Andy Crouch’s latest book, Culture Making, maps the varied integrations of Christian faith that are all around us. With the election hanging over all that is news, it is vital to assess how our faith commitments can thrive without being in service to identity politics and the more crass discourses of professional punditry. The Other Journal recently interviewed Andy Crouch about faith, culture, and our current political maelstrom.
The Other Journal (TOJ): You spent five years as the editor of re:generation Quarterly; this journal, in my estimation, was a precursor to a whole host of online and print publications that didn’t want to take a CCM angle to exploring faith and culture. Certainly re:generation Quarterly influenced a number of us at TOJ, even in how we do what we do. So as someone who is sort of in the wake of your legacy, what would you say to us about re:generation Quarterly? What do you still celebrate about that experience, and what might you have done differently? More closely addressing your book, did re:generation Quarterly make culture or perform one of the many inadequate engagements that you cover in your book (consume, copy, critique, et cetera)? How might you critique what people like us at TOJ are doing?
Andy Crouch (AC): I loved editing re:generation Quarterly. For me the greatest value of it was that it lifted me out of the wonderful but necessarily small world of evangelical campus ministry and helped me to meet people who were faithfully serving Christ (or in some cases faithfully seeking truth in the absence of faith in Christ) in all sorts of different ecclesial, vocational, and political contexts. (For example, I got to know serious, thoughtful Christian political conservatives for the first time.) I think that rich mix of voices made re:generation Quarterly much better. It also, however, made it dauntingly difficult to find readers and funders, who naturally tend to look for publications and projects that single-mindedly advance their point of view.
Did we cultivate and create culture, or were we just copying and critiquing it? I don’t think we were copying culture, because there simply wasn’t anything quite like what we were doing anywhere else! Of course every act of culture-making is, as I say in the book, first of all an act of culture-keeping. We were borrowing from, imitating, and passing on the form of the quarterly magazine (although with a sharper graphic design than quarterlies traditionally have), the journal of ideas (although with a lighthearted voice rather than a serious ponderousness), and to a lesser extent, the sensibility of other influential magazines of that moment like Wired and Fast Company (but with less tolerance, I hope, for hyperbole and exclamation marks).
One of the trickiest questions is whether, as a Christian magazine that served a largely Christian readership, we were genuinely “making culture” or whether we were simply serving as a kind of highbrow version of, say, contemporary Christian music—essentially just serving a subculture.
I’ve made my peace with that question. I am a Christian writer, editor, and producer, and I’m called to serve the church with Christian books, magazines, and films. I can’t even write about shaving without writing about the gospel (http://www.culture-making.com/articles/best_a_man_can_get)! That doesn’t mean that every book written by Christians needs to have the kind of explicit Christian content that my own work has. But we should have some serious and excellent cultural goods that do have that content, and I hope I can spend my life cultivating work like that. I also hope that my work, including re:generation Quarterly, has encouraged many followers of Christ to go out and create cultural goods that do reach a very broad, largely secular public.
I think what saved re:generation Quarterly from being merely subcultural is that we weren’t afraid of the world. I think that the Christian subculture, in its least helpful forms, derives its isolation from a fear of contagion. It’s a fear I just don’t strongly feel—even as the parent of children. Of course our culture is broken, insidiously so. But so is every culture. Our culture is also marked by grace and beauty, as is every culture. I don’t think our posture at re:generation Quarterly was ever one of withdrawing from “the world,” even while we were constantly asking ourselves whether the church was becoming too comfortable with the forms of “the world.”
TOJ: You’ve been interviewed by lots of people for your book Culture Making, and given that the meta-theme of your book is that we need to be creators of culture, what has it been like making this pitch to what seems like Christians across the theological and political spectrum? Have people understood what you are trying to do? Are you encouraged?
AC: I’m struck by how very eager almost everyone is to embrace this idea. We intuitively sense the futility of sitting around condemning, critiquing, copying, and consuming. People are tremendously energized by the idea that Christians could be (and in fact are) innovators and contributors to culture. They also are surprisingly open to what I think is the more radical idea in the book, namely that the whole biblical story begins and ends with culture—that culture is, in a word, God’s idea, even more so in some ways than the church. It’s been quite encouraging.
TOJ: In this political season, as discourse and debate gets uglier and uglier, Christian buttons seem to get pushed often and hard—for example, abortion, freedom of religion, gay marriage, morality concerns, stem cell research. And it seems that whether the powers that be are on the left or the right, they kind of have our number; these politicians and their political system are able to read and manipulate evangelical Christians through fear tactics. That said, if we’re going to make culture on a large scale, perhaps it should be about resisting fear, and at least as Christians, if there is fear, it won’t be grounded in fear of God. So as a prolegomena to the election, how can we be creating cultures that transcend the fear-based rhetoric that guides the democratic discussion?
