Interview with Andy Crouch: Culture Making
Andy Crouch is the executive editor of Christianity Today. He studied classics at Cornell University and received a M.Div. summa cum laude from Boston University School of Theology. Andy has focused his educational and theological training on culture and power, and he is the author of Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power and Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. In a conversation with Claritas editor Esther Jiang, Andy talks about culture, Christian calling, and change.
EJ: When did you begin to think critically about culture?
AC: I started to think about culture as an undergrad at Cornell, because it was the first time in my life that two things happened. First, I was studying Greco-Roman culture and Classics, two primarily ancient cultures. Furthermore, I became aware of my cultural contact by being in a more multicultural environment that I had ever lived in. My high school years were spent in a Boston suburb, where most people were like me. But at Cornell, I met people from all kinds of cultural backgrounds—from family backgrounds to religious backgrounds to world backgrounds that I didn’t share.
Secondly, I spent ten years working with college students in campus ministry at Harvard University. The longer I was there, the more I felt that I didn’t have a deep enough understanding of what a Christian, I didn’t have a deep enough understanding of what culture was and how to engage with it. So this started me on a quest to come up with adequate language. This led me to write Culture Making.
EJ: How would you define culture?
AC: If you’ve taken sociology or anthropology, your textbooks will have a definition of culture, and those definitions tend to be long, wordy, and unmemorable. The best definition of culture I’ve come across is from Ken Meyers, a fellow journalist. It’s simply this: Culture is what human beings make of the world in both senses—tangible and intangible.
Culture includes the physical product of human activity in the world. Clothes, chairs, buildings, all of these things are the material act of humans engaging and reshaping the world that they’re in.
Culture also includes the intangible—it’s not just material, it’s also meaning. It’s not just stuff, it’s also sense. The things that we make actually shape the way we engage with and present meaning to each other. It shows us that the human drive to make something of the world is driven by the instinct that the world must have some ultimate meaning; that there is some order, some rationality, and some personality behind the world.
EJ: Why might Christians be especially attentive to culture?
AC: Well to start, we believe that a God created all this stuff we are working with, and He created it as good, good, very good (Genesis 1). Thus, the material world isn’t negative in the way ancient Neo-Platonism or Gnosticism believed it was, and it isn’t neutral as the modern world tends to believe it is. As Christians, we should see that the human activity of making material out of God’s creation somehow images God. Moreover, if there’s meaning to the human story, to the cosmic story, then when our neighbors engage in creating things that make sense, they reflect a hunger for God.
EJ: How does the culture of the Kingdom of God relate to the one we live in right now?
AC: Let me mention one more thing that cultures do: they define the horizons of possibility and impossibility for human beings. Cultures make some things possible that would be impossible otherwise, and they make other things impossible that would be possible otherwise.
The best example I can think of is when I lived in an apartment in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Although I lived there for seven years, I never met or even learned the names of the residents next door. Was it strictly impossible for me to meet those people and learn their names? No, I could’ve easily knocked on their doors and introduced myself. But since we were in New England, the culture dictates that you avoid getting to know people. That shaped me, so I never knocked on my neighbor’s door. The culture also shaped them, because they never knocked on my door either.
Yet here I am, having a meaningful conversation with people in Ithaca over the internet. This was impossible many years ago, but it is now possible because of the cultural connections made over time.
We live within these horizons. We imagine who we can we be and what we can do within the horizons that our culture gives us.
This brings us to the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom of God names a cultural reality that is not fully recognized yet. In the Kingdom of God, the horizons of possibility and impossibility are exactly defined as God wills for the flourishing of the whole world.
Put another way, if God were truly to be recognized and obeyed as king, anything God wills to be impossible would not be possible. And anything God wills to be possible would not be impossible. For example, there are millions of people living in situations of great material and food insecurity. That is not the will of God, yet it is possible in our world. In fact, we can say that it is impossible to feed all of those people in our current state. But if the Kingdom were to fully come, if God’s will was done on earth as it is in heaven, then the horizon of possibility and impossibility would match what the Bible calls God’s shalom, God’s peace.
No human culture has those horizons. Every human culture is distorted— it makes possible the things that should be impossible, and it makes impossible the things that should be possible, such as knowing your neighbor.
EJ: How might we as Christians begin to change our current culture and move the horizon of possibility towards that of the Kingdom of God?
AC: There’s really good news about this, and there’s really bad news.
The really good news is that everyone has ability to change the horizon of possibility— within a small domain. Most of us have the ability to make a difference in the lives of those immediately near us and intimate to us, such as our friends and family. At the smallest enough scale, everyone can change culture.
The bad news is that at the larger scale, no one can change culture. No one has the power to change the horizon of possibilities for every human being on the planet. So then the question is this: where are you on this intermediate scale? Between my most intimate relationships and the most extensive relationships, where am I in the middle, and over what domains do I have agency?
The answer is: it’s different for everyone. When I was a student at Cornell, I had a certain degree of agency at Cornell that I no longer have as an alumnus. But as an alumnus, I have a degree of agency that I didn’t have as a student. For example, I can now make money and give money. When you start giving money, the administration pays attention to you. But I can’t give as much money as Michael Bloomberg, so they don’t pay as much attention to me as they do to Bloomberg.
Your degree of agency is based on where you are situated institutionally. So begin to ask yourselves, where have I been placed such that I have the ability to make a difference? And where could I go, called by the grace of God, to make a difference?
You’ll never be able to change the entire world, but you can expand the scope of your influence over time.
EJ: What are some things we can be doing to expand our influence over our domains of agency?
AC: As Christians, I think we are often caught in reactive ways of approaching culture. In my book Culture Making, I identify four C’s: (1) condemning culture, when you complain all the time about what it’s doing; (2) critiquing culture, which is analytical and academic, but stuck at the idea level; (3) copying culture, where Christians make their own versions of culture for fellow Christians; and (4) consuming culture, in which you accept everything culture throws at you.
What all of these have in common is that they are reactive. They all wait for someone else to do something first, and then they react.
I want to suggest that we are called as human beings and followers of Christ to create culture—to be active instead of reactive. We’re called to write new books, to start businesses, to write laws, and so on. To sum it up in one phrase, let’s start creating culture.
Tags: academia, Andy Crouch, anthropology, Christianity Today, classics, college, Cornell University, Gnosticism, Harvard University, Ken Meyers, Michael Bloomberg, Neoplatonism, Plato, sociology, university, vocation