Culture consumption versus culture creation

The cultural mandate is the term used to describe the call in Genesis 1 to take the ‘stuff’ of creation and create culture: agriculture, science, art, technology, architecture and so on. It is a call to create as those made in the image of the Creator.

Yet when Christians speak of engaging with culture we typically mean consuming culture with discernment. We teach one another how to analyse and evaluate culture in its myriad forms. This is right and important. We are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds so we are not confirmed to the pattern of this world (Romans 12:2). (‘The world’ is the New Testament’s terms of what we call ‘culture’.)

Culture consumption versus culture creation

But cultural analysis is not a fulfilment of the cultural mandate. We are not called to be consumers of culture. We are called to be creators of culture.

Now clearly these are not in opposition. Nor can we only create culture. A performance requires an audience. We are all going to be consumers of culture. Creating only for ourselves merely as a means of self-expression is self-indulgence.

But my challenge to myself (and to you, dear reader) is to consider whether I have the balance right.

This imbalance may be in some ways a peculiarly modern phenomenon. For modern technology enables cultural artefacts to be widely dispersed. As little as a hundred years ago music could only be consumed live. Every musical experience required a fresh act of cultural creation. Now a performance can be recorded so that this one performance is repeated a thousand times. As a result the ratio of cultural creation to cultural consumption has shifted radically. We gain quality. We might well agree that we would rather listen to a recording of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra than listen to a live performance by the local school orchestra. But what about listening to a professional choir on the radio compared to participating in an amateur choir? I think it is harder to make the call on which offers the greater quality of experience. And quality is not the only criteria. Community, creativity and obedience also matter. Again modern technology does not help us. We can readily compare our culture creation with that of the ‘professionals’. But quality is not the only criteria. It is about being human as we were intended to be. Your painting might not be a Turner or a Hockney, but the act of painting will enrich your life and your paintings might well enrich the lives of your friends.

Passive consumption versus active consumption

Another distinction is help. We can think of passive consumption and active consumption. Compare the act of reading a novel and seeing an adaptation of that novel in a movie. When you watch a movie you are a passive consumer. All the work has been done for you. The story, character and imagery are all there for you to behold. But in a book some of the work is left to you. It is the reader who creates the visual world, albeit at the prompting of the writer. There is a kind of co-creation involving both the writer and the reader.

Clearly these are not hard and fast distinctions. A movie might well stimulate our imaginations. My favourite movies are often those that create a world I want to inhabit and so prompt me to consider how I might reshape my world in the image of the movie. They draw me into the activity of culture creation. My point is not to place general cultural activities in the passive and active camp, but merely to show that the distinction (or the spectrum) exists. Nor is this a foray into the debate between whether high culture to be preferred over low culture or indeed whether such distinctions have any validity. My point is not to favour high culture over low culture. People passively consume high culture just as much as people consume low culture.

Because active consumption involves a level of creation it sits somewhere between consumption and creation. So we need to bear this mind as we weight our personal balance between culture creation and culture consumption. We cannot simply create a two lists – consumption and creation – and then try to adjust their length. It is not something we can quantify. But it is, I suggest, worth reflecting on whether we have space in our lives for culture creation (and a bit of listing might aid that process of reflection).

Rebalancing our cultural engagement

I cannot tell you what is the right balance. It will be personal to everyone. But I invite you to consider whether the balance is right. It might mean less culture consumption and more culture creation.

Less consumption might involve less watching television, going to the movies, visiting galleries, reading books, playing computer games, participating in social media.

More culture creation could involve one of a hundred different things. It might mean what we traditionally think of as culture creation – things like writing, performing, singing, composing, painting, filming, photographing. But it might also mean creating or shaping your environment: gardening, cooking, decorating, arranging, restoring, mending. It might mean creating your own cultural events: a party, a meal, a picnic, a reading, a jam, an adventure. It might mean play: making a kite, building a den, throwing a ball around. It might mean participating in a local group: a model railway club, a choir or orchestra, a restoration project, an amateur dramatics society.

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4 thoughts on “Culture consumption versus culture creation

  1. Culture creation very often involves building on, adapting and remixing existing bits of culture. Unlike God, we are not really able to create /ex nihilo/. Up until relativel recently (1700s), artists did this freely. But have you considered whether and how the current legal landscape surrounding culture and its creation and propagation inhibits creativity by the general population?

    Copyright, extended for ever-greater terms due to lobbying by large content-owning organizations, means that I cannot build on someone else’s cultural work to make my own without their permission, which may be unavailable, available at too high a cost, or the ownership of the work may be unclear. Copyright legally prevents the modification of a work without the author’s permission (which, when it comes to hymns and songs, is a stipulation some Christians and churches regularly ignore).

    Much of the creativity engendered on the Internet (and in worship :-) happens in spite of, rather than because of, the laws surrounding culture. Much of what happens on Youtube is very creative, but technically illegal. And there is a constant battle between this generation of creators, and the previous one on whose work they built.

    A flowering of individual creativity would be a wonderful thing, but in many areas, it can only happen in spite of the law – which does not engender appropriate respect for it. The fewer restrictions you place on something, the more of it you get. Should Christians be arguing for fewer restrictions on creativity?

  2. Thank you for this helpful distinction and a necessary prod. It is interesting that the two can work together. When I do a little regular creation, (photography, drawing), I find that I notice more about the world around me, whether God’s direct creation, or the “subcreation” of culture. When I do less, my own consumption is more self-centred and less discerning.

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