Written by Karl Johnson

Karl Johnson


Karl Johnson received his bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees from Cornell University. Karl previously served as the Dan Tillemans Director of the Cornell Team and Leadership Center, a division of Cornell Outdoor Education. Karl was recognized as a 1999 Academy of Leisure Sciences Future Scholar and has received several writing awards, including the 2014 Literary Award of the Christian Society of Kinesiology and Leisure Studies. His interests include human relations with the natural landscape, from wilderness to urban environs. Karl currently serves as Chief Strategist for The Octet Collaborative, the center for Christian study at MIT.  Beginning in January 2021, he will serve as the Director of the Consortium for Christian Study Centers.

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December 11, 2008

Have you ever wondered about the connection between spam (junk email) and spam (junk food)? Spam (Shoulder of Pork and hAM) first became a familiar staple as a function of food rationing in 1940’s Great Britain. Half a century later, Joel Furr became the first person to refer to mass email as spam. The connection? Undesirable repetition.

Strangely enough, the conceptual connection between undesirable repetition in food and in words was made by a comedy skit. In the 1970 Monty Python cult classic “Spam,” a waitress offers a menu that includes eggs and spam; eggs, bacon and spam; eggs, bacon, sausage, and spam; and, most famously, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, spam, baked beans, spam, spam, spam and spam. The word spam appears 132 times in the three-and-a-half-minute sketch.

What shall we make of this? Without putting too fine a point on it, the cultural history of spam is a parable of sorts.

Culture, to quote Ken Myers, is what we make of the world, in both senses of the word “make”: it consists of artifacts such as books, bridges, buildings, and cans of spam, and it consists of how we interpret the world around us. These two functions of meaning and making are closely related. Spam, for example, not only has prompted the creation of other cultural artifacts (a comedy skit), but also has become a symbol of undesirable repetition–i.e., an interpretive lens of sorts that may be applied to any number of unrelated phenomena. Just out is a wonderful book that explores this theme (culture, not spam) in depth: Andy Crouch’s Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (IVP, 2008).

Some years ago Andy (Cornell ’90) gave a marvelous talk on this topic for us at Cornell.* He spoke at a rapid clip for an hour and, as I remember, still didn’t get through his prepared remarks. Although I have always regretted not recording that event, it no longer matters. That talk was a mere shadow of the things to come, but the book is now printed and bound.


The topic of Christ and Culture, which asks the question How can we be in the world, but not of it? is a wonderful and important topic, and one that has been with us longer than we sometimes realize. As Richard Lovelace wrote in Dynamics of Spiritual Life, “The early theologians expressed a wide spectrum of attitudes toward the surrounding culture, from Tertullian’s contemptuous rejection of the need to have anything to do with it to the openness toward intimations of Christ in the high culture of the pagan world characteristic of Justin martyr and the Alexandrian school. This tension is effectively resolved by the suggestion of Origen and Augustine that Christians, like the Israelites leaving Egypt, should take the gold and jewels of common-grace truth from idolatrous cultures and reshape these into furniture for the sanctuary of the Christian mind.” Moreover, as Crouch rightly reminds us, even Matthew, Mark, Luke and John contextualized their gospels. Christ and Culture is also a topic, I suspect, we will have with us always, as evidenced by recent titles such as Craig Carter’s Rethinking Christ and Culture (Brazos, 2007) and Chesterton House advisory board member D.A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited (Eerdmans, 2008).

Culture Making is divided into three sections: Culture, Gospel, and Calling. In the first section, Crouch suggests that we ask five questions to understand “how a particular artifact fits into its broader cultural story.” He doesn’t talk about spam, but he does talk about eggs. The interesting insights he teases out are a mere foretaste of things to come. Asking these same questions of the interstate highway system, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s The Gates, and the invention of the laser yield interesting results indeed.

