The John Wesley Fellowship began in 1977, with Steve Harper and yours truly being two of the first John Wesley Fellows chosen. I have told the story of Ed Robb and AFTE this past Fall on the blog so I will not repeat it. Here are some of the senior fellows attending the meeting. […]
There are not a lot of books I find stimulating enough to deserve the ‘full roll out’ review and dialogue with, but Andy Crouch’s new book Culture-Making is one of them. I am currently working on a little book in my Kingdom series for Eerdmans (the first is out next month and entitled Imminent Domain), and this third in the series I am working on is entitled ‘Labora’: Work in the Light of the Kingdom. The following is a draft of what will go into one of the chapters of this book. See what you think, and more importantly, see what you think about what Andy says, and interact. (N.B. Because of the nature of blogging, the footnotes, which exist in the chapter, get blotted out in the transfer to the blog, but they will be available in my book).
In his review of Andy Crouch’s recent study Christian Smith, a professor of sociology at Notre Dame says this: “American evangelicals in the last hundred years have found it easy to condemn culture, critique culture, copy culture and consume culture. It has been much harder for them to actively and imaginatively create culture. Andy Crouch is out to change that.” I like this already.
Evangelical Christians have too often been guilty of various forms and degrees of tunnel vision. One such form which I will call ‘missional tunnel vision’ views the world as something out of which people need rescue. ‘Ministry’ then is rescuing the perishing from a world going to Hades in a handbasket. The problem with this vision is that it not merely promotes a lifeboat philosophy about church and Christian life (‘we must live within the safe haven!’) it grossly under-estimates the power of God and his role not merely in the church but in the world.
Yes, we sing, “this is my Father’s world” but we hardly mean it, or understand what that means. Some of this comes from what R. Niebuhr would have called either a Christ vs. culture approach to life, or perhaps a Christ beside culture (like an Amish community beside a secular one). Some of it comes from a belief that Christ transforms culture, and there is some truth in that approach as well. But what if Christ came to make all things new, what if he came to create culture, and calls us not merely to transform the culture that exists, but even to build new culture? What if it is in the DNA of the church and the original mission statement about our work indicates that we are supposed to be banqueting with the bad like Jesus did? What if it is true that ‘greater is he who is in us, than anything else in the world’? I am convinced Andy Crouch can help us gain a more holistic and wide-angle vision of work, vocation, ministry.
Let start with Crouch’s definition of culture—it is what we make of the world which God has created. Its not just about high art or architecture. Its whatever we make of the ‘stuff’ God created, ranging from an omelet to a Mona Lisa. Culture always bears the stamp of our creativity, even if, as so often is the case, it appears we are pretty derivative or unoriginal in what we make. We have, says Crouch this innate design and desire to make something more of what we have been given. It’s part of being in the Image of a God who is both Creator, and Ruler, both Sustainer, and Redeemer.
Crouch goes on to stress that culture is also about what we make of what there is, which is to say, what sense we make of what exists. The world requires some interpreting, some explanation. It would appear that we are the only creature on the planet that asks why, “Making sense of the world, interpreting its wonder and its terror, is left up to human beings alone…. We make sense of the world by making something of the world. The human quest for meaning is played out in human making: the finger-painting, omelet-stirring, chair-crafting, snow-swishing activities of culture. Meaning and making go together—culture, you could say, is the activity of making meaning.”
Thus far culture sounds like an exercise in hermeneutics, or interpreting things that already exist, like a movie critic, for example. But in fact Crouch will go on to insist that culture in fact shapes and reshapes the mere material world that exists. Humans do not merely observer or interpret the world, they construct it, they make it, in various senses of that term. “Culture, not just nature, has become the world that we must make something of.”
Crouch quite naturally asks us to consider the sort of work that goes into road building and how it changes things, and not merely the landscape. I have been watching this process for some weeks now for as I drive to work in Wilmore Kentucky a whole new four lane highway is being constructed, and in the process various bits of this or that horse farm is being torn up, vivisected, displaced. Pretty soon one of my favorite horse farms will no longer be beside Harrodsburg Road, because that road will now go well behind the farm. This will make travel to Wilmore quicker, and easier, and less windy, and so my trip into work will be different, my purview different, my outlook different. The making that we do, whether we call it work or not, is culture making, as it remakes our world, both the world out there usually called nature, and the world within my mind. Work changes the world, and imposes a new culture on what previously existed. Culture creating is inevitable for human beings, the only question is whether Christians will meaningfully and self-consciously engage in such activities as part of their ‘work’ and realize that in so doing they are creating a new world.
