There are many things wrong with this world of ours. Licentious sex and violence are seen as great entertainment, time for eating and sleeping is swallowed up by time spent working, and personal success, defined by fortune or fame, takes precedence over the well-being of the community. As Christians, we are called to be salt and light for the world, to transform the culture around us, but where do we start, given the brokenness of our environment? What can we do? In his book Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, Andy Crouch casts a compelling vision of how Christians can change the culture around them.
What exactly is culture? Is it Culture with a capital C, an amorphous, mysterious ether that flows out of intellectual towers like Harvard and fashion centers like Hollywood? This definition misses the central fact that culture must be contained in specific rituals or artifacts in order to have any impact. Ideals are certainly part of culture, but even a strong ideal such as justice would have no practical effect on lives without being embodied in books which can be shared or laws which can be carried out. Culture must involve cultural goods, concrete objects or actions which not only convey our idea of what the world is or should be like (our worldview) but also change what the world is, in fact, like. For example, e-mail expresses how our culture values speed and convenience, but it also enables some things which weren’t possible before it was invented-cheap communication with people halfway around the globe, spam mail, and the easy sharing of Youtube videos, to name just a few. New cultural goods not only make new things possible; they also make old things impossible, or at least much more difficult. For example, while the invention of e-mail has made instant communication possible, it has made it much harder to keep up a viable correspondence through the post. This definition of culture, as a discrete set of concrete goods rather than as a unified mass of impressions, enables all of us, not just those with power and authority, to influence culture tangibly because we all have contact with the objects and actions of everyday life.
Crouch outlines four common attitudes that Christians often hold towards culture. First, there is condemning culture-drawing away from culture because it is tainted by sin. This is a necessary response towards certain areas of culture (for example, pornography), but if carried out to its fullest extent it creates a Christian enclave that has no commerce with the world around it. We cannot love others or bring about concrete change in society if we have no contact with a large part of that society.
A second common attitude is critiquing culture. This is a profoundly important way of dealing with culture in which one seeks to understand the assumptions that undergird every cultural good. However, all too often, “critiquing culture” entails merely thinking about it. Such analysis can stagnate without ever motivating change. If we are to transform the world around us, we must not only understand it, but also act.
A third attitude is copying culture, which takes prevalent forms of secular culture and molds them in a Christian way-for example, writing songs in the same form as secular music, but with Christian lyrics. A problem with this approach is that the resulting cultural product is too often a weak, insipid imitation that simply overlays a Christian skin on cultural goods that do not reflect Christian understandings of the world.
The last common attitude is consuming culture, which involves wholeheartedly accepting what culture gives us on its own terms. This is valid for many cultural goods (for example, buttered toast), but disastrous for others, because in the end many assumptions of a Christian worldview are not the same as those of a secular worldview. Notions of which cultural goods ought to be used and what things should be made possible or impossible often differ across the two worldviews.
All of these approaches to dealing with culture are sometimes valid and sometimes not, but they are by no means a comprehensive set of ways in which we ought to deal with culture, because they are all reactive. They all rely on a broader secular culture to supply a set of cultural goods that we, as Christians, must respond to. In light of this, Crouch suggests an additional way of dealing with culture: creation. This is a vitally important way of dealing with culture, because it is only in this way that we can shape the realm of possibility for our society. There are no holes in culture; our actions only bring about change when one cultural good supplants another. Before the invention of the television, people didn’t sit around and do nothing for hours. When they began to watch television, they gave up activities that had previously filled up their time. If we want to change what is possible for our society-if we want to offer people a life which is not full of stress, or build strong communities, for example-we must offer new cultural goods which will replace what is now available.
The good news for us here at Harvard is that we are already surrounded by a certain culture which we can change. We need not fall prey to the idea that our lives only start after college, nor to the idea that culture is vast and beyond our control. We should not be disappointed that the cultural goods we produce cannot reach everyone in the world; we should instead find confidence in the fact that we can dramatically change the lives of some whom we are able to reach. We are responsible for making positive contributions to the culture of Harvard, of our houses, of our dorm rooms. Culture is created locally, and so the world immediately around us deserves our attention first. We must critique the culture around us, and decide what areas of it we should condemn, copy, and consume. But we must also be culture makers, creators of new cultural goods that will provide fresh, attractive possibilities for the world around us.
What might this look like? One cultural contribution that Christians could make to Harvard is a serious dedication to the concept of the Sabbath. Throughout campus there is a consistent ethic of overwork. It seems that the most common answer to the question, “How are you?” is “Busy.” Taking five or six classes is common; it is almost embarrassing to be involved in only one extracurricular activity. Every free moment, without somewhere to go or something to do, seems a waste. This isn’t healthy. As the amount of work an ordinary person takes on accumulates, time for lingering over meals, reading for pleasure, going on leisurely walks, or just daydreaming is cut away completely. These times for relaxation and reflection are an important part of the human experience-important enough that the command to keep the Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments, alongside “Thou shalt not murder”. Busyness is an inevitable feature of life at Harvard-after all, there are few places that offer so many good opportunities-and a Sabbath would not altogether change that. However, a weekly rest would loosen the grip that work and stress have on our lives. The Sabbath is a day on which no work is done-the homework and meetings that usually fill our time are set aside, leaving us room to enjoy the world, the people around us, rich ideas worthy of contemplation, and the felicitous surprises that we would never notice if work encompassed the whole week. Although it is a cultural good that flows out of the Bible and is consistent with a Christian worldview, it is not limited to Christians; a rhythm of rest is a universal human desire. If Christians at Harvard started to consistently keep the Sabbath, our non-Christian friends and roommates would notice. Imagine how surprising and attractive it would be to meet a pre-med who takes an afternoon to read for pleasure, or an Economics concentrator who puts down problem sets to spend time cooking with friends. The Sabbath is not just a command from the Bible, but a concrete cultural good that provides a way for us to truly participate in “culture making,” and in doing so give something good to the Harvard community around us.
Anne Goetz ’11, an English concentrator in Pforzheimer House, is Books & Arts Editor of The Ichthus.