Cultural power and culture making

Here’s the third and final instalment of the review of Andy Crouch’s Culture Making (IVP) by guest contributor, Jonny Woodrow. Jonny is a church planter with The Crowded House and a tutor with the Northern Training Institute which I head up.

In his new book, Culture Making, Andy Crouch shows us how to use our cultural power to enable the powerless through the gospel.

Crouch defines power as the ability to successfully propose a new cultural good. We all interact with the world and each other through cultural artefacts (language, technologies and customs). We shape the world and relationships by creating new cultural artefacts. Some people, by virtue of their social and organisational setting have the resources and connections to successfully propose new forms of cultural artefact. In other words some have more cultural power than others.

When God allowed Adam to name the animals he gave him cultural power to modify creation. Cultural power in itself is not a bad thing. It is a gift. Crouch shows that in God’s plan to redeem the world, he uses the culturally powerful in service of the culturally poor. Moses had tremendous cultural power. He had grown up in the palace of Pharaoh. He had connections that the enslaved Israelites did not have. God used Moses to free his powerless people to bring them into God’s project of creating a new society in a new land. Moses’ cultural power was used to release the powerless into the cultural power of God’s kingdom.

Jesus laid aside his cultural power, becoming despised and powerless on the cross to remake sinful people in his image for the renewed creation. The way he used his cultural power was to enable others to take part in his kingdom – the greatest project of cultural renewal ever! His death brings reconciliation and his resurrection is the beginnings of the new creation.

We enter into the work of cultural creativity … as participants in a story of new creation that comes just when our own power seems to have been extinguished. Culture making becomes … the astonished and grateful response of people who have been rescued from the worst that culture and nature can do. (227)

Jesus takes the powerless and makes them into ministers of reconciliation in the power of the resurrection. He lends us his cultural power and sends us into the world to make and cultivate in the power of his new creation project.

Cultural power can be used as an alternative saviour. It can become a Jesus-avoidance strategy. We spend it on recreating the world as we want it, for our kind of people, to create a name for ourselves. We attempt to strategise our way to ultimate cultural power over the world and others. The tower of Babel is an example of this drive. Its builders proposed it as a cultural artefact, using their brick-making skills as a way of enrolling the world into the project of conquering heaven.

The culturally powerful often band together, creating enclaves of security and cultural development that exclude the culturally poor. We rarely see asylum seekers invited into middle-class estates to contribute to the cultural life, or to town council meetings to redirect the cultural power of the city toward belonging for all.

How do we use our cultural power in line with Jesus’ new creation story? Crouch warns us that too often the church attempts to grab more cultural power. We attempt to strategize our way to influence in the community as if we were the agents of the new creation rather than Jesus. The church needs to submit its cultural power to Jesus, the true agent of the new creation. Crouch says we need to discipline our use of cultural power through service (stepping back from power grabbing for the good of others) and stewardship (using this gift to enable others).

Examples of using our cultural wealth to enable others include teaching English to asylum seekers or helping with form filling, mentoring young offenders or teenage mums. The call of Crouch’s book is for the church to spend its cultural power enabling others to cultivate and create culture in anticipation of the new creation.

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2 thoughts on “Cultural power and culture making

  1. Thanks for your review, Tim. I rejoice in the God-given opportunity to use my “cultural wealth” for his good purposes. I totally agree with Andy’s conclusion that this kind of wealth needs to be used/shared for the sake of God’s kingdom. What I don’t see very well is how Moses is an example of this, specifically, how his “cultural power was used to release the powerless into the cultural power of God’s kingdom.” What I read of the account in Exodus (and Acts 7) is that when God wanted to use him, the “cultural power” left in his account was about nil. Throughout the story it is made very clear that without the words and signs the Lord gave him, even his own people wouldn’t have listened to him. I think the main (maybe even the only) reason he had the cultural power in the first place was to show God’s power (humor?) in having a Hebrew baby grow up in the very house of the person who ordered his death, less so with the intent on giving him this power. I guess my fear is that Andy’s readers might take this example as justification for pursuing (or exerting to maintain) cultural power (despite his warning that “we need to discipline our use of cultural power through service”) when in fact it is God himself who takes us in our culturally “weak” positions (e.g. David, shepherd) and rebellion (Paul) to highlight his own glory in bringing us to a place that seems to me to involve a very different kind of “power.” Also, if “Jesus laid aside his cultural power,” how then can Andy talk about “the way he used his cultural power?” I find in Jesus the perfect example of “disempowerment” and really having no cultural power at all to speak of. Am I over-reacting? Can we arrive at the same place without the concept of cultural power? Thanks again for your effort in helping us in our ministries!

  2. Pingback: Cultural power and powerlessness « Tim Chester

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