Crouch points out how the car and the highway system made impossible what had previously been taken for granted, namely traveling considerable distances on horseback. You can’t do that on a normal highway—its prohibited, and anyway, there are not enough inns and horse barns along the way to support such a mode of travel over any considerable distance. Furthermore, if you tried it, it would endanger the horse, and the fumes would probably overcome man and beast in due course. This is why even the Amish hitch rides in cars and on trains when they want to go any real distance. The world has been changed by culture making human work. It is thus no surprise that Crouch concludes: “without culture, literally nothing would be possible for human beings. To say that culture creates the horizons of possibility is to speak literal, not just figurative or metaphorical, truth.”
And what this means, in plain and simple terms is that work, our work, Christian work, creates a world, and without hard work, even the fulfilling of the Great Commission would be just a nice idea. Grace is conveyed to other human beings through work. Grace and works were not meant to be seen as sparing partners in an eternal theological boxing match. They were meant to be seen as partners in a row boat both pulling in the same direction. Likewise, Christianity should not be set over against culture, it should ever and always be set in motion to create culture and worlds.
One of the real problems with Christians is that they can be too insular, living in their own little bubble, and this trend has only accelerated with the enormous rise to prominence of home-schooling, or solely Christian schooling in this country. But if all you ever do is sing in the choir or preach to the choir, how is that culture making and world-changing in anything like a Christian sense when we are called to make disciples of all nations? Consider again what Andy Crouch says: “Culture requires
a public: a group of people who have been sufficiently affected by a cultural good that their horizons of possibility and impossibility have in fact been altered, and their own cultural creativity has been spurred, by that good’s existence. This group of people does not necessarily have to be large. But without such a group the artifact remains exclusively personal and private.” In America we tend to think that things that are as deeply personal as religious beliefs ought to be private matters, but this will never do for an evangelistic religion. They have to become both Gospel sharers, but also culture makers, and the latter involves work. Indeed one’s work, if one is not a preacher, teaching or priest, may largely consist of culture making. Christianity, in order to be truly Christian, has to go public, or become a shared public good, not merely a private self-help program for the already convinced.
One of the most convincing points Andy Crouch makes is that family is perhaps the most elemental and crucial culture-making institution in a society. What goes on in a home, need not stay in a home, and in the milieu of a home and in the context of a family all sorts of positive cultural constructions happen. Cooking, for example, is a form of work that is not only culture making but Kingdom making, if you invite people over for dinner, or have some of your Christians meetings in homes, or even if you just engage in friendship evangelism in such a context. “ Family [including Christian family] is culture at its smallest—and most powerful.” If you don’t believe this, just watch the classic movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding”.
It is of course true that any talk about changing a whole culture or changing a whole world is in most cases over-ambitious. When John Wesley, who had quite the work rate, said “the world is my parish”, interestingly enough, some people believed him, and not primarily because he had already been to Georgia and back. But when we talk about making our work something that is culture-making in a way that is glorifying to God and edifying to others, we have to talk about economies of scale. Here is how Crouch puts the matter:
“finding our place in the world as culture makers requires us to pay
attention to culture’s many dimensions. We will make something of the
world in a particular ethnic tradition, in particular spheres, at particular
scales. There is no such thing as “the Culture,” and any attempt to talk
about “the Culture,” especially in terms of “transforming the Culture,”
is misled and misleading. Real culture making, not to mention cultural
transformation, begins with a decision about which cultural world—or,
better, worlds—we will attempt to make something of.”
One of the most important insights to be gained from the whole study of culture is the dawning recognition that those who chase the willow of the wisp called new/fresh/ trendy will be forever changing and not having much enduring impact. Crouch rightly warns “there is an inverse relationship between a cultural layer’s speed of change and its longevity of impact. The faster a given layer of culture changes, the less long-term effect it has on the horizons of possibility and impossibility.” Those who follow the fads will find that growth may happen in a church or in a business with hard work, but whether they are accomplishing something of lasting value is another question, a question a Christian must always ask about their work.
Is my work of some lasting value? Did it make a difference? Was it worth doing in the first place, or was it in vain? Did this work have some meaning, some purpose, and if so what was it? Of course answering such questions is not always easy, as the impact and/or quality of some piece of work may not be seen for years to come. When the tenement house collapsed in Miami Florida, without any apparent provocation or cause, the investigation led to the conclusion that twenty years earlier, though it looked alright on the outside, it was built with inferior materials, in a poor fashion, and most importantly was not built with an eye on safety and ongoing durability. It could not pass a stress test, had one been administered. Disposable culture in a disposable society with all too rapid change can be criticized for having little long term value. Crouch is willing to be emphatic about this— “Nothing that matters, no matter how sudden, does not have a long history and take part in a long future.”
