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Material Boy: On Artifacts, Discernment, and Elites

Andy Crouch’s Culture Making, is an important book written by an insightful writer. It warrants wide discussion. It is also strangely troubling. Perhaps this is by design: the sting of Socrates’ gadfly. It got me irritated enough to get on a train and go visit the author in person. This review benefits greatly from our three-hour conversation.

Crouch is the editorial director of the Christian Vision Project at Christianity Today and sits on the editorial board of Books & Culture. He is a major voice in the future of the church.

Andy summarizes his core message in a recent interview.

Cultural transformation is something that a lot of Christians talk about and aspire to. We want to be a part of transforming culture. The question is, how is culture transformed? Does it happen just because we think more about culture, or because we pay more attention to culture? As I was thinking about cultural transformation I became convinced that culture changes when people actually make more and better culture. If we want to transform culture, what we actually have to do is to get into the midst of the human cultural project and create some new cultural goods that reshape the way people imagine and experience their world. So culture-making answers the “how” question rather than just “what” we are about. We seek the transformation of every culture but how we do it is by actually making culture.

It would be hard to argue with him. Talk is cheap and thinking only the first step. Let’s get after it and start being creative. As Andy puts it, we need more artists, fewer art critics. We need to stop wagging our fingers at a culture produced by others — no matter the brilliance or winsomeness of the wagging — and start getting dirt under our fingernails by being a part of the solution. This book is a clarion call to evangelicals to get busy in the process of culture making.

When I contacted Andy, I let him know that I had written a very negative review of his book — subsequently moderated by our conversation — but that I wanted to be fair in my assessment. We had never met, which is a bit of a coincidence with our overlapping interests and circle of friends. There is no substitute for face-to-face talking. Our visit reminded me that written words — Andy’s or mine — never fully express what we want to say. I am indebted to those who suggested that we meet; I learned a great deal from our conversation and made a new friend.

After hearing me out, Andy organized our discussion around three topics: 1) Culture as artifact, 2) The place of cultural discernment, and 3) The role of elites in culture making.

Culture as Artifact
Andy is critical of the Hegelian or Gnostic tendency among evangelicals, the tendency to see everything as an expression of ideas. A narrow focus on worldview often falls into this trap. Culture is more than philosophy writ large. Ideas lived are always mediated through things. It is cultural artifacts — like highway systems and iPods — that shape the way we encounter the world. Most evangelicals think nothing of the Pill and yet here is a technology that has had far reaching social implications. Few evangelicals are aware that until the 1930s all Christian traditions and Protestant denominations were uniformly against contraceptive technologies. We make culture and in turn culture makes us.

Andy’s thinking is influenced by Catholic philosopher Albert Borgmann whose work explores the role of technology in modern life. Andy’s essay, available on his website, “Eating the Supper of the Lamb in a Cool Whip Society,” provides a good overview of Borgmann’s work. Technology changes the way we see and engage the world. Things we make, use, and consume shape our “horizons of possibility.”

My concern with Andy’s definition of culture is that he has made it too narrow. In leaning against the overly ideational, he has fallen off the horse on the other side, making culture too material. When I suggested that he was a cultural materialist, he acknowledged the emphasis.

Crouch quotes cultural analyst Ken Myers who states, “Culture is what we make of the world.” The emphasis for Andy is on the word, make. For Myers, the emphasis is on the word, world. He is concerned that our culture making be conformed to God’s creational order. He writes, “Cultural institutions and forms are not to be arbitrarily or capriciously or willfully engineered and selected, but developed and approved in harmony, in faithful resonance with the order God has established in the cosmos. Culture is the cultivation of created nature. Healthy cultural forms are faithful to creation, and unhealthy cultural forms are the product of human desire suppressing or denying the created order.” Myers never sees cultural artifacts in isolation from the stories they tell. “We cannot understand the meaning of this moment in our culture’s life apart from some knowledge of the story that preceded it. Cultural phenomena are not static and frozen bundles of meaning. They carry momentum. They came from somewhere, and we can’t be wise about where they are likely to be going if we are ignorant about the trajectories they are fulfilling.”

Andy knows that cultural artifacts carry meaning, but his book focuses on the artifact as artifact not as a package of ideas and images. He gives us five questions to ask of any cultural artifact. It is his second question where he intends to cover this aspect. But it is less than clear, because the question seems to conflate the function of an artifact with its culturally derived meaning.

1. What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world is?
2. What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world should be?
3. What does this cultural artifact make possible?
4. What does this cultural artifact make impossible?
5. What new forms of culture are created in response to this artifact?

