“Increasingly secular culture,” I sure do say that a lot. The phrase has been a helpful shorthand to describe the sort of ministry we will be doing in the United Kingdom and, we imagine, in the not-so-distant future United States.
But, ignoring for a second how adverbs are bad and should be excised from all writing, the phrase “increasingly secular culture” on its own is too ambiguous to be particularly helpful. Without explanation “increasingly secular culture” may actually be far more harmful than good.
I thought, over the course of a series of posts, we could strip away the scare quotes from “increasingly secular culture” and discover what that might actually mean for us.
So, if you will: Grab a seat, sit down, have a cup of coffee, and let’s talk.
The bright green fields opened up to a deep, rich, blue summer sky as my brother Josh and I drove down a back country road. Given enough time, every road where we live becomes a back country road. Josh was asking me how I was enjoying being back in Illinois after living in Southern California.
“I like it just fine,” I said. Or, you know, something along those lines.
Illinois is a lovely place.
Somehow our conversation moved to the differences in culture, more honestly, the seeming lack of culture in our hometown.
Hampshire is small. Dreadfully small. Downtown Hampshire is a diner, a library, a car dealership, and a small grocery store. Not much is going on. The brand new, state-of-the-art high school is surrounded by miles of corn fields.
We live close enough to Chicago, a major world city, to feel the stark difference between the two places.
Chicago is big. Dreadfully big. Its downtown sprawls from neighborhood to neighborhood. Buildings like the John Hancock Center and Sears Tower, I’ve been to The City like three times and know it’s an abomination to call it anything else, threateningly loom. The astutely named sculpture, The Bean, bends onlookers and the most gorgeous skyline in the world into each other. Chicago is charged with the glory of “culture.”
In Hampshire, “culture” is something beyond us. Something other, somewhere else. “Culture” exists in places with towers, hipster coffee shops, and slam poetry.
There’s this tendency to talk about “culture” like it exists separate from us. Something other, somewhere else. In his excellent book, Culture Making, Andy Crouch reveals four postures we assume when “culture” is Out There:
- We treat it like a monster lurking at our door, ready to draw blood. In this posture we become defensive towards “culture” and do all we can to protect ourselves from its evils. “Won’t somebody please think of the children?” we pray.
- Or, we treat it like a a butterfly pinned to a cork board to be examined. In this posture, “culture” is a curiosity to be examined but is of little import. With too much examination and critique “culture” withers, looses its vibrancy, and crumbles.
- Or, we treat “culture” like a widget meant to be copied and reproduced on a factory line. But, every photocopy degrades the original image with each pass. In this posture “culture” is cheap and quickly used up.
- Or, we simply become consumers of “culture.” We sit on our couches, eating our bowls of Fruity Pebbles, letting “culture” happen to us. In this passive posture, our bellies become bloated with the empty calories of “culture.”
“Culture” is not just what city folk do with their Beans and slam poetry. “Culture” isn’t just what is trendy and faddish, it’s not just our ethnic identities, it’s not just our governing bodies, it’s not just our technologies.
“Culture” is the sum total of everything humans do.
I’d like to borrow Andy Crouch’s definition of “culture,” he defines it as what “we make of the world.”
Culture is what we make of the world.
Culture is the relational work of making something of the world. What humans do with the raw material of our world is “culture.”
A small, midwest town like Hampshire is not devoid of culture because it lacks a fine arts museum and a craft beer brewery. A place like Hampshire, with its cornfields and diner, is rich with culture. Hampshire has a population somewhere around 6,000 people. That is 6,000 humans making something of the world every day.
“Culture” is not something other, somewhere else, something to be afraid of that’s just waiting to pounce on us. “Culture” isn’t something other, somewhere else just waiting to be examined, copied, or gobbled up. Whatever we do with the materials of our life is “culture.”
No one is exempt from “culture.” We get to decide what sort of “culture” we’re going to make.
You and me? For better or for worse, we make something of the world everyday.
In the fall of 2017 we will be serving in the United Kingdom with the organization the Alliance for Transatlantic Theological Training. Please consider partnering with us today.
This blogpost is particularly indebted to the first five chapters of Andy Crouch’s book Culture Making.
I am also indebted when thinking about culture to:
- James K.A. Smith’s books Desiring the Kingdom and Imagining the Kingdom from his “Cultural Liturgies Project”
- H. Richard Niebuhr’s book Christ and Culture
- and the podcast Cultivated from Harbor Media. Episode seven featuring the president of King’s College, Dr. Gregory Thornbury, has been especially encouraging. You can listen here.