The first rule of culture, according to Crouch, is that you do not talk about “the Culture”–at least not in the abstract sense of the term. When Christians criticize “the Culture,” they mistakenly suggest they can somehow entirely separate themselves out and stand apart from it, which is of course impossible. One of Crouch’s main points here is that “culture is much more than ‘worldview.'” Worldviews are important, he admits, but because they pertain primarily to perception and analysis, they are “too limiting a way of analyzing culture.”

Every act of culture-making is part of a larger cultural process; it begins with taking pre-existing material, adding creativity to make something new, and then sending that new artifact into the public domain. The last part is important. Even those who create culture can’t control the effect or the response to what they have made. Take, for example, my nice, hardbound copy of Culture Making. What can I make of this book? In addition to reading it, I can use it as fuel for my woodstove, or to bonk my bothersome brother over the head–applications of the artifact the author probably didn’t intend. Simply put, “cultural goods have a life of their own. They reshape the world in unpredictable ways.” (Again, think spam.)

In one of the best portions of the book (chapters four and five) Crouch suggests that if his children don’t like his chili, their options include complaining about it, giving him critical feedback on it, and resigning themselves to consuming it as is. But their best option, and the only ultimately satisfactory one, is to fix a better pot of chili. Christians likewise alternately relate to culture by condemning it, critiquing it, copying it, and consuming it. For example:

The fundamentalists said, Don’t go to the movies. The evangelicals said, Go to the movies–especially black and white movies by Ingmar Bergman–and probe their worldview. Experimenters in CCM-style film would say, Go to movies like Joshua, soft-focused retellings of the gospel message using cinematic form. But most evangelicals today no longer forbid going to the movies, nor do we engage in earnest Francis Schaeffer-style critiques of the films we see–we simply go to the movies and, in the immortal word of Keanu Reeves, say, ‘Whoa.’

Each of these modes has its proper time and place. The sex trade should be condemned; the fine arts exist in part to be critiqued; the forms of secular culture may be copied and infused with Christian content, as Luther and the Wesleys did with bar tunes; and other forms of culture such as food are suited to be consumed. But all of this is a preface to saying ENOUGH: “The only way to change culture is to create more of it.” The task of the Christian, Crouch says, is to move beyond the mostly reactive modes of condemning, critiquing, copying and consuming to the more proactive modes of creating and cultivating.

All of this, it seems to me, is extremely helpful. His critique of the Christian use of ‘worldview’ is right on the money. He is certainly right that worldview academies, seminars, and books, though they may have some value, “will subtly tend to produce philosophers rather than plumbers, abstract thinkers instead of artists and artisans.” (I am reminded of John Gardner’s theory that “The society which scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”)

He also suggests a helpful distinction between gestures and postures: the problem is not with condemning, critiquing, copying and consuming as gestures–specific, contextualized responses–but rather as postures–generalized, habitual responses. The positive postures of creativity and cultivation actually yield the freedom to adopt any number of other gestures.


The second section of Culture Making, entitled Gospel, is a retelling of the biblical narrative with an emphasis on the great turning points in redemptive history–Creation, Fall, Israel, Jesus, Church, and New Creation. This is a story that has been retold many times, including by Al Wolters in Creation Regained (which Crouch cites) and more recently by Craig Bartholomew and Michael Goheen in The Drama of Scripture. What this section accomplishes is not just a retelling of the narrative, but a reframing of the narrative with an emphasis on culture.

Human beings are created in the image of God, and as his image-bearers, we are to reflect God’s nature. Although Scripture doesn’t distill the aspects of creation that have implications for human flourishing into a bulleted list, Crouch does: creation brings being out of nothing, creation is relational, creation requires cultivation, and creation leads to celebration. The first of these–that we are to reflect God’s creativity, even as he alone brings being out of nothing–recalls J.R.R. Tolkien’s poem depicting human persons as sub-creators:

Although now long estranged,

Man is not wholly lost nor wholly changed.

Dis-graced he may be, yet is not de-throned,

and keeps the rags of lordship once he owned;

Man, Sub-creator, the refracted Light

Through whom is splintered from a single White

to many hues, and endlessly combined

in living shapes that move from mind to mind.

