Culture Making Part III: Cultural Worlds


Last week we came to the humbling conclusion that the culture around us shapes us more than we can ever hope to shape culture.

Yet within our own families we have more power than we think.

From Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, by Andy Crouch:

“Culture requires a public: a group of people who have been sufficiently affected by a cultural good that their horizons of possibility and impossibility have in fact been altered, and their own cultural creativity has been spurred, by that good’s existence. This group of people does not necessarily have to be large. But without such a group the artifact remains exclusively personal and private.” (emphasis mine)

The Culture

I’m still throwing the word “culture” around without a detailed analysis of the word, which isn’t practical in short blog posts. But keep in mind how broad a net the definition I quoted earlier is:

Culture is what you make of the world. -Ken Myers

Again from Culture Making:

“[There is danger] in talking about “the Culture” as if it were an undifferentiated, single thing. Just as we must always ask which cultural goods are meant by a reference to “Culture,” we must also ask which public responds to those goods.”

Cultural Worlds

No cultural artifact has reached every corner of the world (yet). So even the most far-reaching invention hasn’t “changed the world” but only changed a sub-set of worlds.

“Culture that is everyone’s property is in no one’s grasp. But as we consider smaller scales of culture, we begin to have more meaningful influence over what culture makes of the world.”

“Real culture making, not to mention cultural transformation, begins with a decision about which cultural world . . . we will attempt to make something of.”

The Cultural World of Family

“A basic unit of culture is the family, where we first begin making something of the world. Food and language, two of culture’s most far-reaching forms, begin in the home, which may encompass a “public” as small as two people. It can take us decades to appreciate all the ways in which the culture of our families set our horizons of the possible and the impossible.” (emphasis mine)

We have massive amounts of power to shape the horizons of the possible and the impossible for our children.

“Until we leave our families and venture into the home of our neighbors and friends, or perhaps the family home of our future spouse, we are likely not even to realize all the ways that our family sets our horizons.”

(I would add that leaving the country is a major wake-up call as to how much our family and local culture shapes what’s possible for us.  More on this to come – ex-pats, you’ll love it!)

But so what? Even if we build an awesome family culture and have lots of kids, our family is just a speck of dust in a sandstorm of people. Can “we few, we happy few” make any difference in a vast and needy world?

We’ll come back to this question later. For now trust your gut that tells you that your family is of utmost importance. I’ll also give you a hint:

“Family is culture at its smallest – and its most powerful.”

Which cultural worlds do you live in? Where will you choose to get creative and make something of your (sub-)world?

Do you still feel powerless to effect real change? Next week we’ll talk about how being poor isn’t just about being penniless, but about being powerless, and how that idea should transform how we think of our families and the cultural worlds we move in.


This is Part III of the Culture Making series. Read Part I, Part II, Part IV, Part V, Part VIPart VII, and Part VIII here.


Culture Making Part II: We Can’t Make Culture


Last week I ended with the question “What culture are we handing down to our kids?”

Since I’ve started thinking about family culture this question has been crushing me. The weight to build something amazing in my family is paralyzing.

Perhaps asking “How do I build my family culture?” it is the wrong question.

In Culture Makers: Recovering our Creative Calling, Andy Crouch points out that,

“[N]o one – not even those who read books with titles like Culture Making – makes Culture. Rather, Culture, in the abstract, always and only comes from particular human acts of cultivation and creativity. We don’t make Culture, we make omelets. We tell stories. We build hospitals. We pass laws. These specific products of cultivating and creating [called “goods”] are what eventually, over time, become part of the framework of the world for future generations.”

We don’t make Culture. We make cultural “goods.”

“Yet culture, in its more fundamental sense, really does remake the world, because culture shapes the horizons of the possible.”

The Horizons of the Possible

Take the interstate highway as an example. The highway is a cultural “good.” It’s not high art, but it is something humans made that most definitely shapes the horizons of the possible.

Highways make fast travel by car possible, but they also made travel by horse all but impossible because it put out of business all the inns with stables that used to dot the country.

Highways also replaced rivers as the most important means of transportation.

“The transition from river to highways is a transition from one world to another. We can argue about whether interstate highways make the world better or worse, but we cannot deny that they make a new kind of world.”