What is perhaps most eye-opening, and indeed depressing about our work is that it is possible to change things for the worse quickly, whereas making things of value or changing things for the better almost always takes considerable time. For example, think of 9-11 and the World Trade Towers, how rapidly they fell into dust. But how long did it take either to construct them in the first place or clean up after the devastation? Or consider a great work of art like Michelangelo’s David which took months to carve, but could be destroyed in the blink of an eye if someone took a hammer to the statue. It is not just works of art which are easily destroyed, almost anything of worth is, including human lives.
What must be stressed is that our culture is addicted to ‘the latest’, and assumes that the ‘latest is the greatest, the newest is the truest’. This is why in our culture it is called ‘news’. But alas, the latest is quickly yesterday’s story. “So hope in a future revolution, or revival, to solve the problems of our contemporary culture is usually misplaced. And such a 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.”
Perhaps then more emphasis should be put on the work of culture-making by Christians, and less on the hope that a revival will change one’s milieu. Crouch quite rightly takes on those who think that the way to change the world is simply to change the worldview of the world, on the theory perhaps that “as a man thinks, so he is”. The problem with this is that thinking, even new thinking, is not the same as new doing, not the same as going to work and changing things. The thoughts must be embodied in deeds, and this takes hard work. If you merely change the thoughts going on inside the horse’s head you by no means have changed the direction the horse is heading in— you have to turn the head itself! The problem with so much worldview talk is not merely that we suffer the paralysis of analysis, we hardly get beyond analysis, for the problem is not just wrong thoughts, its wrong behaviors. Culture is not just about thinking, its about doing and so it is about our work. Crouch reminds:
“embodiment may not flow as naturally from thinking as many
books on worldview imply. The cartoonist Sidney Harris’s most famous
drawing shows two scientists standing in front of a blackboard covered
with a series of equations. In the middle of the equations is written, “Then
a miracle occurs.” One scientist says to the other, “I think you need to be
more explicit here in step two.” When we say, “The Christian vision can transform our world,” something similar is happening. Is it really true that simply perceiving the radical comprehensiveness of the Christian worldview would “transform the world”? Or is there a middle step that is being skipped over all too lightly?… The danger of reducing culture to worldview is that we may miss the most distinctive thing about culture, which is that cultural goods have a life of their own. They reshape the world in unpredictable ways…. The language of worldview tends to imply, to paraphrase the Catholic writer Richard Rohr, that we can think ourselves into new ways of behaving. But that is not the way culture works.
Culture helps us behave ourselves into new ways of thinking.”
What Crouch is trying to make us see is that the only way to change the cultural landscape is to make more of it, of a variety you endorse. It is never enough simply to change people’s ideas about the culture, their worldviews, though that’s a start.
Consider the example of the Amish. They are pacifists especially famous for their dislike of hand guns of any sort. If you go and visit them in east Ohio or western Pennsylvania where they are particularly thick on the ground, you will discover that they don’t just sit around and discuss how bad it is to have hand guns around where children and others can be accidentally harmed, which discussion would be followed by various nodding heads. No, they’ve actually banned hand guns in their communities, a rule they enforce rigorously. Go be part of an Amish community and you will be in a culture and ethos and environment that is handgun free. Unless a ‘Yankee’ or total stranger shows up in their community toting a handgun, no one is going to get shot with such a thing, no strawberry stand is going to be robbed with such a thing, no Amish hardware store is going to be terrorized with such a thing. And anyone who made such an idle threat in an Amish hardware store who didn’t have a gun but believed in them, might well be taken and confined to the interior of a composting toilet for a while until they regained their senses. Ideas and worldviews alone don’t change the world, behavior and hard work does. Cultural change happens when a new way of doing things displaces the old way of doing things.
Crouch reminds us that merely condemning or critiquing culture seldom changes things much, unless someone has something better or more compelling to put in its place. Sometimes what Christians do is simply copy culture and think that will change the world. Consider the evolution of the Christian rock music industry. They are hardly ever out there leading the cultural trends, in fact mostly they are following them, only changing the lyrics. So, one of the more recent trends in Christian music is Christian hip hop and rap, or Christian Indie music, on the philosophy of if you can’t beat them, join them. The styles, the tunes, the clothes of the culture are very much adopted from the secular mainstream. When I used to be in the music business, as Christians we used to be thrilled when an artist like Amy Grant would ‘crossover’ into the mainstream. We thought maybe finally the mainstream could be transformed by the Christian message this way. Alas, it didn’t happen. In fact, Christians imitating mainstream music were more likely to be the one’s converted to a very different Gospel. One of the tasks Christians must take seriously in the 21rst century is culture-making, dedicating their work and energies to creating culture that will be winsome and habit forming to those not already a part of it. And as Crouch warns, creativity, not knock-off imitation is in the long run the only viable way to change a culture. Christians must work hard to produce the best art, the best movies, the best neighborhoods, the best restaurants, the best athletics possible, not merely by copying, but by coming up with something fresh, new, interesting, life-changing.
