Skillful Culture Making

The ingredients of lasting excellence.

This article originally appeared in Comment, a worldview journal for Christian university students, 15 August 2008.

A friend of mine likes to quote G. K. Chesterton, who said, “Anything worth doing is worth doing badly.” I’ve just published a book called Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (which may or may not illustrate Chesterton’s axiom). So you might think that I’m eager for Christians—and any member of our society who cares about its preservation and renewal—to get out there and make something, anything, rather than simply marinating in the consumption and critique that so often are our default postures in the world.

And indeed there’s something to that. The best and most important things most of us will do with our lives—friendship, marriage, and parenthood, not to mention cooking, gardening, singing, and praying—will probably not be the things we do best, especially at first. They are worth doing badly, especially if the alternative is not daring to do them at all.

But what if we want to recover our creative calling and do it better than badly? What are the ingredients of the lasting excellence that can lead to the creation of cultural goods that have a widespread influence?

Here are five thoughts.

Practices. The secret to excellence in almost every cultural domain begins with what drummers call “rudiments”—the essential ingredients, too basic to be impressive and often requiring a certain tolerance for boredom, without which you will always be a dilettante. Any serious drummer has spent hours, week after week, just getting the snare drum to sound the same on every beat. Pianists have scales, surgeons have stitches, and accountants have balance sheets. Find out what the practices are in your cultural domain and pursue them assiduously. Long after you think you have mastered them, they will still have something to teach you.

Patience. You will require patience not just because you will be spending so much time on basic practices, but because any serious effort in moving the horizons of culture almost always requires decades to bear its full fruit, or even its initial flower. If this was true of the single most significant event in history—the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead, which had no effects to speak of on the culture of the Roman Empire for at least a century—it will be true of your own cultivating and creating.

Purposefulness. I once interviewed the pastor of one of Kenya’s fastest-growing and most innovative churches. Every time I would ask him about something his church did, he would respond, “That is intentional.” The most impressive culture creators I have met share this commitment to making clear choices, based on their deepest values and vision, in every facet of the way they live and work. Our culture has more channels than ever to deliver us a prefabricated plan for our lives. Only by living intentionally can we hope to have something new to offer the world.

Partners. You simply cannot make culture alone. For most of us, perhaps, this insight is obvious. Yet I believe most people severely underestimate just how important the quality of our relationships with other people is for our cultural creativity.

Projects—concrete opportunities for culture-making—come and go. The projects I am working on today as an editor, producer, and writer are almost entirely different from those I was working on five years ago, let alone fifteen years ago. But many of the people I am working with are the same, although in new and unexpected permutations and roles. What enable us to create together today are relationships of integrity, honesty, and affection that grew slowly and organically. Meanwhile, some of the most prominent “cultural creatives” I knew ten years ago are absent from the cultural map today—because they did not tend their relationships with friends, allies, and adversaries, and all too often neglected their most intimate culture-making partnerships with their spouse and children.

There’s one last quality you need to create culture well:  the willingness to fail. Creativity is a risk. If you are doing something worthwhile, you will almost certainly fail at least once. You may fail many times. Who knows? You may even fail your whole life. It has happened to better, more creative, more patient and purposeful people than you. It happened—most of his contemporaries would have said—to Jesus himself, executed after perhaps three years of public ministry marked just as much by misunderstanding and opposition as by miracles and acclamation.

But if you are afraid of failure you will ultimately create safer, smaller things than God made you to make. You will seek to save your life, but you may well lose it. Indeed, the secret of practices, patience, purposefulness, and real partnerships is that they all require us to embrace risk, and therefore lead us to the question of whom we ultimately trust. Do all these ‘p’s pay off in the end? Followers of Jesus know the answer.