In a similar manner, that creation is relational recalls the Hebraic ideal of Shalom over against the more static notion of universals in Greek thought (see e.g., Marvin Wilson’s Our Father Abraham); that creation requires cultivation reminds us that even the most improvisational forms of art, if they are to succeed, must be ordered (see e.g., Jeremy Begbie’s Theology, Music and Time); and the idea that creation leads to celebration is a good reminder that the biblical ideal of Sabbath entails not only sacrifice but also festivity (see, e.g., Jurgen Moltmann’s God in Creation.)

If Crouch’s discussion of Creation and the “Cultural Mandate” (Gen 1: 26-28) is a helpful overview of the vast literature on this topic, his interpretation of the themes of sin and redemption through the lens of culture are perhaps more original. The story of the fall, he writes, includes “cultural bad news,” and then, beginning with the Abrahamic covenant in Genesis 12, we have a “daring experiment in cultural mercy.” (If some of this language sounds strange, it is deliberate; part of his project is to give us a new vocabulary to talk about these things.)

So God’s response to the ultimate cultural problem–a world full of mutually antagonistic nations entrenched in the self-provision and self-justification seen in Babel–is a fully cultural solution. Which is to say, it is fundamentally a creative solution. To be sure, over Israel’s history God himself will employ the full range of possible gestures toward culture. At times, there will be a condemnation, including the wholesale deliverance of Israel into the hands of its enemies, Assyria and Babylon. The prophets will bring word of God’s critique to Israel and its neighbors. In constructing a cultural identity Israel will be led by the Spirit to copy many features of surrounding culture–over its history it will borrow Semitic linguistic forms for its national language, Egyptian wisdom literature for its court poetry, Lebanese woodworking for its worship spaces, and Mesopotamian treaties for its international relations and even its understanding of its relationship with God. At the height of its power Israel’s ability to consume the cultural products of its neighbors will be a sign of God’s blessing, as when the psalmist celebrates a royal wedding that features imported Ophirian gold (Ps 45:9).

But the heart of God’s agenda with Israel is to create something that has never existed: a nation that belongs in a special way to the Creator of the heavens and the earth.

Next Crouch reframes Jesus as Culture-Maker. Jesus’ mission–to inaugurate the kingdom of God–was profoundly cultural:

His good news foretold a comprehensive restructuring of social life comparable to that experienced by a people when one monarch was succeeded by another. The kingdom of God would touch every sphere and every scale of culture. It would reshape marriage and mealtimes, resistance to the Roman occupiers and prayer in the temple, the social standing of prostitutes and the piety of Pharisees, the meaning of cleanliness and the interpretation of illness, integrity in business and honesty in prayer.

The resurrection, according to Crouch, “was arguably the most culturally significant event in history.” Jesus is “the culmination of God’s culture-rescuing project that began in Genesis 12: he faces the worst that human powers can do and rises, not just with some merely ‘spiritual’ triumph over those powers, but with a cultural triumph–an answer, right in the midst of human history, to all the fears of Israel in the face of its enemies.” Even the cross, a cultural artifact that previously signified the threat of public punishment for disloyalty to the Roman throne was itself transformed into a signifier of sacrificial love.

Not surprisingly, we also find that “Acts is about culture,” or, more specifically, that “Acts is about cultures (plural).” After God’s blessing is vividly “broken open and poured out on every cultural group, every ‘nation,'” at Pentecost, and the same dynamic is illustrated by Peter stepping into the home of Cornelius, a Gentile, the narrative tension then builds to a climax in Acts 15 over what was essentially a problem of cultural demarcation. Whereas the Pharisees insisted on maintaining the connection between God’s people and their customs–between ethnos and ethos–Paul and Barnabas stood for what Christians today universally understand to be the logic of the resurrection–that practices such as circumcision and dietary laws were cultural markers that had served their purpose and were no longer necessary prerequisites to being a member of the ‘cult.’ The Council of Jerusalem adjudicated the matter in favor of Paul and Barnabas.