Crouch is not suggesting that we start de novo. Culture is of course cumulative, it keeps building on and recycling from the stuff that existed before. “When it comes to
cultural creativity, innocence is not a virtue. The more each of us knows about our cultural domain, the more likely we are to create something new and worthwhile.”
Thus Crouch says that real culture making begins with the cultivation of the good things a culture already has and does. One doesn’t need to completely reinvent the wheel to create good new culture. One needs to become fluent in the good aspects of the cultural tradition one is already a part of and nurture them. One also needs to sift the wheat from the chaff, and affirm the wheat.
Having spent a good deal of my life making music or listening to it, I can tell you that making music well requires an enormous amount of practice and discipline. Creativity that makes a lasting impact, work that makes a difference, is seldom a matter of sheer spontaneity or mere native talent. If Christians truly want to make an appealing and winsome culture that may actually attract people to Christ it will require hard work, discipline, and practice, practice, practice.
So underneath almost every act of culture making we find countless
small acts of culture keeping. That is why the good screenwriter has first
watched a thousand movies; why the surgeon who pioneers a new technique
has first performed a thousand routine surgeries; and why the investor
who provides funds to the next startup has first studied a thousand
balance sheets. Cultural creativity requires cultural maturity.
Are there options for Christians other than cultural capitulation, accommodation, or some modified form of rejection of culture? Crouch thinks there is are, and he reminds that even Christians who practice home schooling and generally avoid the more obviously objectionable forms of modern culture, are none the less cultural beings. Indeed, even the Amish don’t entire avoid mainstream culture. I have a wonderful picture from when I lived in Ashland Ohio of an Amish buggy stopped at the take out window at McDonalds. Indeed, many Christians with separatist tendencies do still drive cars, watch TVs, go to movies (not the X rated ones), attend sporting events and the like. This is not real rejection of a dominant or secular culture. That would look like a person who withdraws and lives in a hut in the Amazon rain forest for the rest of his life with no technological tools or toys to amuse him or keep him informed.
Nor can the church simply withdraw from the dominant culture, especially if it wants to continue to bear witness to that culture. Crouch reminds us that
fundamentalist Christians, like modernist ones, indulged in an attractive but specious distinction between the church and the culture. Their unspoken assumption was that “the culture” was something distinguishable from their own daily life
and enterprises, something that could be withdrawn from, rejected and
condemned. In this respect they were just as modern as everyone around
them, in accepting too uncritically an easy distinction between the “sacred”
and the “secular.” This distinction, which served liberals by carving
out a sphere of public life that did not have to entangle itself with religion
and religious controversies, served fundamentalists by assuring them that
it was possible to eschew “secular” pursuits altogether.
While there is a place and a time to condemn culture (think Nazi or apartheid culture), to critique culture (think art that promotes anti-Christian values), to copy culture (think of some of the good Contemporary Christian music has done, which largely follows and copies the larger musical trends), and to consume culture (participating in the good aspects of our culture), and all of these things can be part of our work and works as Christians, what Crouch is calling us to is creating culture, which is not simply identical with any of these aforementioned activities. In fact he offers a clarion call for us to be what God called Adam and Eve to be in the first place—creators and also cultivators of all that is good, true, beautiful in the world, wherever one finds it.
Most of the creativity Crouch is talking about is not ex nihilo or de novo, but a sort of making out of pre-existing materials. No one would mistake a beautiful salt peter glazed water pitcher for a mere lump of clay, but that is where it came from. The middle term was the potter who fashioned into something that wet lump of clay had no capacity to be left on its own. It takes,
intelligence, skill, and yes imagination to create culture well, though all too often today we just stress the imaginative aspect when we use the word ‘creativity’. I often wonder what would happen if people approached their normal work with intelligence, skill, and creativity? Of course some do, and sometimes remarkable tasks are accomplished and remarkable things are made.
When I was in Singapore I was given a non-battery flashlight. No, it did not have a solar cell. No it did not have an electrical plug. It was in fact rather like one of those hand flexers you use to strengthen your hands. From time to time you just squeezed it, using mechanical energy to power the light bulb in it—no muss and no fuss.