AC: Among many evangelical Christians I am finding exhaustion with politics as a means of cultural change. I don’t actually think this is entirely a good thing, but I think it reflects the hubris that accompanied a certain kind of conservative political activism, a hubris that has received its just deserts in recent years.
The truth is that Christians need to be more seriously engaged in politics, not less. But we need to be seriously engaged, not just mobilized as a voting bloc that will reliably and dutifully press the lever when offered certain Pavlovian stimuli. (The Center for Public
Justice is a model of this good kind of Christian political engagement.) I worry sometimes that younger Christians, in particular, are becoming too unserious about politics as a reaction to the previous decades’ infatuation with it—not least on issues of vulnerability at the beginning and end of life. The way a society treats its unborn children and its aging and infirm elders is of utmost importance, and just because certain Republican activists leveraged that into an all too superficial way of manipulating votes (with few results to show for it) doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be engaging in all kinds of political activity to insist that both Republicans and Democrats protect human life from conception to natural death. There is a hot-button, Pavlovian way to engage those issues, and there is a deeply serious way to engage them, and we need to learn the latter.
Ultimately, though, politics is the “art of the possible.” In my book I say that culture quite literally defines “the horizons of the possible and the impossible,” meaning that politics and politicians are always going to operate within the boundaries that culture has set more broadly. Our ultimate hope is not in winning a few more marginal points in an electoral contest, but in creating new forms of culture that simply render some things possible that were never possible before, and vice versa. We have made strides toward this in the area of abortion, where Christians have created hundreds or perhaps thousands of small organizations around the country that provide credible, life-giving options for adoption. But honestly we could do so much more in that area. Likewise with elder care, where our society very soon will be facing overwhelming pressure to allow Baby Boomers to kill themselves when they reach a certain stage of age and disability, unless someone has created dignified, hospitable, communal ways to serve people who can no longer live independently. I’m not at all optimistic that the government or the market is going to come up with such options—it will have to be people of faith who are motivated by a radical ethic of servanthood. I hope we rise to the challenge.
TOJ: The primary buzz word for the upcoming election appears to be change. For many people it seems the desire is to elect the right person into presidential office so that our responsibility is done, and we can be content that we have done our part to change the world. It seems the promises of both parties during this election season might pacify the nation into believing that our primary task is to vote, perhaps campaign well for our preferred candidate, and then let the system work. Yet followers of Christ are not meant to be mere cogs in the political process or constituents in important voting blocks. How do you see the Christian call to culture-making within the political process in general and within this particular upcoming election, especially in contrast to the understanding that our role in the political sphere is about nothing more than choosing and throwing our support behind a particular nominee?
AC: There are two words that are used pervasively to describe Americans in 2008 that were very rare indeed in 1908: “voters” and “consumers.” Indeed, these are by far the most common two words used when writers or broadcasters need a shorthand for the whole American population. By way of contrast, I think that if you looked at newspapers from 1908 you’d find that by far the most common word was “citizens.”
The gap between citizens, on the one hand, and consumers and voters, on the other hand, is instructively wide. Both consumers and voters are ultimately defined by a very thin activity: making a choice among available (and often limited) options. Citizenship, on the other hand, is a thick idea. It entails not just voting (nor for that matter just consuming), but a multifaceted participation in a shared public life. We actually still recognize this in the relatively stringent requirements for the test that immigrants who would be citizens must take, a test that ensures that they know something about the history and the Constitution of the United States—and if Jay Leno’s person-on-the-street interviews are any guide, new citizens know a great deal more than most native-born voters!
So our culture-making call, as it applies to citizenship, is no more to be mere voters than our role in the economy is just to be consumers. Of course the political class would be delighted to have docile voters who simply pull a lever, but in the long run, seeing ourselves as mere voters will starve our political system of what it needs to be effective: informed, creative voters of all faiths and all political philosophies, engaged in serious debate and activity toward the common good.
TOJ: With the choice of Sarah Palin as McCain’s running mate, it seems that we are teetering on engaging the culture wars of the last twenty-five years. People are inspired, bewildered, passionate, and angry. I don’t know about you, but this election is dividing a lot of Christians in my community, and it seems that whoever is defining the narrative of this election, it is setting up a deeper national split. What are your thoughts on transcending the culture wars? Can we do that?
AC: Unfortunately, there is some inescapable truth to the metaphor of culture wars. But in my view, Governor Palin’s candidacy has needlessly conflated two very different kinds of cultural conflict.