When we make something, imagine a T-shirt, we make something to wear. But an artifact is more than its function. Most people don’t buy T-shirts; they buy a certain kind of T-shirt. Products are always more than a product. A brand is a product telling a story. When we buy an Abercrombie & Fitch T-shirt, we identify with their story, not merely the threads. “Tell me what you buy and I’ll tell you who you are, and who you want to be,” writes James Twitchell in his book, Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism.

So when we make something, even a T-shirt, we do so in a larger social context of meaning. It is never value or worldview neutral — its “thingness” is suffused with an invisible “meaningfulness.” It is the creation and constraint of these socially derived meaning systems that frame everything that we think, say, do, and make that we call “culture.”

Culture making is a three-step process. Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann write, “Society is a human product (externalization); society is an objective reality (objectification); and man is a social product (internalization).”
Step One: We make our world.
Step Two: The world creates and limits our horizons of possibilities.
And finally Step Three: These horizons of possibilities shape our consciousness.

Generally speaking, when sociologists talk about culture and cultural production, they are normally referring to Step Three — the matrix of ideas and images as mediated by reality-defining institutions. Andy’s definition of culture seems to limit the process to Step One and Two. The significance of artifacts is not merely their overt function, but their covert meaning — meanings that impinge themselves on our individual and collective consciousness. It is this matrix-like character — its ubiquitous taken-for-grantedness — that makes culture so powerful in shaping our lives.

Requirement of Discernment
If cultural artifacts from omelets to lattes are carriers of meaning (“Is this a ‘heart-healthy’ omelet made from range-free eggs high in Omega-3 fatty acids?” or “Does America run on Starbucks?”), then they require discernment both in their making and using. If we are to avoid the worldliness of being “squeezed into the world’s mold” (Romans 12:2), then we must understand its contemporary contours and develop disciplines of cognitive and embodied resistance. Culture is always a mixed bag. Some of it reflects the good, true, and beautiful promoting human flourishing and some supports an idolatry of self and its inevitable deathwork. Sadly, the latter dominates our contemporary society. Craig Gay writes, “Although the temptation to worldliness is obviously not new, the extent to which modern societies provide structural and institutional support for a practically atheistic view of life is quite remarkable. Perhaps at no other time in history has the structural coherence of a social order depended less upon religion and/or theological understanding than it does today in modern societies.” Ours is an unprecedented and unsustainable deathwork matrix.

Recently, I challenged a church youth group’s use of video games to reach middle school boys. New York Times reporter Matt Richtel described how evangelical youth ministers use the notoriously realistic, violent, and wildly popular video game, Halo 3, as a way of attracting young teenage boys to hear the gospel (“Thou Shalt Not Kill, Except in a Popular Video Game at Church,” October 7, 2007).

Because of its graphic violence, Halo 3 has an “M for mature audience” rating. One must be over 17 years old to purchase the game. But to reach young middle school boys, youth leaders are holding large multi-screen Halo 3 competitions in church basements.

Even more surprising to me was the ambivalent response of such cultural watchdogs as Focus on the Family who went ethically weak-kneed on the appropriateness of using Halo 3 for teen evangelism. “We’re still trying to figure out what is our official view on it,” said Lisa Anderson.

“It’s just fun blowing people up,” said Tim Foster, age 12, playing Halo 3 in front of the video screen provided for him at Colorado Community Church. Halo 3 composer Marty O’Donnel, a serious believer, wrote me claiming that organizing Halo 3 competitions at church was no different than organizing a game of Ultimate Frisbee. Something seemed lost in translation.

It is not just the violence involved in this particular video game that should raise concern, but the widespread tendency to blur the distinction between virtual and actual reality. Whether Halo 3, Second Life, Facebook, MySpace, Grand Thief Auto IV, these artifacts and the attitudes they encourage, like the Pill, have enormous long-term consequences.

Likewise, Ken Myers recently commented about the dust up over Milie Cyrus’ Vanity Fair photo. The problem is more than a sexualized pose by a family-friendly Disney icon, but as Myers points out, the overriding cult of celebrity that the Hannah Montana phenomenon promotes among young girls. To squawk about the pic is to miss the pattern.

In both cases, discernment is needed, not simply about the obvious issues of sex and violence, but about the wider cultural context in which these specific artifacts operate. Andy certainly agrees with the need for disciplined resistance to patterns of cultural idolatry. It is an evident characteristic of his family life as well as his other writing (see “Live More Musically”), but it doesn’t come through as strongly in this book. Granted he wanted to make a statement about our positive role in culture making. But in criticizing those who are engaged in cultural critique, he fails to acknowledge that critique must go hand-in-hand with creativity. “Just do it” works as a slogan for Nike. It doesn’t work for culture making. This is a reason why those in the business of making things must consider more than the bottom-line. Cultural discernment must be joined with cultural making.

