To Seek the Flourishing of the World
A Conversation with Andy Crouch on Calling, Creating, and Cultivating
Andy Crouch is a journalist who makes complicated things clear for people who could be doing something else. He is the author of Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling, which we asked him about in this interview, and more recently, Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power, which he will speak on at Regent June 5. Additionally, we’re excited to have him as one of the panelists on our REDUX webcast May 16. Andy lives with his wife and two kids in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania.
CK: One of the big questions people ask is, “What do I do with my life?” What advice would you give a recent graduate wondering what calling to pursue?
AC: I use three frames to think about calling. To start at the broadest frame, I think there’s a bias for Christians to seek the flourishing of the vulnerable— whether that’s the economically vulnerable, the relationally vulnerable, or the psychologically vulnerable. That doesn’t mean we all go into non-profit work, NGO work, or charity work, but I do think that you want to ask, of the range of options available to me, which is the one that in the deepest and most extensive way, creates places for the vulnerable to flourish?
Secondly, I would also look for places where I can be trained and developed by models of maturity. What everybody wants is to immediately express their incredible gifts that God has poured into them and that they’re waiting to share with the rest of humanity, but the more important task of one’s twenties is to interact with models of mature character, to see people wrestle in difficult situations, and to be placed ourselves in positions that stretch us.
A third useful thing to ask is, “What is it that when I do it, I experience a divine multiplication in terms of the fruit that comes from my work?” There are some things when I do them, I put in one unit of work and one unit of result comes out. This would be true of me with accounting, for example. I can do it, but the resulting fruit is one-to-one—very linear. Then there are other things that when I put in one unit of effort, I get four or ten times my input in a mysterious way that doesn’t seem to be accounted for by simply my own talents. This sense of divine multiplication is related to having a spiritual gift. I think we have defined spiritual gifts too narrowly as just “churchy” gifts, but, in fact, for each of us there are things that when we do them in the work world, they are either linear or multiplicative. If you have the choice, go for the multiplicative.
CK: How did the calling to be a journalist come about in your own life?
AC: My current calling emerged very gradually, and I would still say it’s emerging. I’m still thinking and asking my friends and my wife, “Am I doing what I should be doing? Do I need to make adjustments?” I love writing and found that I was able to say things a lot of people were thinking but hadn’t put into crisp words yet. This happened with Culture Making. There’s actually very little that’s new in the book—you can trace the influences—but I did manage to articulate something at the right time that most people were feeling: a dissatisfaction with the way the church or Christians were relating to our culture.
People ask me, “Did you go to journalism school?” No, I have absolutely no credentials in this, but I have been doing it long enough and I guess carefully enough that other journalists respect what I do. I studied the classics (Greek and Latin) in college, then went on to seminary and worked in campus ministry at Harvard University for ten years. It was there that I got involved with the magazine re:generation quarterly. I began writing for them, and then become the editor. I learned as I went along—how to edit and assign articles, what to do when people don’t turn in their assignments or when your art director disappears for three months without telling you—all the stuff you wouldn’t learn in journalism school anyway.
It took me a long time to be comfortable with being a journalist because I have spent my whole life in and around the academic world—my father was a university professor and my wife Catherine is a physics professor. I always felt like I should be an academic, but I have grown more and more comfortable realizing that that is not my gift. My gift is journalism and the clarifying process of taking very complex ideas and making them clear in the service of truth.
CK: Let’s talk about Culture Making, which has won multiple awards. What compelled you to write the book?
AC: There were two different reasons, one of which I alluded to earlier: my sense that Christians and dominant North American culture were in a dysfunctional relationship. The way you know you are in a dysfunctional relationship is when each party sees the other at their worst. When I heard Christians talk about culture, it was always about the most negative, exploitative, and broken things in culture. And when Christians were represented in our media, I felt like people were seeing us at our most judgmental, fearful, and controlling. So I thought we need to reset our posture toward culture. We can’t necessarily change the way our neighbours feel about us, but we can certainly change the way we relate to our neighbours.
The other stream of influence was more personal. When I was working as a campus minister at Harvard, I discovered that I had very thin theological resources to help students understand why they were in school. We were very committed to calling our students to a kind of downward mobility, but that raised the question: why are we still at Harvard, spending so much money and time on education, when we could move into an inner city neighbourhood and live among the poor? Ultimately, this was a question of culture—what it means to be present in the culture, and I did not have a rich, biblical way of articulating to my students why they should stay at Harvard and not just drop out and be a good Christian somewhere else. So the book also came from a sense that Christians needed a richer vision of our calling in the world that would encompass what we do in the lab, the library, or as part of the team rowing on the Charles River at five in the morning.
CK: What is the vision you set out for Christians in Culture Making?
AC: Basically, what I say is that we’ve spent the last hundred years (at least in the US context) condemning, critiquing, copying, and then consuming culture. None of these is an adequate vision. Instead, we’re meant to be cultivators: people who keep, preserve, and care for what is good in the world. And then to the extent that culture is broken and there are things missing, we are also called to be creators and add to culture, because ultimately the only way to change culture is to make more culture. You don’t change it when you just condemn it or critique it, or when you copy or consume it. But if you cultivate it, then you acquire both the skills and the legitimacy to say, “I think something’s missing here” and offer a creative response to what’s missing. I think that’s what all human beings are meant to be and what all Christians should embrace as their calling.