Crouch then emphasizes that the biblical vision of the New Jerusalem depicted in Revelation 21 and 22 is that of a material place teeming with commerce and culture. What we commonly call “heaven,” he suggests, drawing on Richard Mouw’s brilliant little book When the Kings Come Marching In, will include not just souls but also stuff. “Culture is the furniture of heaven.” Does this mean that the new heavens and the new earth will be filled with “Christian” cultural artifacts–like some Christian knickknack store gone berserk? May it never be! Just as human persons will be judged, so too with cultural goods, but such goods will be judged according to their idolatrous function, not according to who produced them. “The glory and the honor of the nations” (Rev. 21:26) are the best of the nations’ cultural achievements, purified. The New Creation will thus have both continuity and discontinuity with creation as we know it. It will be The Best of This World, re-Mastered. This is not a restoration of Eden, but rather the bringing to fruition of all the latent potentialities of the original creation, a fulfillment of the Cultural Mandate with which the narrative began.

This too is good, and for many readers, this section alone will be worth the price of the book. For readers already familiar with the works of Middleton and Mouw, the section on the early church may be of most interest. In particular, Crouch helps us appreciate how challenging it must have been to sort out the practical (i.e., cultural) implications of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Every religion implicitly or explicitly suggests a particular relationship between cult and culture. In some religions, such as Islam, the identification of doctrine and a particular cultural expression is strong. In others, most notably Gnosticism, there can be an almost complete separation of belief and behavior. Christianity, situated somewhere between the two, relativizes some aspects of culture without implying relativism. Taking Christian missions as a case in point, this combination of backbone and flesh–of essential, non-negotiable core commitments with a variety of possible outward expressions–accounts in part for the rapid spread of Christianity around the globe.

The stereotype of missionaries is that they are cultural imperialists, and to be sure, there are plenty of instances of missionaries “normalizing” their own culture to an absurd degree. But though missionaries found in movies almost always make this mistake, missionaries found in remote parts of Africa and Asia apparently do so much less frequently. Recent research on missionary activity in both Asia and Africa suggests that missionaries simultaneously challenge some aspects of native culture while adapting to and even preserving others. By translating the Bible into native languages, for example, missionaries have preserved important aspects of native cultures and empowered native peoples to resist the homogenizing effects of globalization. (See e.g., Lamin Sanneh’s Translating the Message.) Thank God for the Council of Jerusalem, for this middle course between cultural relativism and cultural imperialism is Paul and Barnabas’s theology of culture in action.


Alert readers waiting for Crouch to engage Richard Niebuhr have to wait patiently until two-thirds of the way through the book. In his classic work Christ and Culture, Niebuhr outlines a five-part typology: at the ends of the spectrum are Christ against culture and Christ of culture, and in between are three mediating positions, including Christ in paradox with culture, Christ above culture, and Christ transforming culture. Crouch is appreciative but critical: “Niebuhr’s motifs have worn grooves in Christian thinking, steering us toward the assumption that there must be one right answer; that ‘Christ’ would always be ‘against’ or ‘in paradox with’ or ‘transforming’ culture wherever and however it was expressed.” Moreover, there is a temptation to replace “Christ” with “Christians.” “But to move from speculation about what posture Christ, the eternal Son, might take toward culture as a whole to the posture that Christians should take is to assume that we could ever establish the transhistorical vantage point that the Trinity has on our little cultural efforts.” This temptation is especially problematic in the instance of Christ transforming culture, “which quickly shaded over into the hope of ‘Christians transforming culture.'”

Reacting to such hubris among Christians, Crouch begins the third section with a chapter entitled “Why We Can’t Change the World.” Despite our penchant for thinking and referring to ourselves as world-changers, he is certainly right that “we are much more changed than changing.” So we face a paradox: Making something of the world is the very thing we are meant to do, and yet changing the world is the one thing we cannot do. This is a theme Crouch has developed in his columns (see “It’s Not About Power” and “Two Weddings and a Baptism”). It is also the aspect of his book that likely will be most controversial (see, e.g., John Seel’s review, “Material Boy”).

