Cultural Priorities for 2010
What next for those trying to cultivate and create?
Andy Crouch, in his book Culture Making, identifies a number of ways in which evangelicals participate in our surrounding cultures. He identifies two postures as persistently appropriate: cultivation and creation. He also identifies four gestures that are sometimes appropriate, but inappropriate as permanent postures: condemning, critiquing, copying and consuming.
We hope this week to ignite a discussion of personal priorities in cultural engagement during 2010. We asked a handful of individuals the following questions:
To what activities will you give priority in 2010 in your own cultural engagement with regard to each of these postures and gestures? To what cultivation practices will you commit yourself even if it means leaving aside other things? What new cultural good do you most hope to create? What will you seek to condemn, critique, copy, and consume? Do you think there are particular cultural practices that most or even all Christians should prioritize in 2010? Are there cultural goods in our surrounding culture that demand an urgent response from all Christians? Are there needs for freshly made culture that demand to be met by all Christians?
Once you create a modestly successful cultural good, the hardest thing to do is move on to creating the next thing you are called to create. So my own challenge for 2010 is to work in earnest on my next major project, on how Christians should think about and live with cultural power, privilege and influence. This means leaving aside many opportunities to speak and write on Culture Making!
If there were one cultural good I would hope all Christians would cultivate in 2010—and I include myself—it is reading books. Even the most thoughtful of us are becoming intellectual hummingbirds, flitting nervously from one tasty information source to the next. Yet there is still nothing like a book, which almost always is the fruit of literally years of thought, refinement and care and the work of dozens of people (not just the author, but editors, reviewers, designers). The culture around us may forget to read, but we must resist. Lose the ability to pay sustained attention and you lose the ability to pray, to listen, and ultimately to love. We cannot let this go.
Also, given that my wife Catherine and daughter Amy play the violin, and my son Timothy is becoming a remarkable violist, our family is only one instrument short of a string quartet. So in 2010, I will be studying the cello.
Give time, give money, give voice
We will be sharing the news of my book Scouting the Divine: My Search for God in Wine, Wool, and Wild Honey, which just released. I spent time with a shepherd in Oregon, a farmer in Nebraska, a beekeeper in Colorado and a vintner in California and asked, "How do you read these passages in the Bible—not as theologians, but in light of what you do every day?" Their answers changed the way I read Scripture, and my prayer is that this book (which I've been waiting ten years to write) will illuminate people's hearts with the beauty and wonder of God and His Word.
In addition, my husband Leif and I plan on taking three months in 2010 to volunteer at a camp for low-income kids in Colorado. We have chosen to find different organizations and non-profits that we believe in to fulfill our mission: give time, give money, give voice. Cross Bar X is one of those places. We believe that our time there will allow us to put our faith, which is so often defined by words rather than deed, where it belongs—plus allow us to spend time away from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and prayerfully consider where God might be leading us in the future. I guess you could call it a working sabbatical, but we want to make sure that our lives reflect the beliefs of which we so frequently speak.
When people ask me about the first thing they should do to care for the earth, I give an answer that they don't expect: Start observing the Sabbath. The intent of the Sabbath laws is restraint. We are not supposed do it all, just because we can.
Sabbath is about taking our hands off the controls one day a week and letting God be God. Go on walks. Take guiltless naps. Share meals with family and friends. Cultivate a 24/6 life. If we all started honouring the Sabbath, we'd save 10 to 14 percent of our resources. But even more importantly, the Sabbath creates a space to get to know our neighbours, spend time in community, and be still with God.
My second priority for 2010 is to tune out the noise and tune into God. A decade ago, most of us could barely find the on-ramp to the information highway. Now our lives are a noisy blur - chat rooms, C-Span, satellite TV, triple digit cable options, email, IM, cell phones, text messaging, YouTube, iTunes, Bluetooth, Facebook, Twitter, RSS feeds. There is a loneliness and desperation that accompanies such noisy lives, and the temptation of false pride-an iGod mentality. All this noise is unhealthy: it stresses our bodies, our emotions, and our relationships. Most importantly, it takes us away from God. Let's create a space where we can once again hear the voice of Adonai and cultivate a culture of quiet.