Role of Elites
As we talked, Andy and I acknowledged a different emphasis on the first point and a general agreement on the second, though tactically underdeveloped in his book. On the third point, we acknowledged some disagreement. My suspicion is that he is biased by latent evangelical anti-institutional market populism. His suspicion is that I’m simply unbiblical, conforming to a sociological rather than a Scriptural paradigm. Neither of us would be happy with either characterization. So let’s unpack the suspicions a bit further.

Andy argues that individuals make culture. It’s our biblical responsibility to do so. We make culture by making things. We change culture by making new things. “Culture changes when new cultural goods, concrete, tangible artifacts, whether books or tools or buildings — are introduced into the world.” He claims that we cannot “change the world” because we cannot anticipate or dictate how any cultural artifact will be accepted by others. For him, cultural goods function largely according to the rules of market exchange. “Investing,” he writes, “is basically a way of placing bets on which cultural goods will grow in world-changing importance.” Society turns out to be merely a collection of individuals consuming a collection of cultural goods and thereby mutually influencing each other’s horizons of possibilities.

Individuals Make Things + People Experience Things = Horizons of Possibilities
Here is how he describes the process:

Culture requires a public: a group of people who have been sufficiently affected by a cultural good that their horizon of possibility and impossibility have in fact been altered, and their own cultural activity has been spurred, by that good’s experience.

Surprisingly, for a book entitled, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, Andy has a chapter entitled, “Why We Can’t Change the World.” “Changing the world is the one thing we cannot do,” he writes. We can make things, but we cannot control the impact of the things we make on any other person and consequently on the culture at large. Consumer choice remains sacred for cultural goods cannot be forced. In effect, I can make an omelet, but I can’t force it down your throat. Moreover, we can’t change the world because the reach of any particular cultural good is limited and its impact unpredictable. Apparently, we have to leave such world changing to Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand.”

The end of this thinking is a glaring paradox: God calls us to do what we cannot do. This should raise a question in the mind of the reader: Does God ever ask us to do what we cannot do?

So we are confronted with a paradox. Culture — making something of the world, moving the horizons of possibility and impossibility — is what human beings do and are meant to do. 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 the very heart of what it means to be a Christian culture maker.

This apparent paradox stems from Andy’s narrow understanding of culture as artifact. Whereas individuals make things, the meanings things carry are institutionally mediated. Artifacts are cultural only to the extent that they are carriers of ideas and images that are mediated by reality-defining institutions. The things we make are more than merely things; they are packages of carefully selected ideas and images. Dallas Willard writes, “Ideas and images are the primary focus of Satan’s efforts to defeat God’s purposes with and for mankind. When we are subject to his chosen ideas and images, he can take a nap or go on holiday.” Herein lies the power of culture. One of the central lessons from Randall Collins’ seminal book, The Sociology of Philosophies, is that the actor on the stage of cultural change is institutions, not individuals. So the big picture looks more like this:

Images + Institutions = Culture

In contrast, Andy’s picture gets reduced to this:

Individuals + Items = Culture
If cultural change is mediated through reality-defining institutions such as the academy, art, media, advertising, and entertainment, then those individuals who have the economic (wealth), social (networks), and cultural (intelligence) capital to serve as gatekeepers in these institutions — otherwise known as cultural elites — have a disproportionate influence in providing the meanings that are attached to this or that cultural item. They choose the stories that the cultural artifacts tell. If this is the case, then cultural change does not happen according to the rules of market exchange as Andy suggests, but on the basis of institutional access. Thus, cultural change does not happen from the bottom-up via mass markets, but top-down via gatekeeping elites. The tactical implications are enormous. For if a particular social group is not a part of the cultural gatekeeping conversation, then they are not a part of the conversation that shapes culture. Surely this is the obvious subtext to Michael Lindsay’s recent book, Faith in the Halls of Power.

It is helpful to talk about scale. Not all of us are called to play the game on the national field. But the rules of the game are the same no matter what the scale. The basic principles for sailing a Laser are the same as sailing an America’s Cup yacht. Little League plays by the same basic rules as Major League Baseball. In fact, it is only at the local level or at the smaller scale that a person can explore his or her abilities and be effectively apprenticed in becoming a winsome contributor to culture making. It is faithfulness in small places and little things that equips one to be faithful in bigger arenas and larger things. This is the lesson of Jesus’ parable about the wise and faithful servant in Matthew 24:45-51.

