Friday, August 22, 2008

Culture Making: Ch 1 - horizons of the possible.

In 1988, the summer between Junior and Senior years of my High School career, I attended the South Carolina Governor's School for the Arts as an acting student. It was a five week intensive experience that brought together students from many different disciplines to learn and create together with expert instructors. Part of the experience was living together in the dorms at Furman University.... and one night, a bunch of the guys on my hall were gathered in Shev Rush's room, having conversations that were deeper than anyone would give us credit for, but not as deep as we thought we were.

And somewhere we talked about why we make art. I forget all the things that were bounced around, but in that session, I proposed that we make art so that we can be more like God. After all, God made us in His image. God reveals himself as a creator, so therefore it makes sense that creativity is a part of being made in his image.

I wouldn't remember this conversation were it not for what happened later. Just a few days later, a famous producer came to speak to the entire school. After giving a rousing speech, he asked the same question "Why do we make art?" .... and one of the other guys (I can't for the life of me remember his name) stands up and says "So we can be more like God." I was grateful that someone else picked up on my idea, but also a little disgruntled that he was stealing my thunder. Until famous producer, puzzled look on his face, said "Yeah...OK...why else?" and the point was forgotten.

But not by me. I've stewed on and cogitated on the idea that a significant part (not the totality, but a part) of what it means to be made in the image of God is to be made to be a creator.... not ex nihilo, as God did at the beginning of the space/time continuum, but a creator nonetheless.

And this is exactly where Andy Crouch begins his book Culture Making. And so today, I begin my chapter by chapter reflections on this most important book. Crouch looks at God as both creator and ruler: “Creators are those who make something new; rulers are those who maintain order and separation.” He sees that maintaining of boundaries and order are what enable future creation in others. The ruler's job is to set the bounds...and strangely, bounds help unleash creativity. “So in a way the Creator’s greatest gift to his creation is the gift of structure – not a structure which locks the world, let alone the Creator himself, into eternal mechanical repetition, but a structure which provides freedom. And those who are made in his image will also be both creators and rulers.” (22)

And we as creatures find ourselves born into the midst of this already extant creation, and we have to "make something of the world" (Crouch borrows the turn of phrase from Ken Meyers). This making something comes in the sense of using raw materials to actually make things (chairs, buildings, roads, farms, dixie cups) and also the sense of applying our minds to make sense of our situation.

In this broad sense, culture is whatever we do when we make something of the world. Every meal we cook, every crossword puzzle we work on, every present we wrap, every plant we cultivate, every report we generate....all of it is making something of the world, whether or not we acknowledge it (I suggest that one of the great gifts of this text is to make us consciously aware of all our activity .... liberating us from timekillers so that we can be both purposeful in activity and restorative in liesure).

However our culture making also is combined with our capacity for wonder. A chimpanzee can make a tool, a human has the capacity for wondering at the purposefulness of tools and considering how good design can make tools wonderful.

Crouch then takes us another step, relying on Peter Berger's work in Sacred Canopy, showing that we enter into culture that already exists. We also must make something of that culture....and that culture shapes our horizons. The culture that my children have been born into, that of an urban American Citizen, is vastly different from the culture of the children of a Kalihari bushman. And vastly different from the culture that my great great grandparents were born into. There is a sense in which culture is a feedback loop....things are transmitted to us and we must make sense of them.

He acknowledges that no-one individual makes culture. We make cultural artifacts (and I would add, we create cultural experiences ... like concerts or summer camps or worship services or football games). Some of those artifacts will become big enough to be incorporated into the framework of the culture, and these artifacts (and expereinces) will expand the horizons of the possible for people across a culture at large.

For instance: the interstate highway system. in the 19th century, long distance travel was accomplished mainly by river or rail. Any educated person knew the geography of the US rivers and cities (including Cincinnati) grew up as major centers of culture because these were the artieries of transportation. However, when Eisenhower had returned from Germany after World War II, he knew that the United States would benefit from a highway system like the autobahns of Germany (Eisenhower knew this firsthand: in the 1920's, he had led a convoy of trucks from east coast to west, just to see if there were enough roads that could connect the major cities....perhaps this cultural experience primed him for being impressed by the autobahns).

Now the interstates are the arteries. They have made possible many things: cheap transport of goods, easy access of travel to millions, Cracker Barrel and Waffle House. However interstates have made other things impossible. It would be very hard to travel from Boston to Philadelphia via horse anymore....the system of inns and boarding houses that accomodated horses are all gone. Horses aren't allowed on interstates. Cultural artifacts (and experiences) not only make new things possible, they make some old things impossible.

So Crouch proposes 5 questions to ask of any given artifact in doing analysis:
1) what does this artifact (experience) assume about the world (interstates assume automobiles for instance. Cookbooks assume easy access to materials)
2) what does this artifact assume about how the world should be (interstates assume that easy travel is better than difficult travel)
3) what does this artifact make possible?
4) what does this artifact make impossible?
5) what new forms of culture are created in response to this artifact (AAA becomes much more popular in response to interstate highway system. profusions of stores at interstate exits. Attractions in various locales. The Billboard industry, etc).

Notice that his questions avoid the immediate value this good or bad. Crouch seems to lead us to ask a lot more questions before we get into the waters of making a value judgment.

So the challenges that come to my mind in this first chapter....the immediate questions that come to my mind.... what kind of cultural artifacts/experiences am I creating for my children/friends/readers/congregation members etc. I do things with my children that I think will be fun, but does it expand their horizons? How do I challenge our congregation members to make culture? How do I equip and empower them to?

Consider for instance the cultural artifact of the home .... a home is a constellation of a lot of cultural artifacts and experiences. In some ways, I think of it as a setting, a backdrop to culture making. However the setting sets the horizons for those who dwell in that setting.

The home in which I grew up was spacious. The most important setting for me was books. The house was saturated with books. The living room stretched along the back of the was painted white with beige carpet. Windows facing the southeast lined one whole side of the room, flooding it with light. the other side was floor to ceiling bookshelves, including a complete set of the World Book encyclopedias. Books were important.

The kitchen was huge, as was the back yard. Cooking and nature were always around me. Mom and dad are extroverts who enjoy I saw a parade of interesting people come through our home...somtimes in big parties, sometimes in intimate dinners. Though at times a 7 year old child might have been bored by the grownup conversation, I learned that having people in the home is "normal" and ought to be relaxed and fun.

Just in these two paragraphs, I see how the horizons of my world have been set differently than those of people raised in a different setting. It's not necessarily better or worse (that will depend on what I do with those horizons). I was not raised around farm animals, nor was I raised learning to make handcrafted items with power tools .... my horizons are limited there. That's not good or bad, it just is.

The question is, how can I be intentional about the setting, the environment in which I raise my children? In which I work on a daily basis?

And there is the value of the book. I hope it raises for you more questions....questions about the hows and wherefores of your own life...questions about how to be faithful even in your choice of home design or cooking choices.

More to come.....

Soli Deo Gloria