The culture of 2010 still counts off the years from the birth of Jesus Christ, but its characteristics are increasingly defined not so much by forgetting the significance of the date as by repudiating it. Among these characteristics are three strands of special moment: an obsessive triviality focused on following celebrities and finding "entertainment" in the pablum of mass broadcasting; a persistent desire for easy answers to hard and often complex questions—if it can't be sound-bitten, it is not to be taken seriously; and the steady encroachment of technologies of many kinds into our personal and social lives. It is the first two that render the third so disturbing. And, as is obvious, the church is tracking with the "culture" on all three. Not tracking to counter, to engage, to salt. Tracking obliviously. Joining in.
So what to do?
First, cut our Christian celebs down to size, and determine that whatever we do in our worship and teaching events, we shall not entertain or be entertained.
Second, think, think, and keep thinking. Make those around us think. Turn our churches into centers of thought. Thinking isn't just for the intellectuals. No one can live a counter-cultural life unless he or she can out-think co-workers and neighbors and the purveyors of trivia to whom the culture is most attentive. Otherwise, we shall just slide down the same slippery slope mouthing religious rather than secular trivia.
Third, reckon with the series of quantum leaps that are turning technology into the prime agent of cultural possibility (and limits). Two recent 4-year forecasts (2014!): Google on your contact lens, and nursing aides that look and sound like nursing aides but that are actually mechanical robots. If the church can't give a lead to our thinking and that of the nation round about us as the tech century gets seriously underway, it's hard to see its survival as anything other than a parody of the paganism outside its walls. But if it can, the faith once delivered to the saints could once again come into its own.
Is social justice something that can be cultivated? I hadn't thought about it in that way until I read Culture Making.
I've been thinking a lot about poverty and social breakdown and what I can do about it. How can I help the people in my town who are poor, hungry, sick, or have loved ones in prison? Many in my generation are turning to government to solve the challenges of social justice, but that kind of approach usually doesn't work. (Just look at the results of Uncle Sam's $15.9 trillion "War on Poverty" since the 1960s.) Throwing money at problems doesn't address their underlying causes, nor does it bring me face-to-face with those in need. I want a strategy for engagement that's more personal—and effective—than calling for yet another new government program. My desired approach resonates with Crouch's definition of cultivation: "Taking care of the good things that culture has already handed on to us."
One of those good things is marriage, which is key for cultivating healthy lives and thriving communities—the goal of social justice. As Crouch writes, "One who cultivates tries to create the most fertile conditions for good things to survive and thrive." Consider this: children born and raised in a home with their married parents are seven times less likely to experience poverty than those born to single moms. It may not be as trendy a cause as "going green" or fighting disease in Africa, but if I'm really serious about helping create conditions that prevent or overcome poverty, I simply can't ignore the importance of healthy, intact families. None of us can.
So, an important focus for me in 2010 will be working for stronger marriages in my neighborhood and congregation, starting with my own. (Cultivation begins from the ground up!) Nurturing this valuable cultural good is something for which all Christians can strive this year, whether through supporting church-run marriage ministries, volunteering to baby-sit so spouses can enjoy evenings out, or counseling couples considering marriage. We can also push for solid theological teaching about marriage and for better sharing and accountability among married couples in our congregations. I pray that such practices can enrich the "fertile conditions" for thriving—and thus help to cultivate social justice—across the country.
Wrest control from those without hope to offer
To what activities will you give priority in 2010 in your own cultural engagement with regard to each of these postures and gestures?
I'll be writing more magazine articles, not only for byFaith, the magazine I edit, but for three or four other publications and websites. I'll be writing book reviews, primarily of fiction, hoping to lure Christians into worthwhile books, writing an article or two about the purpose and importance of fiction, and crafting other pieces that observe/comment on the similarities between societies that can't read, and those who choose not to.
I'll be working with a handful of my favourite writers to develop articles for byFaith about issues that are pressing and that we, as believers, need to better grasp. A few of them include:
- The current state of our culture's (including the Church's) pursuit of wisdom. A segment of this will look at social media and the degree to which they distract—or better focus—our quest to become wise.
- Generational differences. Now that I'm on the "old" end of the generational spectrum, I'm more eager to narrow the gap.
- Capitalism and Christianity, and particularly the creation of wealth as it relates to the cultural mandate, care of the poor, and being merciful and just.
- Related to that, we want to talk about how greed and selfish ambition tarnish our work as sub-creators.
- The kingdom and healthcare, or, how does Jesus' healing ministry affect our view of our neighbours' health? And by extension: What does a healthcare system tell us about the culture that spawned it? (Might be interesting to include our Canadian friends in that conversation.)