Our personal role is shaped by ability, opportunity, and calling. But we’d be strategically wrong to assume that Little League is the same thing as Major League. As a teacher and coach, it is my responsibility to maximize the God-given potential of my students and athletes. To settle for anything less is to bury talent in the ground out of fear rather than investing it wisely with entrepreneurial initiative. We are spiritually accountable for our time and talents. World changing begins in our own backyards. We don’t start in Darfur or Hollywood or Beijing. There is work to do, preparation required: serious study and bracing disciplines that maximize our potential. We may never play in Carnegie Hall, but every concert pianist begins by practicing the same scales as the novice. We practice with diligence and God opens the doors.

Andy is suspicious about this entire project. “Beware of world changers — they have not yet learned the true meaning of sin,” he warns. There is a kind of hubris that often aligns itself to these discussions. The subtlety of pride is manifold. But ambition is not wrong if it is zeal for the kingdom of God. One needs to be ambitious in one’s calling. Ambition for self is a sin, ambition for God, a virtue. William Carey reminds us to “Expect great things from God; attempt great things for God.” It is certainly true that some of the talk about cultural transformation ends up being about secondary agendas such as saving Western Civilization, America, the Republican Party, or the evangelical church. None of these things are the kingdom of God.

But to be agents of shalom in a deathwork culture, does not require being naive to the dynamics of culture. Suspicion of elites, negative rhetoric against individuals or groups with economic, cultural, and social capital, arose with the Second Great Awakening and has furthered an egalitarian envy that has marginalized the evangelical church ever since. George Steiner warns, “The egalitarian ideal seeks to domesticate excellence.” Capital demands strategic stewardship, not self-righteous abdication. Poverty — as in the absence of economic capital — is not spiritual. Dallas Willard writes, “The idealization of poverty is one of the most dangerous illusions of Christians in the contemporary world. Stewardship — which requires possession and includes giving – is the true spiritual discipline in relation to wealth.” So too cultural and social capital. If evangelicals find themselves in the halls of power, then they are compelled to use their power wisely, which requires that they acquire theological and cultural discernment. And yet Andy counsels against being strategic. He writes, “The most important discipline here is to resist strategy – to avoid plotting our way into greater cultural influence.” Neither the Clapham Sect in their fight against slavery nor the gay and lesbian alliance in their efforts to gain mainstream acceptance of homosexuality followed this advice.

Andy recognizes this at some level, but wrestles with how to connect these observations to the patterns of God’s actions in history — God’s proclivity for the unexpected, the marginal, the small. The Incarnation, Mary, Bethlehem, twelve fishermen, two loaves and five fish all seem to stand in stark contrast. He writes, “God’s intervention in human culture will be unmistakably marked by grace — it will not be the inevitable working out of the world’s ways of cultural change, the logical unfolding of preexisting power and privilege. Whenever God steps into human history, the mountains will be leveled and the valleys will be raised up.” We must take seriously Paul’s words in I Corinthians 1:26-29:

Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many of noble birth. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things — and the things that are not — to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him.

Clearly, the good news of the gospel is that its resources are available to all – to those who have no standing in human society. But this verse and other verses like them cannot be used to justify poverty, ignorance, or inaction. Moses was educated in the courts of Pharaoh, but his preparation was useless to God until he was broken in the desert of Midian. At the burning bush we find a different Moses who God now calls into leadership. Evangelicals must be careful not to read these verses through the lens of an anti-intellectual egalitarian populism that justifies our growing public irrelevance.

My fear is that Andy’s call to individual localism — gather a group of friends around you and make things — will only serve to further the evangelical church’s proclivity for cultural cul-de-sacs. Surely this is not his intent, but it is how I fear his book will be embraced. His trumpet blast sounds more like retreat than advance.

Meanwhile, Ed Keller and Jon Berry argue in The Influentials that one in ten Americans are those who make society, culture and the marketplace run. While Crouch champions local populism, David Rothkopf describes in Superclass: The Global Power Elite and the World They Are Making how 6,000 people have the ability to regularly influence the lives of millions of people in multiple countries worldwide. While Crouch warns against being intentional about making a cultural difference, the authors of Influencer: The Power to Change Anything tell story after story of people who have made a huge difference in the lives of others by learning the best practices of social change. While Crouch is skeptical of strategic cultural thinking, every day we experience the foresight, savvy, and initiative of Jewish cultural creatives and gay social activists.

Among David’s mighty men were the sons of Issachar who understood the times and knew what Israel should do. Not all of his men were called to this task or gifted for it, but some were. We need such men and women today. For the stakes are high and the implications lasting. The church needs the right people in the right places with the right stuff. Our task always begins wherever we are with whomever we are with. But we would be foolish not to strategically encourage those who have the gifts, opportunity, and calling to winsomely and wisely enter the institutions of cultural production. For the stories we tell soon become the lives we lead.