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Book review: Culture Making

Is Andy Crouch right to challenge how Christians have attempted to ‘change the world’?

Written in 2008, Culture Making was Andy Crouch’s first book, but it continues to resonate today for those interested in cultural engagement and social transformation.

Crouch argues that Christians have spent time and energy condemning, critiquing, copying and consuming culture, either in an effort to seem relevant’ to the world, or in a failure to express any distinction from it. He suggests that the only way to change culture is to create more of it… If culture is to change, it will be because some new tangible (or audible or visible or olfactory) thing is presented to a wide enough public that it begins to reshape their world.” 

The book is divided into three parts. Part 1, Culture’, outlines the cultural strategies listed above, with a mixture of biblical, sociological and cultural analysis. Crouch gives examples from all areas of culture (including art, language and business) where the strategies he rejects have failed, as well as examples where creating culture has succeeded in bringing cultural change. 

The book gets a little convoluted with the introduction of a lot of different terms and vocabularies. For example, Crouch suggests that the strategies’ he has rejected do have value as gestures’ (eg critiquing culture doesn’t change it, but sometimes critiquing a specific cultural artefact’ is the right thing to do). However, these gestures should not become postures’ (ie permanent attitudes towards all of culture).

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Crouch seems to treat all culture making, or artefact making, the same, which comes across as a little contrived; I don’t think creating an omelette really has the same cultural impact as creating the internet! Though it does enable Crouch to demonstrate that culture making is not an action limited to the powerful or those in senior leadership, but something that all Christians can engage with on some level. The central argument, that Christians who want to influence culture need to create fresh cultural artefacts, is a compelling one.

Part 2, Gospel’, offers the story of culture as told through the pages of scripture”. For me, this was the least thought-provoking part of the book. I felt Crouch had already done a good job of highlighting scriptural support for his approach in part 1, and there were few ideas in part 2 that I had not already encountered from other writers and speakers. Nevertheless, I appreciate the value Crouch places on the biblical text by devoting a full third of the book to its exploration. And for those who have not thought much about culture making in the Bible, it is a good overview of the topic. No doubt when Crouch wrote Culture Making, it was much more relevant and novel than it appears to me now, as many Christian thought-leaders I have heard from have been influenced by his work.

Part 3, Calling’, explores the limitations and opportunities of the change the world’ narrative. Crouch examines the role of competing cultural goods and the conditions required for culture change. He also scrutinises the role of power and service for Christians (a topic that requires much more attention in the Christian world), exploring the roles of both the powerful and the powerless in God’s mission. Crouch then looks at the role of community in change making, bypassing the famous quote by American cultural anthropologist Margaret Mead about a small group of thoughtful, committed people” in favour of a module of concentric circles of 3, 12 and 120. I thoroughly agree with this model, but the insistence on using these particular numbers in order to fit the pattern of Jesus’ followers, even when giving countless examples that don’t perfectly fall in line, seems overindulgent. Simply arguing for a small core committed group, a slightly wider group of volunteers’ and a broader group of first followers’, would make the same point.

All in all, Culture Making remains a worthwhile read for anyone seeking to make a difference in the world, whether that’s campaigning for environmental issues, considering the role of Christians in filmmaking, or wondering how to be a Christian leader in finance. It’s a great book to read with others in your church or in a workplace Christian fellowship, and there is a helpful discussion guide available free of charge on Crouch’s website.

We ask all participants of the Public Leader: England course to read Culture Making before the course begins. Our reason for choosing this particular book, of the many out there on leadership, culture and social transformation, can perhaps be summed up in these words from Crouch:

“Transformed culture is at the heart of God’s mission in the world, and it is the call of God’s redeemed people. But changing the world is the one thing we cannot do. As it turns out, fully embracing this paradoxical reality is at the very heart of what it means to be a Christian culture maker.”

We seek to encourage and equip Christians for leadership in the places where God has called them, but we know that ultimately, it is God who builds His kingdom. We are simply asked to be obedient to Him in accepting the opportunities He gives us to be part of the story.

Crouch says little explicitly in the book about formation and discipleship, about how Christians can ensure that they are culture making in a way that is obedient to God. The danger of focusing on the products and projects of culture making, rather than the people that lead culture making, is that we can very easily get distracted and lose our focus on God. I would, therefore, advise anyone reading Culture Making to also read something like In search of the common good by Jake Meador or Strengthening the Souls of Your Leadership by Ruth Haley Barton, which have more in this area. 

About the author

Abi Jarvis is the public leadership coordinator at the Evangelical Alliance, seeking to equip Christians with the skills and confidence to be leaders in the places where God has called them. She has responsibility for the SENT course and the Public Leader: England curriculum.

Abi has a BA in Ancient History and an MSc in Political Communication. She enjoys going to the theatre, watches too many American TV dramas, and somehow became responsible for daily office exercises despite her hatred of all things sporty.

Much to her dismay, Abi ticks the box for pretty much every stereotypical feature of a PK – a pastor's kid.

See more from Abi Jarvis

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