Making Sense of “Culture Making”, Part 7: Why We Can't Change Culture

After reading eleven chapters in a book called Culture Making, I was (unsurprisingly, I think) taken aback when I came began the third and final section of the book, which begins with a chapter bluntly titled “Why We Can’t Change The World”. It seems a little odd for Andy Crouch to place a chapter highlighting the futile nature of what his book seems to be encouraging us to do, that is, to take up our role as “culture makers” at the end of the book. Crouch has just spent eleven chapters discussing culture making, and immediately prior to this chapter, spent a chapter painting a glorious vision of the role our culture making plays in heaven. On the other hand, now is a good time for a dose of reality and humility, and from that perspective, a chapter titled “Why We Can’t Change The World” makes sense.

Crouch opens the chapter with an interesting experiment that he and a friend did several years ago: they searched Harvard’s library system for all of the books that included some permutation of “change the world” in its title. What they found was that the vast majority of those books had been published since the 1990s. The further you went back in time, the fewer such books were published, with no such books published before 1900. Crouch concludes:

We moderns certainly can’t be accused of lacking self-confidence. The explosion of books about “changing the world” fits our self-image — we are world changers. There is indisputable literal truth to the phrase. Powered by the twentieth century’s explosion of technology, humanity has multiplied our effect on the natural world with measurable global results, from the deepest sea to the thinnest outer atmosphere. Six billion human beings, whose total mass is less than one millionth of a billionth of one percent of the mass of earth, all of whose works, even today, are invisible from space (except at night, when our cities radiate light skyward), are changing their own and only world in extraordinary, not entirely predictable and possibly irreversible ways.

This notion of “changing the world” has become enthusiastically adopted by the Church, where we are told that we need to change the world for God. But therein lies a paradox, one that Crouch spends the rest of the chapter exploring. Specifically, though the Church seeks to change the world, more often than not, the Church has far less effect than it thinks and in fact, is changed by the world as much as it changes the world. Crouch highlights four dangers or issues with this high view of our ability to change the world, and they are sobering indeed.

First is the issue of scale. In the first article of my “Culture Making” series, I wrote “Crouch… 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.” This presents a significant challenge because, if we’re going to realistically talk about “changing the world”, about “culture making”, we need to define what we mean by those terms. After all, is it really, truly possible to change the world for every single one of its six billion human inhabitants? More often than not, when we talk of “changing the world”, we’re actually referring to the world around us, to a particular group of people within a particular social, geographical, and temporal context.

Not only are we faced with the difficulty of any world-changing attempt achieving the proper effect due to the scales involved, but the scales involved also make it impossible to look around at current attempts and determine which ones will actually achieve that effect. In other words, it’s easy to look back in history and say that it was obvious that a certain cultural artifact, such as the interstate highway system, would have a huge effect on the world, but at the time, would it have been so easy?

This brings up the second issue: survivor bias. As we look around the world and take in all of the the culture-making attempts that have had significant effects, it is very easy to forget about all of the failed attempts, all of the attempts that certainly did their best to change the world but were ultimately relegated to the dustbins of history.

It is amazing how much cultural analysis of all sorts is tainted by survivor bias… Most of us, unless we are very careful historians, form our impression of the past by the books that are still in print and the music that is still performed, forgetting that while some cultural goods (Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables, say) were bestsellers then and are bestsellers now, many others that were the talk of the town then are now completely forgotten, and some that we now consider classics were barely noticed at the time (such as the works of J. S. Bach, which largely languished until they were championed by Mendelssohn eighty years after Bach’s death).

Later, Crouch writes:

History and historians make our lives easier by preselecting the most salient, world-changing cultural goods by sheer force of time and attrition. We learn about and remember the inventions, equations and colors that changed the world. But we can easily forget that at the time, which invention, equation and color would prevail was an entirely open question. And then we can easily deceive ourselves into thinking that changing the world is a great deal easier than it actually is.

The third issue that Crouch brings up is related to sufficient conditions. If you want your cultural good to have some noteworthy effect on the world, there are certain “necessary” conditions that you must meet. You must have a way to design, create, and produce your good. You must have some way of distributing it. You must have some method for promoting it and telling people about it. You must have a way to measure its success (financially, culturally, etc.). However, those aren’t inherently sufficient for your good to succeed, to triumph over its competitors, to have the effect you seek.

Crouch’s primary point here is that “at a large enough scale, there are no sufficient conditions for cultural change”. In other words, it is impossible to completely guarantee world-changing success. We might be able to have a fairly guaranteed amount of success in smaller cultural circles, such as our own homes and families (but even there, success is not a given). But the further we move out from our immediate culture circles, the more we find that our efforts are dependent upon the cultural goods and efforts of others, or as Crouch puts it, “My ability to make small changes in my local world is dwarfed by my dependence on the changes other people make at larger scales of 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.

