In my previous Culture Making article, I discussed power and community as necessary elements of any sort of culture making enterprise. In this article, I’ll be focusing on grace, which might just be the most important.
“Grace” is one of those words for Christians, and by that I mean a word we use all the time, though we may not always know what it means, or why we’re using it. In his wonderful book, What’s So Amazing About Grace, Philip Yancey writes that “grace” may be our last best word: regardless of how often we use it, or in what guise we use it, it retains its power and hold over us. The unmerited favor and blessing that God bestows on us, even as we hate and despise Him, is a powerful, wonderful, mysterious thing… and for Crouch, it may just be the critical ingredient in any culture making enterprise. He writes (emphasis mine):
I have become convinced that little good comes from straining to “change the culture.” To do so is indeed, as the sociologists would say, to grant human beings too much agency. We will end our efforts to change the world exhausted and spent, less sure of ourselves and less sure of God — or, worse, we will end more sure of ourselves and less sure of God. I am also convinced that culture is sufficiently broken that none of us can simply afford to marinate in privilege, enjoying the fruits of power at a time when Christians have reentered the cultural mainstream and many of us have access to the best that a prosperous society can offer. Nor can we simply leverage our privilege and power, in the ways that come naturally to elites, and expect to contribute anything distinctive in the world.
The way to genuine cultural creativity starts with the recognition that we woke up this morning in our right mind, with the use and activity of our limbs — and that every other creative capacity we have has likewise arrived as a gift we did not earn and to which we were not entitled. And once we are awake and thankful, our most important cultural contribution will very likely come from doing whatever keeps us precisely in the center of delight and surprise.
Crouch uses the well-known parable of the sower (Mark 4:3-8) as an example of this grace-filled approach to culture making. On the surface, the parable’s sower seems like a rather un-wise fellow as he seemingly throws his seeds willy-nilly. But Jesus isn’t giving agricultural advice with His parable, but rather, He’s making a statement about parables themselves, and their efficacy. And for Crouch, since parables are themselves cultural artificact, Jesus’ parable is also about culture making, and the various results that any culture making enterprise can see.
The parable of the prodigal sower is first of all about Jesus’ own ministry strategy. But it also applies very closely to the work of culture making. Parables, after all, are cultural goods — new ways of making something of the world. The teller of parables faces the same risks every culture maker does: the risk of seeing the cultural goods we propose flatly rejected, seeing initial enthusiasm and success wither into nothing, or perhaps worst, seeing our cultural goods survive but not thrive, bearing none of the fruit we had hoped for or even being turned against their original purpose. A farmer can inspect the prepare the soil, but no one has enough power to assure that much of his or her culture making will not fall onto bad soil.
However, Crouch argues, we can inspect the fruit of our efforts, to see if there’s some kind of “divine multiplication” of our efforts (i.e., the “thirtyfold and sixtyfold and a hundredfold” dividends). This is where grace comes into the equation, for such wild, unexpected results cannot be explained simply through our own efforts. Furthermore, such results can serve as a guide for future endeavors.
…the parable and Jesus’ interpretation offer us guidance in how to pursue our calling. Having reaped such a tremendous harvest, the next time the sower goes out, he will surely spread extra seed on the good soil. Having scattered his parables widely, the parable teller waits to see who responds — and then tells them that they have discovered “the secret of the kingdom.” They are the good soil, and so the prodigal sower invests deeply in them. He offers more to them. They become, indeed, his partners in shaping a new culture.
From there, Crouch touches on the topic of vocation. Specifically, can one experience such “divine multiplication” when working on “secular” cultural enterprises, or do they only apply to “sacred” endeavors (e.g., preaching the Word). For Crouch, the answer is a resounding “yes”, if only because it doesn’t do justice to the Biblical story “in which the whole world was created good, the first human beings were given a cultural task… and the Son of God himself spent most of his life as a carpenter.” He then goes on to say that the whole “sacred/secular” issue is the wrong question to ask. Rather, the right question is “whether, when we undertake the work we believe to be our vocation, we experience the joy and humility that come only when God multiplies our work so that it bears thirty, sixty and a hundredfold beyond what we could expect from our feeble efforts.”
