Culture Making: A book review

The Confessional Outhouse has the sub-theme of the Two-Kingdoms, as all you readers probably know. So, when my dear sister gave me a copy of Andy Crouch’s Culture Making as a Christmas present I knew pretty much right off the bat that I’d have to do my first book report since 7th grade. Here it is.

Culture Making answers the questions I always have when I consider what your basic transformationalist claims to be trying to do. Those questions are: “You’re kidding, right? How are you going to transform culture?” Crouch’s answer is simple. You don’t … really. You just perform your creationally mandated job of making culture.  Over time as new cultures move in and old cultures die out culture becomes transformed. You can’t get from point A (culture as we know it today) to point C (culture as we’d maybe like it to be) without going through point B (the summed efforts of countless people doing their culture making).

In the book, it is easy to see that Crouch is offering a description of how things are – A.B.C.  He marshals tons of evidence of how our cultures as we know them today are the way they are merely because someone somewhere (or someones somewhere) introduced some earthshaking change [B]. Then the local or global culture [A] becomes nearly unrecognizable some short-ish time after [C]. Of course, [B] doesn’t have to involve earthshaking change; nearly anything will do – either way, [C] will be different than it was formerly to some degree.

Taken strictly as a sociological or anthropological text Culture Making is a pretty good read. You’ll learn ways to think about our world that you probably hadn’t before. You’ll get Crouch’s numerous definitions and terms that will arm you with some tools to grapple with many issues that obtain in our complex society.

His definition of culture, apparently borrowed from Ken Myers, is what we make of the world. He nuances this by adding that cultural endeavors occur when we make sense of the world by making something of the world.

Crouch allows that we don’t actually make culture but that we make cultural artifacts. He offers five helpful questions that we might wisely ask when trying to understand how a particular cultural artifact fits into its broader cultural story. These are:

  1. What does this artifact assume about the way the world is?
  2. What does this artifact assume about the way the world should be?
  3. What does this artifact make possible?
  4. What does this artifact make impossible or at least very difficult?
  5. What new forms of culture are created in response to this artifact?

Crouch then goes on to employ these questions off and on throughout the book as he discusses an assortment of developments that have arisen in our world. Things like the interstate highway system; the invention of the LASER; the twelve tone musical scale – and many others.

Crouch coins two terms that help us to understand how we respond to the various cultures in which we find ourselves.  These terms are gestures and postures. He identifies four gestures.

  1. Condemning culture.
  2. Critiquing culture.
  3. Copying culture.
  4. Consuming culture.

Crouch briefly examines these four. What is somewhat surprising is that he touches on these gestures by giving examples of each in the context of how twentieth century evangelical Christians have dealt with culture. I won’t belabor this point other than to say that here and elsewhere in the book Crouch makes it clear that he is manifestly bringing Christianity into the discussion.

As for the word postures, Crouch’s point is to suggest that, while having gestures is inevitable and not necessarily bad, to allow gestures to become postures is where dangers lurk. A posture results when a gesture ossifies us to the point that we have no other stance with respect to the surrounding culture. The posture of condemnation leaves us with nothing to offer even when we manage to persuade our neighbor that a particular cultural good is to be discarded. The posture of critiquing leaves us with nothing to offer, having become captive to the paralysis of analysis. The posture of copying results in our becoming passive, dominated by trends and styles and in danger of losing the benefits of other (presumably better and in some cases older) cultures. The posture of consumption has the danger of amping up our already out-of-control propensity to self gratification whereby we can only satisfied when we are purchasing something that someone else has made.

Crouch offers a fifth gesture that in actuality forms the core of the book. I guess it should be no surprise that it also starts with the letter “C’.” That gesture is Changing culture. That’s the A.B.C. formula that I started with above.  Presumably, this fifth gesture makes for the only approvable posture in Crouch’s view.

So far, then, this is all pretty good stuff. I have decided to split this review into two sections. In the next installment, I will address and critique Crouch’s handling of scripture as he attempts to ground his thesis in the Bible.

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7 Responses to Culture Making: A book review

  1. Zrim says:

    Crouch’s answer is simple. You don’t [transform culture] … really. You just perform your creationally mandated job of making culture. Over time as new cultures move in and old cultures die out culture becomes transformed.

    True enough, our concern should be to simply perform what we all, believing and not, were created to do. But I am not sure how when “one culture dies and another is created” the process is described as transformation. Given his description of the organic nature of culture, it still seems to me that Crouch has an eye toward transformationalism here.

    I don’t normally describe the process that got me from age four to thirty-eight as “transformation.” Rather, I say that I have aged. If I describe it as transformation that seems to imply that my essence instead of my condition has changed. But I’m still essentially who I was when I was a child, it’s just that my condition has changed. This is the fundamental problem of all transformationalism, it seems to me. First, it doesn’t distinguish between the essence of nature and its condition; second, instead of realizing it is our condition that is a problem, it seems to presume there is something inherently wrong with our essence and thereby not only should it change but also that it can change.

    I hate to sound cliché, but the more things change the more (they really do!) stay the same.

  2. Bruce S. says:

    I have to agree with you. The phrase “rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic” came to my mind repeatedly throughout the book.

  3. sean says:

    “we make sense of the world by making something of the world.”

    Sounds kin to existentialism, does Crouch cite Sartre or Kierkegaard or even Camus?

  4. No he doesn’t cite any of those you listed. His “making sense of the world” nuance is an interpretation connection not an existential one. He is not really very clear on this point. Crouch’s angle is that culture is more than just ‘there’ but that culture is the gateway to our understanding the reality that is there.

  5. Bruce S. says:

    Oops. That was me.

  6. sean says:

    Hmm, interesting. I’m not sure I don’t smell the french in his underlying “interpretive” grid. Especially when part of that “interpretive” grid involves answering the question; “what does this artifact tell us about the way culture “should” be in the broader “cultural” story. It doesn’t really matter, I just was curious if he was self-aware. Good write up.

  7. Pingback: Culture Making Review Part 2 « The Confessional Outhouse

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