- When, where, and how do we do mercy? Where does it fit on the calendar of a suburbanite who works 50+ hours a week, has a spouse, children, a home, weekend responsibilitiesâ€¦ What does doing mercy look like in the 21st century?
I'll also finish a third novel early in 2010.
To what cultivation practices will you commit yourself even if it means leaving aside other things?
Encouraging people to read and appreciate good books. Having written a couple of novels, I've had opportunity to go into schools, libraries, bookstores, and churches to talk about how fiction shapes and enriches us. I'm spending more time thinking, writing, and speaking about this. And it is, in a gratifying way, absorbing more time.
Writing and publishing articles about our role as sub-creators—of products, systems, economies and communities. The sinful and stupid behaviour of corporate leaders has cast a pall over the profit motive. As God's image bearers, as sub-creators, and as developers of the raw materials He's given us, we've got to produce new products, start new businesses, and invent ways of creating more capital. At the same time, we need to show the softer side of capitalism, to show—to the extent sinful people are able—an economic system that's productive and free of greed and selfish ambition. We—Christians—need to cultivate and applaud business ventures that are the means by which owners and workers love their neighbors. We need to show a watching world that financial profit is a tool with which we make the world safer, healthier, wiser, just, and more enjoyable.
If we're concerned for the poor, we must have a corollary concern for the creation of wealth.
The acquisition of wisdom. In the things I write, and in the things we publish at byFaith, we'll cultivate and appeal to a desire for wisdom.
What new cultural good do you most hope to create?
Most immediately, a third novel. This one, thematically, deals with giftedness and what the possession of a gift/talent both implies and costs.
Book reviews that encourage people to wallow in printed, bound, ink-and-paper books. I hope to persuade people, and especially Christians, to enlarge their view of the world and, as C.S. Lewis suggested, to perceive it through others' windows.
More and better podcasts on byFaithonline.com. In the Reformed community, we have so many smart and able communicators. I'd like to provide a venue to make their wisdom widely available.
"What will you seek to condemn, critique, copy, and consume?"
Condemn: Economic policy and practice that discourages innovation, production, and entrepreneurship. The overuse and improper use of media that make us shallow, unthinking, and uncritical. Christians' failure to pursue wisdom.
Critique: Really good books. The always-shifting emphases in the mission, purpose, and philosophy of the Church. Civic life, especially of Christians, and the transformation of attitudes toward political and civic engagement. Business practice/philosophy, from a Christian/Calvinist/Kuyperian perspective.
Copy: I'd like to substitute the word imitate. For a writer/editor, "copy" carries some dangerous connotations. I want to imitate Willie Morris, Pat Conroy, Robert Inman, Barbara Kingsolver, and Rick Bragg. These are a handful of the writers who, to me, have a startling command of the language's rhythm. Before I write anything, I read one of them. I ingest their work, hoping to make it an elemental part of me.
Consume: Good books. Better wine.
Do you think there are particular cultural practices that most or even all Christians should prioritize in 2010?
Most Christians, I suspect, are involved in business. And we're all, at least in North America, an integral part of the market economy. In response to the abuses we've seen recently, all Christians need to be a visible and bold force for the redemption of commercial enterprise. Because we love our neighbours, because we care for the poor, because we have a heart for mercy and justice—we need to create products and services that, in turn, create wealth. And we need to do it, as far as fallen creatures are able, without the contaminating effects of sin.
Are there cultural goods in our surrounding culture that demand an urgent response from all Christians?
The U.S. healthcare system will demand our response. One way or another, it's going to change. I think that we, informed by the Bible's teaching, would like to have a hand/voice in that makeover.
Social (and other) media demand a response from us. Here's an instance, I think, where Christians have jumped on a cultural bandwagon. Social media surely have a place and a purpose, but I'd like to see us bring reflection, discernment, and wisdom to their use.
Are there needs for freshly made culture that demand to be met by all Christians?
Yes, if we're here, there must be a need for fresh culture. And all Christians will create some sliver of it according to how God's equipped them. Specifically, from an editor/writer's perch, I'm optimistic about the creation of literature. I can't shake the feeling that the world is ripe for a new generation of Flannery O'Connors, Walker Percys, Graham Greenes, Lewises and Tolkiens. That we, armed with talent and a biblical worldview, might offer the world fiction that is, as O'Connor liked to say, "a plunge into reality." That we might wrest control from authors who have no hope to offer, and provide, through imaginative stories, a glimpse of what ought to be.