There are things that are worth fighting for—not necessarily in the literal sense of war, but certainly in the sense of being willing to suffer the coercive power of the state and the sanctions of mainstream culture should one find oneself in the minority. Primary among them must be the inalienable dignity of every human person, including those not yet born and those who cannot function as “productive” members of society due to disability or age. A much more complicated yet inescapably important cultural issue is calling our society, for its own long-term health, to value in law and practice lifelong marriages between a man and a woman—even if we might grant some kind of legal accommodation to various sorts of partnerships besides marriage (as we already do to divorce). These are genuinely difficult and divisive issues that go to the very heart of what our culture will value and make possible and impossible, and I don’t see how you can deny the fact that the disagreements over these issues, and the political energy that is being devoted to them, is at least war by other means. War is also an inescapable metaphor since, in the long run, the coercive power of the state will be brought to bear definitively for one side and against the other.
But there’s another kind of culture war that is much more to the point of Governor Palin’s candidacy, and that is the mutual disdain between what you might call heartland culture and coastal culture—or populism and cosmopolitanism. The way both sides have played up this conflict has been shameful and exploitative. It really has nothing to do with the serious issues at stake and the important conversations we need to have about supporting women faced with an unexpected pregnancy, holding men accountable for the support and nurture of the children they father, strengthening couples trying to stay married in an environment that offers almost no cultural support for the fantastically difficult project of lifelong fidelity, and protecting marriage while guarding the civil rights of people who find themselves with all kinds of sexual orientations and gender identities that don’t fit neatly into normative societal categories or accord with Christian convictions. The most disappointing thing about Governor Palin, who certainly seems to be an honorable person in many respects, is how ill-equipped she seems to be to foster anything other than a knee-jerk, g-droppin’ invocation of mutual stereotypes. Sigh.
TOJ: I thought your chapter “Power in Changing Culture” was wonderful, where you juxtaposed the two most popular female leaders of the twentieth century, Mother Theresa and Princess Diana. In that chapter, you mention that none of us will be like Princess Diana—we don’t have the looks, pedigree, ability to communicate effectively on such an international platform, et cetera, and so many things are absolutely stopping us from being like her—however, nothing is stopping us from being like Mother Theresa. They are at opposite ends of a power continuum, yet they both worked for change in important ways. Each had power, because as you point out in the book cultural power is necessary to introduce cultural goods in a meaningful way. Yet you write well about the vast difference between how each handled their power: Whereas Princess Diana constantly managed her power and image, Mother Theresa continually emptied herself of power in service to others. How would you say Christians should live in relationship to power?
AC: Sex, money, and power are the three perennial arenas of both blessing and temptation for human beings. We spend much more time in most Christian circles talking about the first two, to the neglect of the third. But the first two do provide a good template for how we might learn to approach power. Take sex, for example. There is almost universal Christian agreement these days that sex is a gift, yet it is a gift that requires carefully chosen limits to bear fruit, and outside of those limits it can be almost uniquely destructive to human personhood and relationship, precisely because of how closely woven it is into human being and blessing. So the answer is not, as previous eras might have thought, to somehow try to reject and avoid sex; nor is it to treat sex as basically inconsequential, so that we can do whatever feels good. No, what we do is take it seriously as a blessing—but a blessing that can be misused and thus requires careful stewardship.
I think our approach to power should be fundamentally the same. Almost by definition, you need power to create culture—because every act of creativity requires the assent of a “public” to whom the cultural good is offered, and power can be defined as, in one way or another, the ability to gain that assent. That is good. But power—because it cuts so close to the very essence of the purpose of human being: to create in the image of God—is like sex and money in that its misuse can easily distort and destroy the misuser as well as those around him or her.
This is what happened, as near as I can tell, to Lady Diana, who was eventually consumed, if Tina Brown’s biography is to be believed, with the vain (in every sense) attempt to manage her celebrity, which is to say, her cultural power. When we try to grasp power, to grab and manage it, it turns on us. Mother Teresa had a very different approach. She certainly was not camera-shy—she didn’t try to divest herself of her considerable power to persuade and motivate others. But she continually cleansed herself of the worst that power could do by proximity to the powerless, by serving them and spending her power on them rather than on her own power and image. Of course she was also a person of deep prayer, which is probably the only way to survive possessing great cultural power. One of the very sad subplots of Diana’s story is the way that she was increasingly consumed with consulting various practitioners of astrology and occult practices—the sign of a desperate quest for supernatural resources to manage her power. But she was looking in exactly the wrong place, in forms of spirituality that play upon a twisted human quest for more power, more leverage over the world, rather than in the abandonment of self and death to self that true prayer in Christ leads us toward.
This is one of the scary things about having written a book about culture-making! Ultimately, if we take this calling seriously we realize that we are being called to take up our God-given power to create. Yet if we know ourselves at all, that should drive us to prayer. As I say in the book, the adage that you should “pray as if it all depended on God, and work as if it all depended on you,” gets it exactly backwards. I pray as if it all depended on me—because the thought that it might all depend on me is terrifying and drives me to fasting and prayer! And I work as if it all depends on God—because it does, and that is wonderful, freeing, life-giving news. It is ultimately God’s power that is at work in every act of Christian culture-making: “In the Lord your labor is not in vain.”