  • Israel

    Well written and thought out series. Despite being an atheist, I found it thoughtful to read.

    I do have to caution you, that my kind do not want any sort of religious cultural impact in the public arena. Culture is becoming more secular and scientifically based… and this is exactly how we want it. Any attempts to include religious influence upon the public circle… such as public prayers, or religious symbols, or religious morality in legislation, we will doggedly oppose. For about the same reason the majority of Christianity don’t want Islamic prayers imposed in public light, or Jewish, or Hindu, or Satanist… etc.

    Having Christian morality influence laws is as equally distasteful to me as having Sharia influence laws.

    Religious influence that spawns humanitarian programs, where the only angle is helping those that need help… this impact on culture I do not mind. :)

  • http://opus.fm/ Jason Morehead

    I’m glad you find the series interesting, even with our philosophical/theological differences. Though written primarily from a Christian perspective, I think there’s a fair amount in Culture Making to recommend to non-Christians.

    I do have to caution you, that my kind do not want any sort of religious cultural impact in the public arena… Having Christian morality influence laws is as equally distasteful to me as having Sharia influence laws.

    I’m of the same mind as you to a certain extent. There are those who would like to form a more “Christian” nation, to essentially turn the U.S. into a theocracy, and that worries me (for both civic and theological reasons).

    That being said, certainly there’s a difference between attempting to impose “religious” legislation onto a culture, and people (lawmakers, average citizens, etc.) shaping a culture because they act on issues in ways that are shaped or impacted by their religious convictions.

    From my perspective, the general difference is that one group tries to impose cultural effects from the top down, and in order to do so, they have to demonize and batter down perceived opposition (be it political, philosophical, religious). The other group, however, takes a “bottom up” approach and attempts to bring about cultural impact through acts of service and sacrifice that lift everyone up, regardless of differences.

    I wonder, what do you think of someone like William Wilberforce, who sought to bring about significant cultural impact, i.e., the abolition of slavery, due in large part to his religious convictions? Was he doing it wrong?

    Religious influence that spawns humanitarian programs, where the only angle is helping those that need help… this impact on culture I do not mind. :)

    This is very charitable of you, and I say that with all sincerity. I’ve read numerous things by non-Christians who often accuse “religious” humanitarian programs as being little more than fronts for proselytizing, all while ignoring the real and substantial aid (e.g., food, medicine, housing, education) that such organizations bring to many impoverished areas. Such a response saddens and frustrates me, and strikes me as awfully simplistic, even kneejerk-ish.

    However, what if those very same humanitarian programs, as a direct result of their religious convictions, origins, etc., affect significant impact (e.g., changed laws, revised cultural institutions) within the culture they’re working in? How will you feel about them then?

  • Israel

    I have friends in, and actively read from many different philosophical viewpoints. I think this was another contributing factor to my atheism. People’s perspectives, if well thought out and well expressed, are interesting whether I see it the same way or not.

    Ethics in my mind have evolved and changed over the course of human history. Slavery is the most common example of this. Slavery was accepted widely by all hundreds of years ago, by the religious and non-religious. We as a civilization have moved past that, where it is almost universally reviled. (although still practiced in various corners of the world)

    Religious convictions being the motivational force behind societal change is a doubled edged sword. Was William Wilberforce’s conviction behind his abolitionist activities? My memory tells me it was because he was given a tour of the living conditions of slaves on ships… and was beyond aghast that any human should live like that. I’ll have to look into it. But for the sake of the debate, lets say his conviction was the reason why. That’s all well and good… it helped achieve something ethically right.

    But, on the other edge on the blade of religious conviction, you have people that tortured those that said the world was round, those that refuse to let same sex couples adopt (the Iowa case recently), those that shoot abortion doctors, those that shun same sex couples’ children from taking part in after school activities (this happened to a friend of a friend of mine), and on the extreme angle…. those that protest the funerals of dead gay soldiers, those that gun down and blow up innocents, and those that fly airplanes into buildings.

    This is why I don’t see religious conviction as necessarily a positive thing to culture and the world, as it can go either way. It gives interpretive extremes (“this is absolute truth!”) that don’t necessarily align with what is right and ethical. What I see, are good and bad people. A good person is going to good regardless— a bad person is going to do bad regardless. William Wilberforce sounds like a good chap. I don’t know him personally… but his activities speak for him.

    So the answer to how I feel about religious conviction having impact, is case by case upon exactly what that impact is. I prefer careful thought and reason to be the guiding principle for public impact.

    As for religious oriented humanitarian programs… yes some are merely evangelical in nature. Those I roll my eyes at. I’ve been involved with organizations like ADRA before (and Project Impact at Union College), whose first priority as been one of humanitarianism rather than trying to convert people. I can appreciate their work.


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