In his new book, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (InterVarsity Press), Andy Crouch hopes to ignite a new era in Christian creativity. Echoing and then building on the thoughts of theologians like John Calvin and Abraham Kuyper, Crouch, who is best known as the editorial director for The Christian Vision Project at Christianity Today, encourages the Church to move beyond criticizing, analyzing, and copying the mainstream culture. We should be, Crouch says, the ones who nurture and create it.
ByFaith editor Richard Doster talked with Crouch about his book, and about the effects he hopes it brings.
BYFAITH: Let’s start with the basics: Why did you write the book? You must have looked around and seen something the world and the church lacked?
CROUCH: It seemed to me that Christians were waking up to a sense of deficiency or—to use an even stronger word—dysfunction in our relationship to the culture around us. I felt like we needed a new vocabulary for what we’re doing—that the old vocabulary and the old strategies weren’t serving us very well.
For example, there had been a concerted political strategy to bring change to issues that Christians care about. But I think there’s a widespread sense that the strategy hasn’t worked—that it hasn’t achieved what was hoped for. That doesn’t mean it was wrong to attempt to it, but something went awry. Somehow, in this process of seeking political influence, we didn’t just change the world, the world changed us. I think there was a sense of disillusionment with that.
BYFAITH: In what way did the world change us?
CROUCH: Well, at the time of the trial of Jack Abramoff, the lobbyist, it was revealed that Ralph Reed, Jr., had emailed Abramoff—essentially saying that now that I’m done with electoral politics I need you to help me “start humping in some corporate accounts.”
This was just four years after the Christian Coalition had published its manifesto calling for the creation of greater moral values in American public life—for more family-friendly values. Reed was one of the architects of that statement.
His email led to partnerships which advocated gambling interests. So, within four years the person who had been the architect of a political strategy to re-introduce family values into American public life was collaborating with a lobbyist on behalf of gambling interests. Now, that wasn’t everything that Reed did as a lobbyist, but it felt like a telling moment.
More generally, I think there’s a sense that as we pursued political leverage we ended up being leveraged—that we became like the power seekers—used to accomplish their goals without really accomplishing ours. So we were changed from people who were primarily about values to people who were primarily about power. And then we lost the struggle to turn that power into something valuable.
BYFAITH: Is that process unique to politics? If Christians took over the motion picture industry wouldn’t we see something similar?
CROUCH: Yeah, I actually think that having a grand cultural strategy is a dangerous thing. That applies to any realm of culture, not just electoral politics. Any grand strategy for cultural change that’s accompanied by a plan to find and control the levers of power—whether it’s the film industry or in Washington or even the local school board—underestimates the way power changes people.
There’s a uniquely slippery aspect of power, especially in a democratic or capitalist system, which is this: You never know how much you have. It’s so hard to measure. You can know how much money you have, but you never know how much power you have, and so you’re always tempted to shore up your reserves. There’s a perennial temptation to accumulate alliances that make you secure. But, paradoxically, that very accumulation makes you less able to wield power responsibly. I think that’s what happened with the [Christian] Coalition. Family-values-Christians formed other interests within the Republican Party. We weren’t the majority and so in order to get enough leverage we felt like we had to combine forces with others. But in order to combine forces you have to form partnerships. Power becomes slippery when you do that. The power turns on you; it starts shaping you rather than you shaping and wielding it.
But this isn’t the only thing that prompted me to write the book. The other thing—and this is quite different—was the sense that a lot of our cultural creativity was going into what people commonly call the “Christian subculture.” Actually, we were creating a lot of culture but it was only serving other Christians. And I think there was also a sense of embarrassment—that the music we created was not as innovative and compelling as the music that’s being created in the wider culture. The movies we were making were not as good as others; they weren’t as significant as the best movies that were being made in mainstream culture.
So there was this sense of dissatisfaction, not just with the political strategy, but with the subculture strategy—the strategy of creating culture by and for Christians rather than out in the public marketplace, for our neighbors whether they’re Christians or not.
BYFAITH: When we look at history, that’s a pretty dramatic shift. There was a time when Christians were the primary creators and shapers of culture. What happened?