This, I think, is a very encouraging thought for Christians, for several reasons. First, it can free us from the guilt that comes with thinking that we’re not doing enough for God’s kingdom, or worse, that we’re wasting our time on endeavors that are frivolous because they’re not “spiritual” enough. I often fretted about what I should do with my life in high school. I’d go on missions trips and youth retreats and I’d come back from such events “on fire for God” — and convicted that I should give my life to a calling like missions work, or that I should go into the ministry, or do something else that was nice and church-y. And yet, the conviction would eventually flicker and fade, and I’d return to the things that actually interested me (like computers, or science, or drawing). Unfortunately, they weren’t very spiritual, and so a part of me saw them as trivial, as good ways to pass the time until I really figured out what I ought to do.
I’d like to say that once I graduated high school, or once I entered the post-college workforce, I’d matured enough to realize that the sacred/secular dichotomy is a false one. Sadly, there are still times where I look at the work I do every day, and think that what I’m doing just isn’t spiritual enough in and of itself, that they are frivolous endeavors, that I ought to be pursuing something holier and more righteous.
Second, such thinking can allow us to achieve a proper sense of gratitude and humility for endeavors that we undertake. I work as a full-time web designer and programmer. I also have a second, part-time job (that doesn’t pay anything) as a blogger for several websites. And I love it. I know many people who, at best, tolerate their jobs or simply see them as a way to pay the bills or as a means to an end. But, for whatever reason, God has seen fit to graciously bless me with work — with a vocation, if you will — that fits my passions, interests, and skills like some sort of ultra-nerdy glove. And as I look back on my career path, I can think of moments that arrived completely out of the blue, through no effort of my own, and yet set me on this path. And to think that I am able to not only help my family, by providing them with food, clothing, and shelter, but also thousands of people through the various web projects that I am able to work on — and hopefully those who, like you, dear reader, find my writing interesting… well, I think I know something of that Crouch is talking about when he refers to the “thirty, sixty and a hundredfold beyond what we could expect from our feeble efforts”, and the only proper response is gratitude and humility.
But while God’s grace is free, it isn’t cheap. Crouch immediately follows his musings on the glorious side of a grace-filled approach to culture making and vocation with three caveats. First, grace doesn’t excuse us from discipline, from “the careful, painstaking cultivation of the part of culture where we are called to be creators.” Musicians and athletes are certainly aware of this, and dedicate hours and hours to deliberately working on the essentials of their field, be it practicing scales on the piano or working out in the weight room. (This is also true for web designers: if I don’t stay up to date on best programming practices or design techniques, then projects can become very frustrating very quickly.)
Second, grace doesn’t exempt us from failure. As he has pointed out time and again throughout Culture Making, Crouch offers yet another reminder that most cultural endeavors will fail — maybe in small ways, maybe in large ways, but failure will be a constant. But grace “makes it possible to sustain hope in the midst of failure”, hope that perhaps maybe, just maybe, some other gifts might arise out of the mess. Gifts we may not have chosen or preferred, but gifts nonetheless.
Third, grace doesn’t exempt us from the world’s pain. Indeed, “the very divine multiplication that gives us joy and delight in the midst of our cultural calling also leads us directly to the places where world is in most pain.” This is perhaps the hardest of these aspects of grace, especially for those of us living in an affluent, prosperous culture where it is so easy to quarantine ourselves from pain and difficulty. But as Christians, we are called to take up the cross of Christ, to preach the Gospel, to participate in some small way in God’s redemptive plan for His creation.
So where are we called to create culture? At the intersection of grace and cross. Where do we find our work and play bearing awe-inspiring fruit — and at the same time find ourselves able to identify with Christ on the cross? That intersection is where we are called to dig into the dirt, cultivate and create.
Some Final Thoughts
When I mentioned to the other CAPC staff that I was starting this new book titled Culture Making, and that it might be a good thing to write about on this site, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But, ten articles and nearly five months later, here we are, at the end of the Culture Making series.
Blogging through a book is hard, if only because there’s only so much you can write about and quote before you run the risk of discouraging your readers from actually reading the book for themselves. So please don’t think that, if you’ve read all of my Culture Making articles, you’ve somehow read Culture Making. There’s a lot of good stuff that I didn’t include but I do hope I’ve provided a decent overview and analysis of the book, and that I’ve piqued your curiosity enough to check it out for yourselves, because Culture Making is a very good book.
It’s not without its flaws — I still think its final section almost feels like it comes from a different book entirely, though it contains some very solid material — but there is much in its pages that anyone interested in culture and how we shape it (and how it shapes us) will find valuable, though-provoking, and inspiring.