CK: I got the sense from your book that everybody can make culture, but is culture making easier to imagine for certain vocations, like artists who create things for a living? What about dentists, accountants, or lawyers? How does your idea of culture making apply to all people and all vocations?
AC: First, it’s very important that the vision is not just creativity understood in the narrow, capital-“R” Romantic sense of the individual self-expressing him or herself to the world. That might be part of what we’re here to do, but human beings are here in a comprehensive way to seek the flourishing of the world, and that requires not just creating but cultivating. Some professions focus much more on the cultivation side of the human calling than the creating side.
Let’s take plumbers. I don’t necessarily want a creative plumber. In fact, if my plumber came over and said, “I have a completely new plumbing system I want to put in,” I would look quite askance at that because I want him to keep a good thing good. We’ve already got this wonderful cultural inheritance called plumbing and it requires a great deal of skill and tacit knowledge to maintain. Same thing with dentists—my dentist is helping me keep my health, and that’s an amazing contribution to human flourishing. One of our problems is that we privilege radical, innovative artists in a way that excludes almost everyone from what counts as cultural creativity since what most of us spend our days doing is keeping things good.
Secondly, there’s a sense of individualism we easily fall into when we think, “I have to be the creative one.” The most creative forces in the human story are communities, not individuals. Communities need a variety of gifts working together to create things that influence on a broad scale.
CK: Can you give an example?
AC: A very powerful and, on the whole, beneficial force in the world right now is Pixar, the movie studio that produces family films. If you watch the credits at the end, there are a few screenwriters and creatives who do the art and animation, but then there are security guards, accountants, lawyers, and all these people who have to work together for Pixar to reach its full flourishing. If you sent the screenwriters off by themselves, they would actually be able to do very little without lawyers, accountants, caterers, electricians, and so on. So let’s think of culture making as a shared endeavor rather than an individual one, and then we’ll realize that all these people play really important roles.
CK: Speaking of the individual though, I appreciate that you emphasize the role of culture making at the family level because it seems unlikely that our acts of culture making will be global and change the world.
AC: In fact, it’s certain they will not. No act of cultural creativity has ever changed the whole world.
CK: Right, so as an aspiring writer reading your book, I was wondering about culture making at the smallest level: the individual. As much as we may hope otherwise, sometimes stories don’t get published, songs don’t get performed, and paintings don’t get hung in a gallery. Is there a culture-making value in these goods even if they don’t shape anyone but me?
AC: That's a good question. Let’s take a diary, to use the most private example—something not even intended to be read by others, but designed for my own expression and growth. Is that culture? Absolutely. We’re participating in the human story. We’re reflecting on our experiences in the world, which is deeply transforming. One of the greatest dangers of our time, that is heightened by social media, is the sense that if I don’t do it in public, it doesn’t exist. This idea hollows out the inner life, and there’s huge value in cultural activity that is simply for the tending of my own heart and soul—the tending of my own capacity to be a human being, which has effects on who I am when I go out with others. Ideally, it’s a kind of contemplation of the world, of myself, of my relationship with God, and even of others. That’s the most important thing you can do to be of some use to God in the world—to be a person who contemplates before you act.
But what about things I create that I hope will find influence or an audience, but in fact, do not? Well just today, I was driving home and singing a song to myself that I wrote when I was sixteen. I had sung it a couple times for audiences, but I assure you, none of them remember it and I will never sing it for an audience again. And as I was singing, I was thinking, “Oh man, this song has some problems,” and yet this song was very meaningful to me when I wrote it. You could ask, “What’s the value of such a thing if no one’s ever going to remember it and I’m just going to be singing it to myself absentmindedly in the car?” I think there’s something very mysterious and powerful about the doctrine of resurrection in connection with our creative, “forgotten” acts—more specifically, the doctrine of the resurrection of the body.
CK: This sounds intriguing. Can you elaborate?
AC: Well, one could ask, “Where is this song that I wrote when I was sixteen?” In some odd, extraordinary, and unfathomable way, it exists in an arrangement and reinforcement of neurons in my head. That’s the only place it is. It’s still there because I’m able to recall it, and if I recall it often enough, those neural pathways get reinforced enough that it stays in existence. One day, though, my body will die and all those connections will be irreversibly lost. My body will be given over to disorder and eventually become indistinguishable from the earth. But the Christian belief is that in some mysterious way, God remembers all of us and is able to raise our bodies, which also must mean our memories and our identities, and everything we shaped that in turn shaped us.
So I think we could even extend this idea to acts of creativity. When Jesus comes and says to John in his vision of the end, ‘Behold, I make all things new” (Rv 21:5), why would that not apply to the poem you wrote that no one saw, or the painting you made that maybe wasn’t ready to show to anyone, just as it applies to your own body, identity, and memories? Wouldn’t it also be the case that just as with our bodies, what is raised is imperishable? Whatever is sown is perishable, but whatever is raised is qualitatively different—a different kind of body, a different kind of being—yet also continuous and in some way, holding onto whatever was good in our original body.
CK: Wow, I had never thought of it that way. That idea fills me with a lot of excitement.
AC: Isn’t it amazing? It seems totally improbable to think that our memories will be recovered when we die, but that has to be the case if the body is raised, because part of being a body is having those neural connections. So I think the great hope to anyone who feels like a frustrated artist is that, somehow, whatever I made which is truly valuable will be raised at the last day and be part of the new creation.