CROUCH: I think we see the answer most clearly in Contemporary Christian Music (CCM). And the interesting thing is, it was never intended by the founders of CCM. They were evangelists. The first “Jesus” musicians like Larry Norman were trying to make music that would testify to faith in bars and stadiums. They thought that Christians would bring their friends if the music was good, and that they’d hear a message that was different from secular rock ’n’ roll.
But for the first time, I think, Christian cultural creativity had to contend with capitalism—with the quest for a market niche and the [economic] power that comes with it. Christian music became tremendously profitable, and it became more profitable as it became more narrowly targeted—not at non-Christians, who weren’t all that interested in a Christian message—but to Christians. The Jesus music movement became CCM when producers realized they could sell more records by producing safe rock for Christians, rather than music that might connect with non-Christians. The market drove CCM into a niche, which was, as a number of Christian radio stations now advertise, “safe for the whole family.” The music became about being safe. It became about protecting yourself from the wider culture. It was rock ‘n’ roll you could put on the radio and not have to worry about sex and drugs.
But that cut us off from cultural participation. This was new; we’d never dealt with such a complex cultural marketplace before. And we’d never seen such high rewards for those who’d found a responsive audience.
BYFAITH: So, believers were disenchanted with the political strategy, they were disenchanted with the sub-culture strategy—trying to imitate what the mainstream culture was doing. What else is the book about?
CROUCH: I think that many of us are becoming aware of how many Christians today are simply consumers. We’re becoming aware of how embedded we are—the people in our churches—in the logic of mainstream consumer culture. Not really even a niche culture but simply going to the movies on Friday night and watching whatever everyone else is watching on television. I think there’s a growing sense that if we allow ourselves simply to become consumers of culture in the way that our neighbors often are, something very distinctive about the Christian life is being lost; the church is being weakened by its capitulation to a consumer economy.
And so, in this dissatisfaction I sensed an opportunity to say, let’s think about a new way of framing what we’re up to in the world. It’s not about control or copying or consuming. It’s about what God has always intended for human beings; it’s the posture toward culture He wants His church to restore.
BYFAITH: And that posture is…?
CROUCH: Well I’m thinking of Jesus as the second Adam, as the one who restored what Adam was supposed to be—a human being in full, faithful relationship to God. When we talk about being “in Christ” we’re talking about being a restored human being who does what Adam and Eve were called to do, but failed to do.
We don’t do it out of our own ability. We do it because Christ lives in us and restores to us that original human vocation which consists of two calls: cultivating and creating.
Cultivating is preserving what’s already good, and taking good care of it so that it remains good. Creating is actually bringing new things into the world—new cultural goods that extend and draw out the possibilities of the world. The church is the community of people who have the opportunity, by God’s grace, to be what human beings were meant to be: culture cultivators and culture creators.
BYFAITH: So, when we write hymns or prayers or sermons—things that are needed for edification and worship, that’s proper. But when we compose rock ‘n’ roll for the purpose of withdrawing from culture, then we’re engaged in something that God never intended?
CROUCH: That’s right. After all, I’ve written a “Christian” book. It isn’t going to be widely read outside of the church; it presupposes Christian faith. I’m not against cultural artifacts that primarily build up the body of Christ. But I think the question of intention is important, or you could say of “posture,” that’s the word I use in the book.
The question is: Am I doing this in order to withdraw? I think that’s the right way to frame it. Christian magazines, Christian radio: I don’t think it’s a priori wrong to have those things, but when they’re used to replicate the culture outside—when they allow me to live a culturally analogous life to my neighbor’s, without ever engaging my neighbor’s culture because I’m consuming Christian culture—I think that’s a problem.
When Christian radio or books or music are created with a posture of equipping us to be full participants in the whole world that God cares about—beautiful, broken, grace-filled, and fallen as it is—then I think there’s something good about those kinds of Christian artifacts.
In CCM people were ostracized if they made anything that communicated with—or had the potential of communicating with—a secular audience. They were ostracized if their music didn’t mention Jesus’ name enough times.
