Making Sense of "Culture Making", Part 9: Power & Community

Here it is, the penultimate installment of my “Culture Making” series, i.e., my “blog-through” of Andy Crouch’s Culture Making. But first, I need to get something off my chest: as I’ve been reading the book’s final chapters, something’s been bugging me. I alluded to it in the series’ previous installment, and I think I’ve finally figured out what it is: the final section of the book, “Calling”, doesn’t have the same sort of arc as the first two sections. The first section, “Culture”, attempts to define culture and culture making, as well as the Church’s various attempts to live within, reconcile with, and affect culture. The second section, “Gospel”, looks at the role of culture and humanity’s relationship to it in the Biblical narrative spanning from Genesis to Revelation.

The third section, however, doesn’t quite have a similar arc. Indeed, it even begins with a chapter that seems to subvert much of what Crouch has been trying to say in the preceding chapters (though I don’t think that was necessarily his goal). If I had to put my finger on what Crouch is discussing in this final section, it’s how true cultural effect can only occur when humans realize their weaknesses and come to rely on God’s power. But it’s an arc that strikes me as much more loosely defined and realized than in the previous sections. Of course, that doesn’t mean that there’s nothing of any value in these last few chapters. For example, Crouch’s analysis in the previous chapter of the Biblical pattern of God employing the “powerless/powerful paradox” was thought-provoking, as was his discussion of God’s powerful works in the more mundane aspects of our lives.

The final three “proper” chapters of Culture Making address three different elements of culture making: power, community, and grace. I’ll be tackling the first two in this article. The next article, which will be the final installment, will look at grace, as well as sum up my thoughts on Crouch’s book.

Power

Power: we do everything we can to get more of it, and once we (think we) have it, we’re terrified that we’re going to lose it. For Crouch’s purposes, power is defined as “the ability to successfully propose a new cultural good.” And we all want to be able to do that, to be able to successfully shape the world so that it goes in the direction that we think it ought to go. But power is a tricky thing, particularly cultural power of the sort that Crouch discusses in this chapter. We live in a society that is both broken and fluid. Broken in that there is great inequality in society, as well as great abuses, and fluid in that power can easily shift and move. What’s more, power is contextual: it is “deeply and absolutely dependent on on the nature of the particular public we find ourselves among.”

A CEO may have all of the power in the boardroom, where subordinates and stockholders hang on his every word. Here, in this context, he has all of the power. But that same executive “can travel fifteen minutes from his downtown office and find a street corner where his clothing and manner of speech provoke indifference or outright hostility.” Not surprisingly, we do everything we can to “defend” the power that we have, to secure our powerfulness and prevent ourselves from experiencing powerlessness. But, Crouch argues, this is troubling for Christians, or at least it ought to be:

…for all the attention paid to the temptations of lust… and greed… the quest for power is the most insidious temptation of all. Since we know for sure how much power we have, and in fact never have enough, we are constantly tempted to try to acquire a bit more to hold in reserve or to use at a moment of crisis. As with all temptations the temptation to amass power is most acute when it is coupled to the best of intentions. In the grip of the temptation to accumulate power, we being to fall prey to the fallacy of strategy, imagining that we can plot our way into cultural success by manipulating the right levers of relationship, access and fame.

Crouch’s example here is one that feels particularly relevant in light of the U.S.A.’s current political climate: Ralph Reed and the Christian Coalition. Originally intended to mobilize Christians to become more politically active, the Christian Coalition ultimately began aligning itself with political groups that weren’t necessarily committed to “Christian” causes in order to bolster their power and affect the change they wanted. Eventually, in Reed’s case, the pursuit of cultural/political power led him into dubious dealings with Jack Abramoff that led to a corruption scandal involving Native American casino and gambling interests.

None of this is to say that power, in and of itself, is inherently wrong. Nor is it wrong to exercise the power that we have, or seek to maximize it. But it is all too easy to let power get away from us. As we seek to wisely use the power we have to shape culture, Crouch offers several potential correctives to our thinking:

  1. Recognize that power is a gift from God. Any power, status, wealth, etc. that we have in this life comes from the hand of God, who — for whatever reason — has considered us worthy enough to participate in His culture making enterprise. In the Biblical story of Adam naming the animals, “this power is not something that Adam successfully wrestles out of God’s grasp… It is simply what God chooses to give to Adam in order that Adam can fulfill his destiny to be a culture creator in God’s image.”
  2. “Rather than seeking to build our way up to the pinnacle of power, we can make the move that God invites us to make: to see ourselves, in relationship to the world’s Creator, as in possession of more power than we could ever dream. Exodus and resurrection, the most dramatic divine interventions in history, both declare that there is a grace-filled power loose in the world that far outstrips our greatest human ambitions and can quiet our deepest human fears.”
  3. Just as we discipline ourselves regarding sex and money — through chastity and fidelity, and simplicity and generosity — we ought to discipline ourselves regarding power by embracing service and stewardship. The former causes us to “put ourselves in a position where our power is of little use… we seek Christ in the places where we will not be noticed, will not seem useful and will not receive praise… the only real antidote to the temptations of power is choosing to spend our power in the opposite of the way the world encourages us to spend it.” The latter, on the other hand, causes us to “consciously take up our cultural power, investing it intentionally among the seemingly powerless, putting our power at their disposal to enable them to cultivate and create.”