God in fact expects creativity out of us, not least because we are created in God’s image. Andy Crouch points to the example in Gen. 2 of how God brings the animals to Adam and asks Adam to name them. Of course God could have named them and given Adam the zoological dictionary, but he doesn’t. He wants his human creatures to participate in the creative act. This was part of Adam’s initial work.
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….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.
I remember the days before air conditioning. I remember sleeping on the wooden floor in front of the open front door on a hot humid summer night in Wilmington N.C. You hoped for a breath of a breeze in the morning, but this particular morning not only was there none, you could have cut out a piece of humidity from the air on the front porch and eaten it! When air conditioning came along to beat the heat, all manner of Southerners like myself said huzzah! The world can be a wilderness for humans unless we cultivate it, unless we create things to help us cope with it, unless we turn a tangled mess into a garden. This is what Crouch is calling us to, and he is saying that it is the primeval task, the Job One, God gave to us in the first place. We must make something out of our world, not merely admire it. Nature may abhor a vacuum, I do not abhor a vacuum cleaner, as ordering, cleaning, beautifying, creating is part of the human task.
In one of his more interesting insights, Crouch points out that while God meant Adam to be a gardener and ruler, the Snake tempted him to be a consumer, rather than a creator and cultivator. “We can only sigh with disappointment as Adam and Eve swallow, so to speak, the idea that a fruit could bring “wisdom,” even as we recognize how adroitly contemporary advertisers persuade us of equally unlikely results if we will just consume their cosmetics, cars or cigarettes.”
As it turns out, what being in the image of God means is not only that we have the capacity for personal relationship with God in a way that other creatures do not, we also, like God have the capacity to be mini-creators, makers of culture, cultivators of gardens, and equally creators of chaos (read the tower of Babel story in Gen. 11).
Perhaps the most helpful insight of all offered by Crouch is the following:
“Jesus had a profoundly cultural phrase for his mission: the kingdom of
God. It is hard to recapture the concept of kingdom in an age where monarchs
are often no more than ornamental fixtures in their societies, if they
exist at all. But for Jews of that time and place, the idea of a kingdom
would have meant much more. In announcing that the kingdom of God
was near, in telling parables of the kingdom, Jesus was not just delivering
“good news,” as if his only concern was to impart some new information.
His good news foretold a comprehensive restructuring of social life comparable
to that experienced by a people when one monarch was succeeded
by another. The kingdom of God would touch every sphere and every scale
of culture. It would reshape marriage and mealtimes, resistance to the Roman
occupiers and prayer in the temple, the social standing of prostitutes
and the piety of Pharisees, the meaning of cleanliness and the interpretation
of illness, integrity in business and honesty in prayer.”
As it turns out, if we truly want to understand work from a Kingdom perspective, then we must look at it in the way that Jesus viewed the matter. If the Kingdom of God is coming to town this is ever so much more than saying a new ruler or sheriff is coming to town, to better reinforce pre-existing laws and rules. No this King is coming to town to clean house (i.e. the Temple), and to set up and cultivate a new way of structuring social life, and thus create a new culture—a culture of conversion, new creation, and all that that implies. The interesting thing is—the chief work, at least at the outset was the remaking of humankind. The cultural artifact Jesus was most interesting in remolding and retooling, and reforming was human beings themselves. He did not chiefly come to be a carpenter, or to build a new Temple, or to construct a new political system or party, or to introduce a new line of clothing or art, or food. He came to breath new life into human beings. No wonder Paul was to call him the new Adam, only this Adam was life-giving spirit. But after one becomes a new creature, what then? What does work, making culture look like after that transformation?
But lest we think this is all consider the Last Supper, the Garden of Gethsemane, the Cross. The work which Christ chiefly came to do, was not a doing, but a suffering. Unlike Adam in that first garden Jesus did not come to consume but to be consumed, did not come to do his own will, but the will of God, did not come to eat of a tree that would bring knowledge and death, but rather came to be impaled to a tree, the fruit of which would be death, but then life.
“Of all the creators and cultivators who have ever lived, Jesus was the most
capable of shaping culture through his own talents and power—and yet
the most culture-shaping event of his life is the result of his choice to
abandon his talents and power. The resurrection shows us the pattern for
culture making in the image of God. Not power, but trust. Not independence,
but dependence. The second Adam’s influence on culture comes
through his greatest act of dependence; the fulfillment of Israel’s calling
to demonstrate faith in the face of the great powers that threatened its existence
comes in the willing submission of Jesus to a Roman cross, broken
by but also breaking forever its power….In the kingdom of God a new kind of life and a new kind of culture becomes possible—not by abandoning the old but by transforming it. Even the cross, the worst that culture can do, is transformed into a sign of the kingdom of God—the realm of forgiveness, mercy, love and indestructible life.”
