman made fig leaves in their first moments of self- and sin-consciousness — a completed cultural project, a city, whose entire purpose is to cover, protect, and shield its people from other human beings and from their Creator.

Crouch continues, tempering some his glorious language regarding culture that we encountered in the book’s earlier chapters with this sober thought:

This, then, is one of the arcs of the story of Genesis 1-11, from the fig leaves to the tower. Culture attempts to deal with the consequences of sin. But this is a vain attempt, in all the senses of the word vain: prideful, self-regarding and futile. What human beings make of the world only deepens their alienation and independence from their maker. This is the germ of truth in all condemnations of culture. For all its moments of beauty and ingenuity, culture can easily be Babel: a fist-shaking attempt to take over God’s roles for ourselves.

I’ll be honest, I found this chapter a bit of a difficult one to parse. For one thing, I feel that Crouch tried to cram in a bit too much that subsequently slowed things down a bit. For example, an extended discussion about “the significance of the garden as the place where the Creator intends human culture to flourish”. Interesting? Certainly. But at the same time, the extended discussion of the differences between gardens, wilderness, and theme parks felt like a bit of a rabbit trail. Of course, there’s still a lot of good stuff that is worth reading over several times, and thinking through the ramifications.

Finally, given the chapter’s focus on Genesis 1, it’s not surprising that Crouch includes a bit of a disclaimer in the form of an “interlude” between this chapter and the next. There, he addresses some of the aforementioned “discussion, debate, and even tension” that often arises whenever the discussion turns to Genesis. It’s perhaps unfortunate that he needs to include this interlude, but I do like the stance that he seeks to adopt. For example, “I am not personally persuaded by the valiant efforts Bible-believing Christians have made to fit every detail of the Genesis creation stories into the story told by modern cosmology and archaeology. Yet I am not sure the biblical writers would have been terribly troubled by the failings of Genesis 1-11 as literal cosmological history… Genesis’s ‘primordial story’ … needs to be read not in the context of modern judgments of archaeological evidence that the biblical writers knew nothing of, but in the context of ancient creation myths that the biblical writers were keen to counter with their own version of the story.” In other words, it’s a stance characterized by a desire to read the Bible as it was intended to be read, without unduly forcing certain modern perspectives upon it.

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.

  • Adam Carrington

    Jason,

    I really enjoyed this post, especially since I’m reading a book on Genesis written from the perspective of a secular-jewish philosopher. That book’s virtue is not being caught up in historicity, myth, literal-reading, etc. because it allows him so much more space to explore what the text is trying to convey about the nature of humanity, relationship, political community, God’s relationship to mankind, and so on. I’m glad to see more and more works from a Christian perspective doing the same.


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