Make Culture, Not War

By Cathleen Falsani 10-14-2008

Not quite 200 years ago, the English Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley said something that is perhaps more true today than when he first put it down on paper: "Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world."

In his 1819 essay, "In Defense of Poetry," Shelley elaborated on this notion, saying, "Poets, or those who imagine and express this indestructible order, are not only the authors of language and of music, of the dance, and architecture, and statuary, and painting: they are the institutors of laws, and the founders of civil society, and the inventors of the arts of life, and the teachers who draw into a certain propinquity with the beautiful and the true that partial apprehension of the agencies of the invisible world, which is called religion."

As we've reached the ever-vicious "culture wars" phase of the presidential election, with, essentially, four Christian candidates attempting to out-Jesus one another and otherwise impugn each other's character (moral and otherwise) as a threat to our culture and the soul of the nation, I couldn't help but think of Shelley's idea of poets and poetry as the wielders of true power in our society.

In the last month, according to a search on the Nexis news database, the words "culture war" have been invoked nearly 700 times. We're at war, the pundits tell us. A Kulturkampf where the victor claims hearts and minds.

I think it's more than a bit gauche to be throwing around the word "war" in conjunction with cultural friction when we're waging an actual war in Iraq and Afghanistan. But let's say there is a "culture war" underway.

What, then, is the best strategy for winning the battle?

Andy Crouch, a savvy culture watcher and commentator who runs the Christian Vision Project at Christianity Today, has a pretty brilliant idea that's rooted, in some ways, in Shelley's idea of poet as unacknowledged legislator.

Speaking at the Catalyst Conference, a gathering of more than 12,000 young evangelical Christian leaders who run the gamut from very liberal to uber-conservative, outside Atlanta last weekend, Crouch urged the religiously minded among us to start thinking about culture making rather than culture battling.

It's the theme of Crouch's new book, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling, where he traces the pattern of his community's (i.e. evangelical Christian) engagement with culture (to use the term broadly) over the last 100 or so years.

Crouch, who for 10 years served as a campus minister at Harvard University, says Christians first engaged culture by critiquing it, sometimes viciously. Then they began copying culture, which explains the emergence of profoundly bad "Christian" pop music from the mid-'70s until the mid-'90s.

Of late, many religious folks, Crouch argues, have become blind consumers of culture. And none of these approaches - critiquing, copying or consuming - will do anything toward changing the culture for the better.

People of faith need to start earnestly cultivating culture. If you want to see something good, create it. Or support those who do.

The God of most religious traditions is a creator. And we, as God's creation, are called to create as well. It's a divine activity.

Rather than war against each other or the things in culture that we abhor, we should create what we want to see and put it out there in the marketplace of ideas. The good, the everlasting and eternal, will rise to the top.

Crouch also made the point that almost all enduring cultural artifacts, as he calls them, are created in community - small groups of about three. Sometimes four, occasionally two, but almost never just one.

Take Google, for instance, Crouch said. In 1996, two Stanford University graduate students, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, created a search engine, having no idea it would become a multibillion-dollar enterprise and cultural behemoth. When the company began to take off, they added a third partner, Eric Schmidt.

See? Three.

From three, Crouch says the next level of ushering an idea into a cultural artifact is to bring it to a group of 12 - trusted advisers, friends, visionaries, experts - and from there, to a larger group of 120, taking the idea or the artifact viral.

It's an interesting notion. I started cataloguing the big creative projects I've worked on in my own life, and such as they are (I've not yet dreamed up a Google or something similar), they really do follow that pattern of 3:12:120.

Every one of us has a three in our lives. Look around you. They're there.

Find them. And create something. Something small. Something huge. Something good.

Put it out there.

Make culture, rather than simply complaining or consuming it.

Become the poet who changes the world.

Cathleen Falsani is the religion columnist for the Chicago Sun-Times and author of the new book Sin Boldly: A Field Guide for Grace.

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