One of the things Christians often seem oblivious to is that they are bearing witness, and making culture whether they realize it or not. Every people group has a presence, an ethos, a way of making something of the world and Christians are no different. They see themselves as a family of faith, and like any family they have their struggles and differences. Christians will be more often judged by the way they live in the world, and what they make of the world than by their overt witness. They will be judged by, among other things their work ethic—do they work hard, do they come to work on time, do they accept hardsh
ip without complaining, do they have honesty and integrity?
The world, the fellow workers, the foreman is watching. And Christ will be honored or not by how we perform and what we do with the world while watching eyes are upon us. If all we ever do is complain about things, including about our culture’s problems whilst at work, people will notice that as well. We might as well wear a tee shirt reading “Buzz kill for Jesus” if that’s what we make of and do with the world.
I suspect that one reason Christians don’t see themselves as makers of culture, even when they are at work, is that Christianity is supposed to be a universal religion, a one size fits all religion, a body of believers of every tribe and tongue and people and nation. A cultural religion with specific cultural practices would be Judaism or Hinduism. Christians seem to think real Christianity is trans-cultural just because it is multi-ethnic. This however is not so. The various different forms of Christianity all have their own ethos, their own way of making culture and making sense of the world, and creating an environment within their larger culture where things Christian can happen and prevail, including of course worship. And worship is supremely an expression of culture making. African American worship often looks very different from middle class suburban praise worship. What we need to understand is that whether we are at our job, or we are at worship in our church, we are at work constructing a culture, and helping to advance the cause of and bring in the Kingdom or not.
A key word for a Christian to understand is indigenization. Christianity has the ability to be indigenized in many different cultural expressions and still be Christian. Crouch puts it this way—
“As the scholar Lamin Sanneh has pointed out, this translatability sharply differentiates Christianity from Islam, which requires the Qur’an to be read in its original language. The gospel, even though it is deeply embedded in Jewish cultural history, is available in the “mother tongue” of every human being. There
is no culture beyond its reach—because the very specific cultural story of
Israel was never anything other than a rescue mission for all the cultures
of the world, initiated by the world’s Creator.”
It is precisely ‘translatability’ and ‘indigenization’ which makes it possible for a Christ to assume most any good job worth doing, and work most anywhere. There is a freedom in being a Christian that other religious groups do not have, precisely because Christianity ‘works’ differently, it construct culture differently, and it is able to adopt and adapt the best of many cultures and still be true to the essence of its character and credo.
Suppose we did Christianity again the early church way, by which I mean we took seriously that we are family, and we took care of one another? What would happen in a culture of rising unemployment if the church took care of, shared the burden with its widows, its orphans, its unemployed. What if a community of Christians not only did this, but were welcoming to strangers, were prepared to go the extra mile to help them as well? Suppose once again church became a sanctuary and a safe haven, not just a place where we as God’s sheep meet, greet, bleat, eat, excrete, and retreat? Before and during the middle ages, Christians provided the doctoring and nursing to strangers during epidemics when the pagan priests and medic had fled the major cities during epidemics. Christians provided the food, clothing and shelter for the poor. They did not pass these responsibilities off on the government. They were proactive and created their own worlds of work and service. They stuck together, and lived and died together during the plagues, the famines, the natural disasters such as earthquakes. They had no governmental assistance, and waited for no insurance companies to bail them out or to rebuild. They simply rolled up their sleeves and did it.
“The church had no magic or medicine to cure the plague, but it turns
out that survival even of a terrible disease has a lot to do with one’s access
to the most basic elements of life. Simply by providing food, water and
friendship to their neighbors, Christians enabled many to remain strong
enough that their own immune systems could mount an effective defense.
[Rodney]Stark engages in some rather macabre algebra to calculate the “differential mortality” of Christians and their neighbors compared to pagans who
were not fortunate enough to have the same kind of care—and concludes
that “conscientious nursing without any medications could cut the mortality
rate by two-thirds or even more.” The result was that after consecutive epidemics
had swept through a city, a very disproportionate number of those
remaining would either have been Christians or pagans who had been
nursed through their sickness by Christian neighbors. And with their
family and friends decimated by the plague, it is no wonder that many of
these neighbors, seeking new friends and family, would naturally convert
to Christian faith. The church would grow not just because it proclaimed
hope in the face of horror but because of the cultural effects of a new approach
to the sick and dying, a willingness to care for the sick even at risk
In our current economic crisis the church has once more the chance to make and change culture, to build a world, and to bear better witness to the Christ who said “inasmuch as you have done it unto the least of these, you have done it unto me”.
