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.

2 thoughts on “Culture Making Part II: We Can’t Make Culture”

  1. So in other words, culture is what happens when you are busy living life. 🙂 I like this idea, too. My tendency is to be a top-down organizer. I start with the grand picture of what I want The Perfect Home to look like, then I try to put the entire scheme into place. Your blog and our discussions are helping me work from the bottom-up. It’s amazing how freeing the perspective shift is. But I don’t want to throw top-down thinking out the window because I think it is my strength. It just doesn’t seem to work for every situation.

    My dad likes to say that if you give a child a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. And I think if you give a top-down thinker a problem, they automatically reach for a top-down solution. It’s good to learn (God knows it doesn’t come naturally!) that there is more than just this one “hammer” in the tool box.

    1. I haven’t thought of it that way, but I think I am naturally a top-down thinker, too, at least in some ways. Kids just throw so many curve balls I’ve had to readjust to survive!

      I think you’re right, we need both!

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