The idea that we can’t pretend to live life like it was before the highway is humbling.

Immediately the iPhone comes to mind.

Like it or not, the iPhone has shaped the horizons of the possible – and the impossible.

Brave New Worlds

“[F]ew cultural artifacts serve only to move the horizons of possibility outward and leave the horizons of impossibility unchanged. Almost every cultural artifact, in small or large ways, makes something impossible – or at least more difficult – that was possible before.”

I think the iPhone makes walking down the street and giving friendly greetings to the people you pass nearly impossible.

“[T]hese two functions – making things possible that were impossible, and perhaps even more importantly making things impossible that were once possible – when put together add up to “world-building.” World, after all, is a shorthand way of describing all those forces outside ourselves, beyond our control and will, that both constrain us and give us options and opportunities. After many thousands of years of accumulating human culture, the world which we must make something of – the environment in which we carry on the never-ending human cultural project – is largely the world others before us have made. Culture, even more than nature, defines for us the horizons of possibility and impossibility. We live in the world that culture has made.” (emphasis mine)

In other words: Culture shapes us more than we can ever hope to shape culture.

Even if we choose not to have a smart phone, it is impossible to live as though smart phones didn’t exist.

Smart phones set limits on what’s possible for my family.

We’ll go into more depth on this lack of control in the future, but we’ll also discover that we have much more power when it comes to our family cultures.

What Can We Do?

For now, the pressure is off to “build your family culture.” Just go about your business making “goods.”

Make dinner, do stenciling, tell stories, play music you love, take a walk, drink coffee with a square of dark chocolate, make family rules that increase peace in your home, read a book to your kids, snuggle by the fire.

Do what you do and every now and then ask yourself:

What does this “good” (or activity) make possible/impossible for my family?


This is Part II of the Culture Making series. Read Part I, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VIPart VII, and Part VIII here.

Culture Making Part I: What Is Culture?


Asking “What is culture?” is like asking “What is love?” We all know quite a bit about it, but would be at loss for words to describing it.

culture makingIn Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, Andy Crouch writes:

“Culture is, first of all, the name for our relentless, restless human effort to take the world as it’s given to us and make something else.”

Christian cultural critic Ken Myers sums it up this way:

“Culture is what we make of the world.” -Ken Myers

Crouch points out that this definition includes two senses of “make.” First, it means a literal making, in the sense of creating. Second, it means to“make sense of,” as in to find (or make) meaning.

“Meaning and making go together – culture, you could say, is the activity of making meaning.” -Andy Crouch

These days its very popular to “go back to the roots” and to prize above all that which is “natural.” Often the implication is that what is natural is good and what is man-made is bad.

I love nature, and I love doing things that are natural, but I also love Gothic churches, Bach fugues, and meringues. I want to teach my kids about nature, but I also want them to appreciate Shakespeare, sushi, and ballet.

Crouch illuminates this conflict for me:

“The world the baby arrives in encompasses not just the original stuff of pre-human creation but all the myriad things that humans themselves have already made from that stuff. The world with which the baby will have to come to terms as she grows is just as much cultural as it is natural.” (emphasis mine)

There is a tendency to pick a point in time at which human creation turned from good to bad and wish we could live before a certain invention.

It seems to me that this kind of thinking is active when we are glad to see our kids sitting still for long periods reading books, but feel horribly guilty if they spend the same amount of time watching movies. Books are good, moving pictures are bad.

Of course culture is more complicated than that, and like it or not, all the cultural goods out there today are what our children will be faced with and will have to come to terms with.

Crouch explains it this way:

“Culture really is a part of our world, just as central to our lives and our being human as nature. In some ways it is more central. A baby who is born without hearing may never experience sound or understand the significance of the sounds that he produces by chance with his own vocal tract. But he can survive and even thrive in the world if he is taught language – whether a sign language or a written language – and thus inducted into a culture. The cultural world of language is more essential to human flourishing than the natural world of sound.

Our kids need more than nature and the natural. Our kids need culture. As parents we have incredible power to shape the culture our kids experience.

What culture are we handing them?

Next week in part II of the Culture Making series we’ll discuss why our own culture making is so important for our families.


This is Part I of the Culture Making series. Read Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VIPart VII, and Part VIII here.