There’s nothing wrong with Christian artifacts if they’re part of a wider posture that says we’re full participants in the broader culture because that’s where God has called us to be.
BYFAITH: There seem to be plenty of Christians who are creating and shaping the wider culture—writers, musicians, businesspeople—Bret Lott for example is an outspoken evangelical who writes good books, including one Oprah selection. Yet the Christian media pays no attention to him—because he doesn’t work within our ghetto.
CROUCH: Yes, and this is a striking thing. The truth is, when you start naming influential writers and musicians in mainstream culture right now, any reasonable list will include people of serious Christian faith.
For example, the winner of the 2005 Pulitizer Prize was Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. This is a transcendent work of Christian fiction, and Marilyn Robinson takes her faith seriously. We disagree on some theological points, but she trusts God for her salvation. She is, transparently, bringing her faith to bear on her writing, and she’s one of the most admired writers working today.
In music Alison Krauss, T-Bone Burnett, the whole crew behind the soundtrack from O Brother, Where Art Thou?—one of the most influential records of the 1990s—many of them are serious Christians. And there’s Sufjan Stevens, who’s influential among a whole group of people with complicated hair, who hang out in coffee shops, and have multiple piercings.
You can’t list cultural influencers in the United States right now without listing people who are very serious about their Christian faith. But you’re right, Christian media often don’t spot these people because they don’t quack like the Christian subcultural duck. And the whole subculture is set up to reinforce itself. Now at Christianity Today I think we’re really working to change that. I just read an interview that we published a few months ago with Andrew Stanton, who is the writer and director of the latest Pixar film, WALL•E, who is a vocally-committed Christian. And that film is just an extraordinary work of cultural creativity. I think the work of Pixar, generally, is one of the most promising cultural developments of the last decade. I’m in awe of what they’re doing, of the excellence of their storytelling, of their innovation in form and content, of the way they’re shaping the movie industry. Many people at Pixar are committed to Christ.
So you’re right, it’s been this blind spot, and it comes, I think, from a perception that we’re culturally marginal in a way we’re actually not. This is another thing I want to help us get over—that we’re this set-upon minority. The truth is that evangelical Christians are a plurality in American culture. That’s to say we’re the largest minority—everyone’s a minority in American culture now—it’s time for us to stop being defensive about our minority status which, at the end of the day, we share with every other group in this country.
There’s room, I think, for a lot more joy and delight and risk-taking—and for the sheer pleasure of creating something that’s really good, like the film WALL•E. This is a deeply biblically-themed story. I mean the garden of Eden’s in there, Noah’s ark is in there—and the call to humans to be cultivators of culture is the basic theme of the movie.
But this not a “Christian” movie. It’s better than that. It’s a human movie. It calls people back to true humanity. Christians can be part of this sort of thing. There’s nothing stopping us—except our own defensiveness and fear.
And, I would add, there is the issue that we’re not well prepared to create at this level. We’ve been inhaling secondhand culture so long that many of us aren’t that good at telling a story. But there’s no one in Hollywood who’s stopping us.
BYFAITH: So you see an opportunity for Christian art to be respected today as it was in an earlier era, say in the time of Flannery O’Connor and Walker Percy—the time when Wendell Berry first became prominent?
CROUCH: There is that opportunity, but it will not be respected because it’s Christian, it will be respected because it’s excellent. If we’re talking about elite culture—the kind of people who still read [laughs], my own experience in these circles—the secular culture in which I’ve lived my whole life—is that it’s not hostile to the idea of Christians creating art, literature, scholarship… . It’s not hostility so much as puzzlement. People can’t understand why an intelligent, creative person would believe this. They’re more perplexed than hostile. And they’re won over if the culture we actually create is excellent.
Now there’s some spillover hostility from the culture wars—and some of that we can’t avoid. We have to take a side on some issues and that’s going to affect how our culture is received. But in my experience, unless you’re creating propaganda that’s specifically advancing a side—people will respond if it’s well done, even if it’s clear that you, the writer, are a Christian who draws on Christian themes.