Being Culture Makers

An interview with “StudentSoul.”

This article originally appeared in StudentSoul.org, January 2007.

The online magazine StudentSoul interviewed me recently about cultural creativity, why we can’t settle for cultural critique, and how college students can prepare for a life of creating culture.

What does “culture-making” mean and how might it go hand in hand with or differ from “cultural transformation”?

Cultural transformation is something that a lot of Christians talk about and aspire to. We want to be a part of transforming the 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.

Life is not about waiting for the market to offer you thrilling experiences, but to actually be someone who makes something beautiful and true and good for the world.

Are you saying that Christians need to take more initiative than just choosing to be present in culture?

Right, absolutely. Culture is constantly changing but the only way for us to participate in the change is to be creative. Christians have had a series of postures for culture in the last century. For a while we thought the best thing we could do with culture is to just condemn it. Sort of stand outside it and resist it and be suspicious of it and try to avoid it. Of course culture doesn’t change when people condemn it. How many boycotts really work? Say there are eight screens at that movie theater and they are all showing movies that Christians would object to. If all we do is stay away from the movie theater, then that theater is still going to show movies. The only way to change what is shown on those screens is to make a different kind of movie that can compete effectively with the ones that are currently showing. It would replace them. Merely not going isn’t going to leave a screen blank. On the other hand, if all we do is just go to whatever movies are being shown, that isn’t going to change what’s being offered to the public either. It’s only when you make something different that the culture of the movie theater or the movie industry will change.

How did this become your passion? Was there something going on in your life where you began to be aware of this need?

Yes, I think that there were two sources of this. One was that I was a campus minister with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship for ten years at Harvard University. We gave our students rich instruction in scripture and about God and prayer and the needs of the world, but I found myself more and more dissatisfied with how we were helping our students understand what they were doing in their classroom, the library and the lab — the actual things they had come to the university to do. I started to realize that we don’t have a very rich language for talking about why your studies are important — why the work that you are preparing to do is important. And we were actually very good at critiquing certain aspects of our university. Harvard is not very hard to critique. We can talk easily about all the ways that Harvard or any other college can steal your love and your loyalty from God and his kingdom. But we didn’t have any way of talking about how delightful many things about college are — how good it is to learn, how good it is to do research. I just felt we were lacking the vocabulary to talk about why culture is essential and important.

The second thing is that I got tired of always critiquing consumer culture. At the time, I was doing a lot of research and writing and speaking on consumer culture. We find our identity in what we consume and what we purchase, and I began to be dissatisfied with always just critiquing and saying to people, “We shouldn’t be doing this.” People want to ask, “What should we be doing, and what’s the answer to being a consumer?” The antidote to being a mere consumer is to become a creator. Life is not about waiting for the market to offer you thrilling experiences, but to actually be someone who jumps into the work of making something beautiful and true and good for the world. Preaching and teaching against consumer culture may be fine, but unless you offer something different for people to do, you are not going to change anything. But when you become creative, when you become someone whose life is about what you’re doing with other people to shape the culture, the appeal of just consuming diminishes.

So those are really the two sources of it. And it has been so fun, so fun to think about culture not just as a critic, not just as a consumer, but thinking about what we could make here. What are people making in the world that we can celebrate?

You’ve been working on some video productions such as the Intersect|Culture series created for small groups. One of the quotes in the tagline is “Take your group to a place where faith and culture meet.” What would that look like for a group?

We went to five very different cultural environments in North America and found stories that were compelling and showed Christians creating culture. When we were done shooting, we looked at all five stories and we started to ask, “What do these have in common?” They are in really different places and they are very different stories — lower Manhattan with an artist, Vancouver Island with native Canadians and white Canadians working together, suburban Atlanta and other places. The common thread was that every one of these stories was about a way Christians were responding to their local culture’s brokenness in some creative way.

The place where faith and culture meet most fruitfully is where culture is broken. Taking our faith into culture means to find a creative way to serve in those broken places. There’s no other resource for dealing with brokenness that’s as powerful as the gospel lived out creatively and effectively in the context of local culture. The gospel gives us enough hope to enter into these very difficult, seemingly hopeless situations. Whether it’s an artist who lives within two blocks from Ground Zero, and was there with his family on 9/11 and has to deal with his neighborhood community through this terrible experience, or Canadians working through a centuries-long process of exploitation and oppression of Native Canadians by British settlers, we are finding that where faith and culture meet is the place where the culture is broken and Christ and Christ’s people can offer hope.

Is the idea then to help the small group to think through what’s happening around them and then engage that?

Exactly. Most of us don’t live in lower Manhattan, most of us don’t live in Southern California where another of our films was shot, but for six weeks a group can watch one of these stories each week. They are about twelve minutes long, and there is a leader’s guide that identifies some of the themes in each segment that really are universally applicable. Over the course of six weeks you can ask, for each of these stories,  how can we take some of the themes and principles that are underneath this story and how can we apply that to the culture we’re in?

