A Dialogue on Culture-Making

A Dialogue on Culture-Making
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We’re concluding our three-part series on culture war and culture-making with a recorded dialogue. Listen or read the transcript below. You can also read the two previous blogs in our series, “Blessed are the Culture-Makers” and “Culture War: Our Children’s Crusade.”

KELSEY REED: Hello, and welcome to the News Coach blog. I’m Kelsey Reed, God’s WORLD News Coach, and today I’m dialoguing with Jonathan Boes, our multi-media editor.

So we’re talking about culture making today. We’re going to be creating something. We’re going to be collaborating. All those things that have to do with the shaping of material together. We’re entering into a dialogue today, discussing the subject of culture making or culture shaping, as opposed to the antithesis that we’ve also explored in previous blogs.

We’ve been talking about the difference between culture war and the beautiful alternative that I believe is truly founded in the Lord’s character and nature: a sub-creative work we get to engage in as human beings, something we also might call “culture making.”

Jonathan is with me today to have that discussion

JONATHAN BOES: Hello!

KELSEY: I’m so glad we get to try this. It’s really a joy to think about the things that have shaped our thinking, and that even have shaped our expression. So today, I want to launch by thinking first of all, in my particular family, I didn’t even realize it was something we were doing explicitly, because it’s so implicit to my family culture. It was all about the arts, about culinary artistry, and also about enjoying cross-cultural experiences. It was in the waters in my family. So the first time it was explicitly introduced to me was actually in an essay of J.R.R. Tolkien’s.

JONATHAN: I just got done watching Rings of Power, so I am in a Tolkien mood.

KELSEY: It seems to be that time of year, too. There’s something about the fall that drives me to Tolkien. So contemplating that very first moment, where he put words to an experience I was having, he was speaking about how we get to be incorporated into the Lord’s creative work. He was very intentional to not use the word “as creators” but “as sub-creators.”

First of all, I just want to know, had you heard that term before?

JONATHAN: I’ve encountered that a bit before, especially thinking about writers like Coleridge and the way he spoke of sub-creation. It’s incredible to think about us as God’s image-bearers, invited into the project of creation. Not on the level of God, but taking the good things He has created and literally being mandated to create something out of them.

KELSEY: Absolutely. It’s not merely something we’re doing, it’s not a rebellion. It’s a part of our nature, just as it is a part of God’s character and nature.

JONATHAN: Could we back up a little bit—I want to unpack the word “culture” a little more. We touched on it—especially you touched on it—in your first blog, “Blessed are the Culture-Makers.” I think it’s important to narrow down on what we mean when we talk about “culture,” or else I think it’s going to be unclear what we’re talking about when we talk about “culture war” or “culture making.”

For my own part, I’ve heard the term “culture” used—especially in the church—synonymously with how we talk about “the world.” The Bible talks about the world being opposed to us, about not being part of the world. I feel like often when Christians talk about culture, that’s the sense in which they’re talking about it.

KELSEY: I appreciate that distinction and agree with you. I’m finding I have to be very careful with my own terms for that very reason. We can use the word “culture” in a way that we’re really meaning the secular culture or the secular face of culture, in which we are currently contexted. The context in which we live. If we’re going to be careful about the term “culture,” we are going to ground it in scripture, instead of just the offhanded, casual way we tend use that word.

When we speak of culture, we’re talking about any artifact, any art, anything that is a flowing of human expression into the world and is generally collaborative in nature. It’s not something we create only on our own, because as relational creatures, it’s going to go out into the world and also be related to, and developed by, others in the human community. It’s reflective of a community, not just an individual.

And it’s beautiful because, as we look at scripture and ask “where did we first see that happen?”, we’re actually talking about a man and woman, who were given to one another and then commanded by the Lord to go, flourish, and multiply. It’s called the “creation mandate” or the “cultural mandate.” So right from the beginning, it was a collaborative effort to sub-create. To go into the world, and to govern. To create gardens. To do their work in the world.

JONATHAN: I’ve been listening to a bit from both Timothy Keller and Andy Crouch talking about this idea of “culture making,” and they both connect it back to the garden work, the cultural mandate. I think it was Tim Keller who said that gardening is the archetypical form of work, where you are taking the raw material of creation and growing it into something beyond that, cultivating it over time. And Andy Crouch talked about how culture, and our cultural creation work—our sub-creation work—is what takes what God called “good” and turns it into the “very good.” Like turning sound into music. Like turning wheat into bread. I think those are some beautiful pictures.

KELSEY: Absolutely, and I’m so thankful for the way you reminded me of that word, “cultivate.” The original root for culture is related to that cultivation process. The Latin I think is colere. We are talking about a cultivating work.

So yes, the archetype of the garden. We’re talking about what it means to prepare the soil, to plant a seed, to watch it and nurture it, to cause something that was almost nothing to become something else and to become fruitful. How does that look, though? It’s not merely about gardens because, as we said, that is a microcosm or an archetype. It stands for something.

In your experience, in terms of what you’ve enjoyed or studied, what are some ways you see that rubbing into your own particular work? What does it look like to be a culture maker in terms of your experience?

JONATHAN: In my experience, I see that especially when I look to Christian artists of previous generations. Thinking back to people like—you talked about Tolkien—thinking back even further to people like John Donne in poetry, or Bach in music. They took their forms of art and turned them into something glorious, and did it explicitly so as Christians operating in the world.