What if what Revelation 20-22 is telling us is that in the Kingdom humans and their culture will be purified and rescued? What if we are being told that not just nature and human nature gets an upgrade, but also human culture? Crouch says that the fact that the story ends with a city, the ultimate cultural artifact, points in this direction. And notice it is a city that is built by taking the things of nature, and transforming them into cultural artifacts—gems become jewels in the kingdom, and the bounty and best of human products are brought into the city to celebrate the return of the King. I suspect Crouch is right that the world to come will not as drastically different from our own world as we might expect—its just that there will no longer be the shadow of sin, sickness and sorrow, disease, decay and death. And I would suggest there will be plenty to do as well— for instance pick the fruit from all those trees along the central river which will require no more bug spray or artificial anything. We’re going all natural in the Kingdom, all glorious, and all the best of humanity and its culture. Notice how nature flourishes in the middle of the new Jerusalem, nature is incorporated into the eternal city.
We will not have to chose between urban and rural, here and there, now and then. It will all be present at once and available to all.
In his discussion of Revelation’s ending Crouch finally collects his thoughts on human work and its importance, and potential to last and make a difference. Listen to what he says:
“We should ask the same question about our own cultural creativity and
cultivating. Are we creating and cultivating things that have a chance of
furnishing the new Jerusalem? Will the cultural goods we devote our lives
to—the food we cook and consume, the music we purchase and practice,
the movies we watch and make, the enterprises we earn our paychecks
from and invest our wealth in—be identified as the glory and honor of our
cultural tradition? Or will they be remembered as mediocrities at best,
dead ends at worst? This is not the same as asking whether we are making
“Christian” culture. “Christian” cultural artifacts will surely go through
the same winnowing and judgment as “non-Ch
ristian” artifacts. Nor is
this entirely a matter of who is responsible for the cultural artifacts and
where their faith is placed, especially since every cultural good is a collective
effort. Clearly some of the cultural goods found in the new Jerusalem
will have been created and cultivated by people who may well not accept
the Lamb’s invitation to substitute his righteousness for their sin. Yet the
best of their work may survive. Can that be said of the goods that we are
devoting our lives to?”
“This is, it seems to me, a standard for cultural responsibility that is
both more demanding and more liberating than the ways Christians often
gauge our work’s significance. We tend to have altogether too short a time
frame for the worth of our work. We ask if this book will be noticed, this
store will have a profitable quarter, this contract will be accepted. Some of
these are useful intermediate steps for assessing whether our cultural work
is of lasting value, but our short-term evaluations can be misleading if our
work is not also held up to the long horizon of God’s redemptive purpose.
On the other hand, knowing that the new Jerusalem will be furnished
with the best of every culture frees us from having to give a “religious” or
evangelistic explanation for everything we do. We are free to simply make
the best we can of the world, in concert with our forebears and our neighbors.
If the ships of Tarshish and the camels of Midian can find a place in
the new Jerusalem, our work, no matter how “secular,” can too.”
The issue of Christians and their work, and culture making can in one sense be boiled down to the issue of how Christians are to live in the world, without simply becoming ‘of’ the world. How is this nice little walk along a high wire, without falling off on either side achieved? One way Christians have done it in America, surprisingly enough is to simply baptize the American culture and call it good, and embrace it as their own—with liberty and justice and hot apple pie for some. This has led to odd distortions of the Gospel such as the prosperity Gospel or the health and wealth Gospel. It reminds me of the old Pogo cartoon strip when Pogo returns from a battle to his general, and things are not going well. His report is “I have seen the enemy sir. The enemy is us.” The church it seems has been more changed by, than done much changing of culture, no matter how hard we work at it.
This is one reason I love to take my students on cross-cultural trips to the lands of the Bible and deliberately take them to places where they will contract cultural vertigo—say for instance standing in the magnificent temple in Luxor staring at hieroglyphics whilst over-hearing the Moslem call to prayer from the nearby Mosque, and watching with one eye a group of Japanese tourists clicking photos on the right a group of Germans listening intently on the left. When cultural vertigo is suddenly contracted, most Americans look for comfort food, which is why our guide pointed my students to the other side of the road saying “and there is the American Cultural Embassy”. What we were looking, and some students were beginning to drool, at was McDonalds. No wonder we Christians having changed our culture—we love it too much just like it is, warts, wrinkles and all. But what a sad commentary on America that one of the few universal cultural objects we have managed to export to the world is the Big Mac. Sigh.