Christians often get paralyzed by all our talk about “the culture” as if it were this big huge thing that we feel is everywhere around us. The truth is that there are many scales of culture. There is a mass culture in our society that is very big and hard for anyone to influence, but we all live in very specific cultural contexts. I live in a town that is outside of a city that’s in a state. And it’s so much more helpful to ask, “What can we do in this cultural context that God has put us into?” than to try to address “the culture.” None of us really gets to change “the culture,” but a lot of us could change something about our neighborhood or the school down the road from our house or the local theater company that puts on productions. There are all kinds of ways we can be involved culturally if we don’t get paralyzed thinking that it’s this huge global-sized entity that none of us will really get to change.

Do you actually believe that small movements in local culture will actually make a dent in the big culture? You said you didn’t think so at one point and yet your viewpoint is kind of predicated on the idea that that’s the way to affect the larger culture. What do you really think?

If I didn’t believe God is active in human cultures I would have no hope. The whole essence of the Christian claim is that God has not forgotten us — even after the tower of Babel when the “unified cultural project” (Genesis 11:1-9) gets splintered into all these different cultures. Immediately after Babel, God picks out Abram and says, “I will make you into a nation” (Genesis 12:1-3), which is God’s way of saying he is going to make a culture that lasts through time, because the nation is just a culture which is extended through time. “And through you, I am going to bless every nation” — every culture extended through time. So the first reason for my hope is the presupposition that God is already at work in human nature. We don’t have to fix this ourselves. We simply have to find what God’s already doing.

The second thing is that cultural change almost always starts small. And that’s true whether you’re talking about the culture of your local elementary school or a feature film that grosses 200 million dollars. Jesus created culture with three core friends, twelve disciples and a larger following of about a hundred twenty people. The number of people who can fit comfortably in a Volkswagen Beetle can mobilize a slightly bigger group who can in turn mobilize more than a hundred folks. That’s how a cultural good is created. It’s true of the world’s largest corporations, the smallest business or the corner store down the road. So, the question to ask is, “Which group of three people has God put me with and what can we make together that will add something to culture that will reflect what God wants for culture — God’s shalom, his peace?” And that’s the only way it ever changes — when a small group of people create something.

We will all do that on different scales. Some Christians in Hollywood get to be in a room together with others who can either greenlight or kill a new film. But I’m not one of them, so I can’t really worry about what they are doing. But on the other hand I may have some opportunities to sit with small groups of people who really need to have hope and discover God in their midst. And I get to develop some of those opportunities with my friends, too. And Jesus says that those who are faithful with a little end up being asked to be faithful with more. So if you start small and just start with the people God has given you and do it well, you may be asked to do a little more.

Mother Teresa set out from Romania to be a schoolteacher and to care for the sick.  She just cared for a few sick people with a few sisters, and over time she got to address the whole world and change how the world thinks about the poor and the dying. She even affected the way the world thinks about the followers of Christ. But she didn’t start out to do that. She just started doing something small with a few people and it grew. So that’s the other element of my hope. I don’t know what I create, how much of it will last, how much of it will have any cultural impact, but I do know that God has given me a few people to be creative with and I also know, frankly, that even if it doesn’t have any great, lasting, measurable impact, it’s just so fun to create things with people. This is what human beings are made to do, you know? So you need to do it whether its going to fix anything or not. If it’s not going to fix anything, you need to do it because this is just what you were created to do. You need to create things with other people.

This sounds exciting and fun for those of us who can be really intense and critical. Making culture sounds like a way to move forward instead of just ranting.

Absolutely, and unfortunately right now Christians are kind of known for being critical and uptight, right? But we are not known as people who are creative. That’s too bad because I’m around so many creative, joyful, culturally-engaged believers. So the perception is not totally accurate, but there is some truth to it. The problem is that critique just doesn’t get you anywhere unless you create something that improves on what is already there.

What would you say to students about what they can do on their campuses or the places they go on ministry projects?

I have two thoughts. One is, if God has called you to the place where you are, then there is probably an opportunity in that specific cultural environment for you to create. Especially in colleges and universities, because the old students are gone, there is a constant need for new students to come along and ask, “What can we create here that will really serve this institution and serve our fellow students?” This may be on the scale of your dorm floor or the theater department, or it may be on the scale of student government.

The second aspect of being a student is that you are in a cultural sandbox. You get to play for a few years! The Greek word schola, from which we get the words school and scholar, means leisure. I meet people all the time who say, “Wow, college was a lot of fun. When can we go back and just play all the time like we did in college?” In the sandbox you get to experiment with things without being as responsible for the consequences. So you write papers that maybe only your professor will read, but it’s a way of practicing being a culture maker. And its an apprenticeship where you can be with people as an engaged and interesting culture maker.

Take your studies very seriously, because this is the chance you have to discern which part of culture you are called to create in, and that is going to be different for every human being. This is also the chance to become a much more intelligent culture maker. And I don’t mean intelligent in the sense of knowing a lot of big words or impressing people with your brilliance. I mean intelligent in the sense of knowing where you’ve come from, knowing how your culture became what it is, and understanding the cultural context you are in right now. Because unless you know where you come from and where you are, its very hard to create anything that has any chance of being really transformational at all. So college is a tremendously important time. It’s a luxury and privilege to be able to study and to play and to do all the things you do outside of class, but it’s also a time to prepare for a life of cultural creativity.