Book Review: Culture Making

Culture is a bit of a buzzword for today's church. We like to critique it. We like to copy it. We like to consume it. And more often than not we like to condemn it.

Defining culture

But I wonder, if someone was to ask you to give them a definition of culture, would you be able to do it? Could you give a succinct one-sentence summary of what culture is? We throw the "C" word around, but so few of us really understand what culture is that we often just end up standing at a distance, shaking our heads.

Thankfully, Andy Crouch's book Culture Making gives some helpful insights into what culture is, why culture matters, and how the gospel should shape our view of culture. The book starts by racing through human history - quickly revealing our temptation to make culture far smaller than it is. We often limit it to just the things that "cultured people" do (like going to art galleries or classical music concerts); or to the fashions and trends that we see come and go; or to peoples' ethnic identities. But culture is so much more than just these things. 

Crouch defines culture as "What we make of the world." That perhaps sounds a little abstract, so he further defines it as "The name for our relentless, restless human effort to take the world as it's given to us and make something else." Because of this, he argues that we have to look at culture through its cultural artifacts - the acts of human creation and cultivation that become "The framework of the world for future generations." But there's a second level to his definition. It is also what we make of the world in that it is how we understand and interpret what goes on around us. In other words, "We make sense of the world by making something of the world. The human quest for meaning is played out in human making."

Changing, creating, and embracing culture

I mentioned earlier the various stances we take towards culture - critiquing it, copying it, consuming it and condemning it. None of these are fundamentally wrong approaches towards culture, but one of the great insights I found in the book is that "The only way to change culture is to create more of it." If culture is a collection of created things, then to shape the culture around us we need to create things that shape how the world around us works! This is so important for us as Christians. We need to embrace culture as a fundamentally good thing, indeed an essential part of what it means to be human, if we want to see God glorified and people come to know him.

The furniture of heaven

The final thing that has really stayed with me after reading Culture Making is how culture fits into the New Creation. Crouch elegantly puts it like this: "Culture is the furniture of heaven." This is such a freeing way of thinking about creating cultural works - that our motivation for excellence is not simply to shift more CDs, but instead knowing that our cultural works offer a glimpse of what the New Creation will be like, with culture that is fully redeemed by Jesus's work on the cross. How much more should we care about our work, knowing that it is not meaningless, but has eternal significance? This means too that we can do things like appreciate good music for being good music - diverse and exciting and moving and beautiful - knowing that it is part of God's plan for humanity from the beginning. And that is very good.

Practical implications?

I think something I would like to have seen in the book would have been more practical implications for how the church can look distinctive as a result of God's plan for culture - rather than just how our approach to culture should be different. How should a gospel worldview of culture shape how the church appears to the watching world, in a way that points to Jesus? How can we encourage everyone in our churches to be culture makers, rather than just the "creative types"? These are the questions that I would have liked to see more time spent on. Reading the book will have practical outworkings of these questions - but then the responsibility is on us to lead our brothers and sisters in making something of the world.

If you want to know better what it means to be human, and how being a musician fits into God's great plan for humanity, then Culture Making is a book I thoroughly recommend. You will finish it better equipped to live out the gospel in your day to day, understanding more of why the church needs musicians as much as other jobs, and rejoicing more in Jesus's redeeming work of the whole Earth.

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