In order to upgrade things in a Christian way and become culture-makers in a positive sense we need to ask the right questions. Crouch suggests these to start with:
“What is God doing in culture?
What is his vision for the horizons of the possible and the impossible? Who are
the poor who are having good news preached to them? Who are the powerful
who are called to spend their power alongside the relatively powerless? Where is the impossible becoming possible?”
It is an old cliché that all politics is local, and in fact this is not quite true. But it is more true to say that all work is local, and most work actually accomplishes something when it is done in tandem with other people, sometimes only a few other people, sometimes a lot. Andy Crouch reminds us that most anything worth doing starts small, including if the work we are engaging in is culture making. Talking about the influence a circle of 3, then 12, then 120 can have, he puts it this way—
“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 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
What is most striking about this point is that it describes the way that Jesus set about to change the world— with an inner circle of three disciples (Peter, James, and John), and a slightly larger circle of 12, and then after Easter a group of 120 (Acts 1.15) when the church was about to be birthed. Now Crouch did not arrive at these three numbers on the basis of analysis of the Bible, but rather on the basis of his sociological analysis of how cultural change and culture making actually transpires in the vast majority of cases. It starts small and branches out, like the ripples in a pond from a small stone thrown in it. The good news about this is that all work that really matters and makes a difference starts small, and locally. Consider of course the example of Mother Teresa in Calcutta. And she did not advertise. Eventually the world beat a path to her door.
Perhaps you will remember the movie “Six Degrees of Separation” based in turn on the play and the theory that we are only six persons away from being in touch with all six billion people on the planet. There is considerable truth to this, and what it proves is that networking and work on the net can have influence right across the globe in ever widening circles. This of course is one of the reasons I am doing this blog, which involves no advertising dollars at all, but simply going directly to the world which can plug in to the internet. The Internet is of course the greatest culture changer and rearranger in my lifetime. It has been the ruination of my much beloved music shops, and it may be the ruination of major labels and the production of albums on CDs eventually, since increasingly people just download particular songs that they like.
Christian work, calling vocation, ministry which is oblivious to cultural change and is clueless about being a culture maker may not be labor in vain, but it is certainly labor that is not maximizing what can be accomplished for the Lord. This is one of the things which makes Crouch’s eye-opening book so crucial. He provides us with a window on how the world works, and doesn’t work, when it comes to culture making and cultural change. Crouch is right to stress however, lest we miss the point that it is not just all about networking, it is ultimately about creating community, the body of Christ.
The goal of all ministry and mission is to increase the size of the body of Christ, so more people will be in right relationship with God and fulfilling their destiny to love God and neighbor whole heartedly.
I completely ag
ree with Crouch when he says that the sacred vs. secular dichotomy doesn’t work, when it comes to defining Christian work. Any work that is good and godly, any work worth doing can be done to the glory of God and for the help of humankind. And while we are at it, any such work is ‘full-time’ ministry.
“The religious or secular nature of our cultural creativity is simply the
wrong question. 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
inputs. Vocation—calling—becomes another word for a continual process
of discernment, examining the fruits of our work to see whether they are
producing that kind of fruit, and doing all we can to scatter the next round
of seed in the most fruitful places.”
This whole discussion brings to mind a quote from my friend Tom Wright who says
“If we are to be kingdom-announcers, modeling the new way of being human,
we are also to be cross bearers. This is a strange and dark theme that
is also our birthright as followers of Jesus. Shaping our world is never for a
Christian a matter of going out arrogantly thinking we can just get on with
the job, reorganizing the world according to some model we have in mind.
It is a matter of sharing and bearing the pain and puzzlement of the world
so that the crucified love of God in Christ may be brought to bear healingly
upon the world at exactly that point. . . . Because, as he himself said,
following him involves taking up the cross, we should expect, as the New
Testament tells us repeatedly, that to build on his foundation will be to find
the cross etched into the pattern of our life and work over and over again.”
The psalmist has some good and sobering words to offer as we end this chapter on work and culture-making. He tells us that unless the Lord builds our house, our labor is in vain, or in the words of Ps. 90.17 we are told that we ought to pray that the Lord will establish the works of our hands, make them of lasting value. The true test of the value of something is not merely whether it stands the test of time but rather stands the testing of the Lord, a test which all of our works will one day undergo (see 1 Cor. 3). Work worth doing in the world, must we work about which the Word says—“well done good and faithful servant, inherit the kingdom.”