What does “culture making” look like? Any form of creativity would qualify. Artists, composers, authors, dancers, singers and many other members of the arts do it all the time. Yet, this creativity extends to a variety of other platforms, such as cooking, programming, building, plumbing (I have seen some very unusual plumbing creativity in my house), dress making, marketing – you get the point. You cannot live without making culture on some level every day of your life.
Andy Crouch summarizes culture as whatever “human beings make of the world,” but he goes on to explain, “not everything that human beings make shapes culture” (Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling). Culture requires consumers, people who are affected by some cultural good in such a way that their own world is changed by it. Otherwise, the cultural good remains private.
One of my few culinary abilities is making chocolate peanut clusters. I learned to make them because I like to eat them. Normally, this cultural good, my creation (borrowed from someone else’s recipe), spreads its delectable influence to my immediate family. Then I made the mistake of sharing it at a gathering one time. Now, it is for both the Women’s Tea and the college student cookie packages. Its shaping influence grows as its public grows. The taste buds of more and more people activate when they think of my chocolate peanut clusters.
How far our culture making ripples extend depends upon how many people are affected by our creativity. The larger the scope of impact, the less that any one individual can claim responsibility. But all of us want to make some kind of impact on our world. In fact, God has created us for this. Christ followers are called to this. As salt and light, you and I should be finding ways to flavor our world for Christ every day. We are trusting God to bring people into our lives who need the love of Christ and forgiveness of God that the gospel promises.
One of the astonishing phenomena of the Christian story is its rapid rise to empire-proportions in only three centuries. Historical analysis removes any possibility of attributing this effect to Emperor Constantine solely. Rodney Stark has tackled this issue in his book, The Rise of Christianity. He notes that two major epidemics infected the Roman empire in the first few centuries after Christ, decimating the population by one-third each time. The plagues scared the priests and social leaders away. The only social network that remained intact was the church, which extended the compassion and mercy of the gospel to their suffering neighbors. “Many, in nursing and curing others, transferred their death to themselves and died in their stead.”
The care provided by Christ’s servants, however, rescued many lives from the plagues’ caskets. Stark calculates that even without medication, compassionate nursing cut the mortality rate by two-thirds in many cities. By the time the plagues had completed their lethal blitzkrieg through the empire, the survivors included Christians and a host of people who soon converted to Christ as a result of this display of sacrificial love. Crouch writes, “The church would grow not just because it proclaimed hope in the face of horror but because of the cultural effects of a new approach to the sick and dying, a willingness to care for the sick even at risk of death.”
The Christian Action Council organized two years after the Roe v. Wade decision legalized abortion in America. A small band of culture makers, including Billy Graham and pediatric surgeon, C. Everett Koop, formed this political action group to reverse legislation. Twenty-seven years later, the small gains pro-life political activists had made were virtually erased by the new president’s policies.
Six years after the CACs origin, it birthed a social action initiative, the Crisis Pregnancy Center. Crisis pregnancy centers have multiplied beyond 2,200 centers in the U.S., caring for women with unplanned pregnancies numbering in the millions. Care Net alone, with 1,100 centers, services over 350,000 women annually.
Here is culture making on a grand scale. We might consider one more example, though much less extensive in its scope. In recent years, authors and pundits have aimed their social critique at suburbia America. Home to densely populated isolated castles of the middle class, these “communities” typically offer little, if any, communal life to their residents. Connected only by property boundaries and utility lines, neighbors often do not even know each other’s names, much less anything about their lives.
One neighborhood, located in the 7800 block of N. Kilbourn, defies the trend. With a bit of culture making, some of the neighbors organized a block party with games and food for the entire family, dozens of them, lasting through the day and into a summer Saturday evening. These families connect in ways that reflect the communal nature of God’s social creatures.
We normally think of culture makers as those who possess power. But Crouch suggests a corrective. “There is another way to approach power. Rather than seeking to build our way to the pinnacle of power, we can make the move that God invites us to make: to see ourselves, in relationship to the world’s Creator, as in possession of more power than we could ever dream. Exodus and resurrection, the most dramatic divine interventions in history, both declare that there is a grace-filled power loose in the world that far outstrips our greatest human ambitions and can quiet our deepest human fears. We enter into the work of cultural creativity not as people who desperately need to strategize our way into cultural relevance, but as participants in a story of new creation that comes just when our power seems to have been extinguished. Culture making becomes not just the product of clever cultural strategy or the natural byproduct of inherited privilege, but the astonished and grateful response of people who have been rescued from the worst that culture and nature can do.”
Think about that while you make your dinner tonight.