Is Crouch correct that we must embrace this paradox? I think he is, and here’s why.

Notice the subtle distinction between culture-making and world-changing, between making something of the world and changing the world. The difference largely comes down to a matter of scale. The language of “changing the world” usually implies changes that are global in scope, and that is the scale on which we can not effectively implement planned change. Almost all true culture-making, by contrast, is local. We don’t change “the Culture,” we change this neighborhood, this house, this diaper. “In my personal experience of the world,” Crouch writes at his most Chestertonian, “it matters surprisingly little that China is damming the Yangtze River in the largest public works project in human history, but it matters a great deal that there are bridges over the Delaware River.”

Observing that our inability to change the world on a grand scale has the potential to be depressing, Crouch takes our seeming powerlessness as the starting point for his closing chapter-long meditations on power, community, and grace. On power, he draws on the Exodus and the Resurrection to discern the disciplines of service and stewardship. On community, he invokes the model of culture-making through concentric circles of pre-existing relationships–groups of 3, 12 and 120. On grace, he suggests that we find our calling where we experience returns on our labor that are out of proportion with our effort.

As with the previous sections, this too is good. Very good. From my perspective as a campus minister, the idol that plagues campus culture more than any other is careerism–an idol to which Christians can respond in one of three ways. We can “baptize” careerism in the language of calling, thereby reinforcing students’ anxieties about leading historically significant lives; we can react against the idol by emphasizing piety, spirituality, and citizenship in the kingdom of heaven; or we can affirm the significance of leading productive lives, where productivity is reframed on a more appropriate, local scale. Crouch takes the third way. The depressing realization that we can’t change the world is thus followed by the empowering observation that everyday life consists of culture-making. “At the relatively small scale of my family’s life together, there are many ways in which I profoundly shape our shared world–setting bedtimes and waking times, deciding where we will vacation, choosing what is for dinner, buying (or, in our case, not buying) a television, choosing and using the nicknames for one another that only the four of us know. Within the walls of our house, all four of us have real power to shape the very real culture we, and we alone, share.” He similarly speaks of a friend building “a family culture of forgiveness, play and prayer.” Simply put, culture-making is an expression of love, and “love is a fragile thing that does not scale well.”


Culture Making comes with as many dust-jacket endorsements from Christian leaders than any book in recent memory. Byron Borger of Hearts and Minds Books calls it “one of the great books of the decade.” It will certainly be a formidable candidate for Christianity Today’s 2009 Christianity and Culture Book Award.**

Indeed, Culture Making is an exceptional book. It is a manifesto of sorts, challenging Christians to live differently in the 21st century than we have in the 20th. It is a clarion call to stop whining, to stop uncritically imitating and consuming, and above all to stop pretending that we are not part of the problems we perceive in “the Culture.” What would it take, he asks, for Christians to be known primarily as creators–“people who dare to think and do something that has never been thought or done before, something that makes the world more welcoming and thrilling and beautiful?” Great question! My hope and prayer is that this book might accomplish for a generation of young Christians what Walsh and Middleton’s Transforming Vision accomplished a quarter of a century ago–inspiring and motivating them to lead more faithful and culturally meaningful lives.

My quibbles with Culture Making are few and far between. Stylistically, the book is a terrific read–engaging, accessible, and jargon-free. As is so often the case, however, a strength can simultaneously be a weakness. For better and for worse, Crouch avoids academic categories and theological terminology. While most readers will surely appreciate the accessibility, others will miss the lack of engagement with categories such as Geertz’s definition of culture, which emphasizes the symbolic meanings embodied in artifacts rather than the artifacts themselves.