It’s easy to see power as a completely and wholly corrupting influence, but as Crouch brought up in the previous chapter with the “powerful/powerless paradox”, God works through power. Indeed, power, when rightfully accepted and understood, is a good gift from God. Christians ought not be afraid to network, making alliances, and all of those other power acquisition techniques, but we must do it carefully and thoughtfully… and realize that it is ultimately not for our own benefit.

Community

“No man is an island,” so goes the famous saying. And in our ever-increasingly socially networked culture, where we know what everybody else is doing thanks to Facebook, Twitter, et al., that saying is only growing truer. We are not truly solitary creatures: we need and rely upon each other. And for Crouch, this is especially true in our culture making endeavors. Indeed, if Crouch is right, than culture making has a surprisingly intimate aspect to it.

Every cultural good, whether a new word, law, recipe, song or gadget, begins with a small group of people — and just a relatively small group, but an absolutely small group. No matter how many it goes on to affect, culture always starts small.

Crouch looks over the spectrum of cultural goods, from books and movies to companies and political campaigns, and extrapolates a formula of sorts for how culture making starts small, and it can be condensed to three circles: the ”3″, the ”12″, and the ”120″.

The “3″ are the creators, those who have the original idea for some new cultural good. From there, it goes on to the “12″, who help refine and shape the “3″‘s original idea. And finally, there’s the “120″, another group of supporters who circle around the “12″, and continue to help shape and bolster the “3″‘s idea. The exact numbers may change from one cultural good to the next — the “3″ may actually involve four or five people — but that’s beside the point, which is that the number of people involved at the most important and crucial stages of any cultural endeavor are surprisingly small.

The essential insight of 3 : 12 : 120 is that every cultural innovation, no matter how far-reaching its consequences, is based on personal relationships and personal commitment. Culture making is hard. It simply doesn’t happen without the deep investment of absolutely and relatively small groups of people. In culture making, size matters — in reverse. Only a small group of people can sustain the attention, energy and perseverance to create something that genuinely moves the horizons of possibility — because to create that good requires an ability to suspend, at least for a time, the very horizons within which everyone else is operating. Such “suspension of impossibility” is tiring and taxing. The only thing strong enough to sustain it is a community of people. To create a new cultural good, a small group is essential.

Crouch uses the example of Culture Making itself. It began as a “3″ that included the publisher, editor, and author, expanded to involve a “12″ of editorial and marketing directors, publicists, designers, and reviewers, and then involved a “120″ of additional editors and producers, endorsers, and other friends who helped refine the book. Or, think of Christ and Pop Culture, which began with 3 individuals, grew to involve an additional circle of authors (the “12″), and is encompassed by a “120″ of dedicated readers and commenters, related bloggers, and friends and family who provide feedback and oversight. I look to my church, which recently celebrated its third anniversary, and I see this pattern. It began as the vision of the pastors (the “2″), was surrounded and overseen by a group of elders and officials from other churches in the area (the “12″), and was shored up by the launch congregation (the “120″) who left their old church to become part of this new church plant.

Again, the point isn’t the exact numbers involved. Rather, it’s that these circles — the “3″, the “12″, and the “120″ — are surprisingly small, especially when compared to amount of impact that is possible. Another point is that cultural goods do not form in a vacuum, but rather, they are the result of shared passions and inspirations. They flow out of community. And this is good news, especially in a culture that prizes rugged individuality so much: we’re not called to culture making all by our lonesome:

When it comes to culture making, we are on relatively level ground in this respect: we all will make something of the world with an absolutely small number of people, many or most of whom are already intimately involved in our lives.

Crouch concludes the chapter with these thoughts, which strike me as rather poignant:

The quest for the three, the recognition that all culture making is local, the willingness to start and end small, all seem to me to be the only approaches to culture making that do justice to the improbable story of God. Christian culture making grows through networks, but it is not a matter of networking. It is a matter of community — a relatively small group of people whose common life is ordered by love. Love is a fragile thing that does not scale well. It seems small beside the towers of Babel and Babylon. It is like a mustard seed, tiny and seemingly vulnerable. But it is the unseen truth of the universe, the key to the whole story.

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.