Can culture be transformed? Or does more evidence point to our being transformed by the culture?
One of the legacies of the Dutch theologian and statesman, Abraham Kuyper, has been the concept that we are to claim all of life and culture for God – to be transformers of the culture. This thinking has permeated churches in the Reformed (the theological approach, not just the denomination) tradition and those Christian day schools that have originated from the Christian Reformed Church in particular. We are proud of the fact that we do not simply advocate condemning and retreating from culture, but that we attempt to be counter-cultural, to be “in and not yet of” the culture we experience. If you were to survey Christian school mission statements you would find many phrases that reflect the belief that we are training children to be cultural transformers. Yet, how effective is this strategy? Is it working?
In his recent book, Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling, Andy Crouch calls into question our ability to transform culture by simply condemning, critiquing, copying or consuming culture (for greater description of these areas, read the book or this review. If we were to look at the area of media alone, we would have to admit that, despite our condemnation or critique of cultural slippage, we have not been very successful in changing the cultural landscape. There is simply too much media to critique and too little time for us to engage in advocating for long term, effective change. The premise of Crouch’s book is that, as Christians, we are called as image-bearers to create culture that reflects Christ.
This message would seem to resonate with the upcoming Millennial generation. They desire the real, the authentic, the hands-on, direct experiences of ministry, while the Boomers seem to have been more concerned about their own worship/church needs via an entertainment model and large church infrastructure. Despite the disconcerting aspects of large scale change and turmoil, my friend Rex Miller sees the focus of Millennial’s to be a very positive development as we move through these times of death and rebirth in our culture. See his recent article here.
While I agree with Crouch’s encouragement to individual Christians to make culture wherever they are planted, I also agree with John Seel’s concern with Crouch’s book that culture is not simply about individuals, it is also about the cultural gatekeepers within institutions who really control culture, a “super class” of perhaps 6,000 people within institutions who dramatically influence world culture. Seel emphasizes the need for student preparation and training in obedience – we don’t know if and when and how the students in our schools may be called into as an “influencer” or “cultural gatekeeper”, but need to practice with diligence in preparation for whatever work God calls them to do. Whether we focus on culture making from an individual or institutional standpoint, there is no substitute for Christian schools that help students develop discernment and Godly wisdom, all the while teaching them to work within and through community.
I really appreciated Crouch’s discussion of what he calls the two most compelling events of God’s intervention in culture in the Bible. He views these as instructive to our response to life in this present age. He points to the exodus of Israel and the resurrection of Christ as events that came to those who were powerless against, and crushed by, the dominant Egyptian and Roman cultures of the time. In that context, God reveals his power by working in the lives of the powerless. In an age where we have been seduced and then disenchanted by our “Christian” influence on the political process, where we feel increasingly powerless to make change, and in a time where we realize again the futility of depending on our own financial means, we are encouraged to call on God and to look carefully at what he is doing in our midst to see “where the impossible is becoming possible.”
We need to consider whether we, as evangelical Christians, have been seduced by cultural power and influence. Have we unconsciously encouraged our students to become celebrities through accomplishments more than we have encouraged them to become saints? (Crouch holds up Princess Diana and Mother Theresa as contrasting models.) He reminds us that the growth of the church came through Christians engaging in cultural creativity – loving neighbors through the worst of times, being open and accessible with their faith, living very different lives – believing, behaving, and demonstrating belonging to a different kingdom – and thus changing their culture and world. How can we encourage our kids to be culture makers and culture influencers so that they become, in Crouch’s words, artists and gardeners who through their God-given creativity help to bring forward Christ’s kingdom?