All helpful corrections run the risk of overcorrection, and Crouch’s emphasis on the concrete is no exception. To be sure, abstraction has its hazards (I am reminded of Chesterton’s observation that many humanitarians love humanity but hate humans). Scripture provides a model of balance in this regard, treating culture at multiple levels ranging from the very concrete (the cedars of Lebanon) to the very general (the wisdom of this world). Crouch is critical of Niebuhr in part for how people have read him, but if Culture Making successfully swings the pendulum in the other direction, we may soon need a book entitled In Defense of Abstraction. Despite his preference for the concrete, Crouch’s desire to keep the emphasis positive and proactive (on making rather than critiquing) means that he provides few to no concrete examples of who he is disagreeing with. In his emphasis on the embodied nature of the new creation, for example, he is obviously taking issue with the dispensationalist tradition’s “rapture theology” that has been especially influential in North America since the middle of the 19th century. At one level, there is a simple sophistication at work here that allows for multiple levels of engaging with the text, but the vagueness also allows for some confusion. Although Lincoln is treated briefly and positively, and Ralph Reed treated briefly and negatively, when he says “Beware of world-changers,” I am still left wondering, Is he referring to Michael Ferris (probably), Jean Vanier (probably not), or William Wilberforce (I don’t know)?

Wilberforce is an especially interesting example. Although Wilberforce’s advocacy for the most defenseless of human persons is unimpeachable, the uses of Wilberforce are less so. Niebuhr’s “transformationalists” love to tell how Wilberforce almost left the English Parliament for the ministry, only to stay and lead the abolition movement. But the narrative, which clearly serves to justify the pursuit and use of political power by Christians, is too convenient. Notice that we do not celebrate the many other Christian legislators of the nineteenth century who advocated for less noble causes such as Sabbatarianism; nor do we celebrate Wilberforce’s Sabbatarianism. Notice too that we have to go overseas for such a convenient example; inconveniently, in North America, orthodoxy and abolitionism were often inversely related. Finally, notice that we are not as quick to celebrate “faithful failures” such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Crouch touches on these themes–failure, unintended consequences, and naivete regarding our own sin–but I find myself longing for one or more case studies.

Although I share Crouch’s aversion to critique–as a fellow Gen-Xer, I have never been as fond of Francis Schaeffer as my baby boomer friends–it seems to me that creativity and critique are highly continuous and overlapping categories. New cultural artifacts are created in conversation with antecedent artifacts, and thereby (at least implicitly) entail critique. Likewise, good criticism requires creativity. If we ask, for example, whether C.S. Lewis’s Preface to Paradise Lost is a work of creativity or of criticism, the only possible answer is ‘Yes.’ So too of God’s initiative in the turning points of redemptive history. Crouch would probably agree with this, but the emphasis seems to be on discontinuity.

But all of this is not to raise substantive criticisms as much as it is to say that I was left wanting more. The list of things I love about this book is too long to list, but there are wonderful passages on diverse phenomena such as wilderness and theme parks, Princess Diana and Mother Teresa, and, in the postscript, Csikszentmihalyi’s concept of flow as an analogy for the eternal now. Wow. The ideas and even their expression clearly have percolated in the author over many years, refined by conversation with colleagues and also by prayer. I just hope Andy quits speaking at so many conferences so he can produce a sequel someday.

And now for something completely different: In 2005, the Tony Award for Best Musical went to Spamalot–the Monty Python musical based upon the comedic skit “Spam” and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (a satire of the legend of King Arthur). In other words, one of the highest awards for cultural creativity went to a rip-off of a satire of a deficient commercial food product. If that were not enough to illustrate Crouch’s thesis regarding the unpredictable trajectory of cultural artifacts and the integral relationship of creativity and critique, the makers of Spam released a collector’s edition of Stinky Fresh Garlic Spam for the London opening of the musical. (See “Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam, Spam . . . and Garlic?”)


*Full Disclosure: I had lunch with Andy at Ithaca Bakery that day, and he served as Master of Ceremonies for our world-famous Heaven in Nightclub concert. Andy kindly mentions Chesterton House and me among “The 120” in the acknowledgements.


**Update:  It won.  See Christianity & Culture. 

Chesterton House Painting