I grew up around a lot of reactionary Christian culture, where it was just copying whatever was going on in secular media, and usually not doing a great job of that. It was really as I got into later high school and college that I learned about these incredible Christian thinkers and writers and artists, who changed the entire landscape of culture—not just in their church circles, but in the entire world. And they did it in the name of Christ.

That’s a big example, but I love how especially Timothy Keller connects to culture making even in the smallest of jobs we can have every day.

KELSEY: I love that. We’re bringing in the extraordinary, when we talk about some of those artists you’ve mentioned, and we can bring it in further. We can talk about Leonardo da Vinci, we can talk about Michelangelo, the epitome of art in our mind. Yet we have to realize that the cultural mandate is not merely for the artists. It’s for the moms and the dads. It’s for the children.

The cultural mandate is not merely for the artists. It’s for the moms and the dads. It’s for the children.

For us to affirm the work of our children’s hands—the work of going out in the garden or in the mud pie and digging around—there is something that is creative, that is nurturing, that is forming, that is adding to. That’s something I have found, as we’re talking about that Soli Deo Gloria. When we mention Bach, my mind immediately goes to S.D.G. We’re talking about adding to the weight of the Lord’s glory.

JONATHAN: You just touched on the S.D.G. I just want to make sure, am I correct in saying that’s what Bach would write at the end of his music pieces? The letters “S.D.G.” as “Soli Deo Gloria,” giving the glory to God for what he had created.

KELSEY: Right. So Tolkien, in the same kind of feeling as Bach, recognized that anything he was creating was adding into that creative work, that work of glory that is ultimately the Lord’s creative work. The Lord’s glory. And that everything we do as image-bearers of His adds to the weight of glory. I think that’s a Lewis concept. I believe it was either he as contributor or one of his books, that concept of the weight of glory.

JONATHAN: I want to pull this into the realm of talking with kids, discipling kids through the news.

We’ve been talking about culture-making as an alternative to culture war. I’m wondering what that looks like, because when I think about the impulse to culture war, I can easily see how that’s driven by the news. You see things on the news that might anger you or frighten you, sometimes rightfully so. We know God despises evil. When we read about evil being done in the world, there’s a right time to feel angry. But what does it look like to respond to that from the heart of a culture-maker rather than a culture warrior? Because it’s very obvious to see how you can want to immediately go to war when you encounter news that requires a response.

KELSEY: I think that’s such a great question, and it has to have manifold answer.

You’ve named the emotional territory that we land in, and that is such a complicated space. What does it look like for us to affirm anger—anger toward sin, anger toward brokenness—but also to not land solely in the hard emotions, the hard and destructive emotions that I believe are not fully our territory as humans to continue to stoke?

At some point, our hearts need to pivot toward humility, and worship, and toward a recognition that He is God and we are not. When we take it into our hands to continue to stoke those hard emotions, and to have the outpouring of that—which is often destructive—we’re standing in a place I believe is ultimately not our place.

The type of war described for humanity is spiritual warfare. It has to do with praying without ceasing, and engaging in a way that acknowledges the fact that there are powers out there beyond our power. Yet we have access to the Lord, who is the conqueror, and who has the righteous anger. As we talk about that with our kids, I think it’s so important for us to remember—just as we were talking about with sub-creation, that we are not the ultimate creators—we’re also not the ultimate warriors. God is ultimate warrior, and is the one who gives the work into our hands.

Again, we return to the idea that the work He’s given into our hands is the work of relationship. It’s the work of nurturing, the work of engaging for His glory. That is a work that also means we’re gathering into his kingdom. If we stay with a hard and angry response to what’s going on in the news, we miss the opportunity to weep and have a soft response, one that turns us toward compassion. There is something to recognizing the Lord’s lordship, with turning toward worship of Him, that softening in that humble place, that also puts us in a place of recognizing our own brokenness and allows us to be sorrowful over our sin, to be compassionate toward the sinner across from us instead of treating them like the enemy.

JONATHAN: I think often there are these angry words intended to be these bombs lobbed at institutions and authorities. But often the targets they end up hitting are scared, shame-filled, broken people who truly need the love of God, and who have already been hurt by others, and are just receiving more hurt.

You used the word “destructive” to describe a certain emotional response to the news. I think that’s a great distinction between culture war and culture-making. It’s the difference between creation and destruction. When I look at what’s going on in the news, even things we’ve been writing about for WORLDkids and WORLDteen, there is so much destruction on every side of the political aisle.

I think to writers like C.S. Lewis, who would provide warnings to their readers about how much easier it is to destroy something than to preserve something good. In the pursuit of progress, sometimes even in the pursuit of justice, we can destroy these good things that were created over time without counting the cost of what we’re doing. I think of culture-making as a response that seeks to build something up. At least, I sense a connection there between conserving the good things of the past and building on them as culture-makers, rather than feeling the need to tear down to create space for the good.

KELSEY: Absolutely. I’m thinking of the scriptural frames we might have for the Lord as warrior, or how His posture is toward the world that He’s created. I think of Noah, of course, and the promise that the Lord made to Noah, that he would never the earth again. Not by water.

JONATHAN: We’ve still got fire to go, so we’re good.

KELSEY: We’ve still got fire to go [laughing]. I think also of fire as something that’s a purifying thing, but it’s not in our hands. The only righteous fire that exists—and when it is coming—is the Lord’s righteous fire, and in His perfect timing. So what does it look like to work and wait for His timing? To rest in the promise that He is not out to destroy us, that we don’t have that fearful prospect, that He is calling us to that complimentary mandate of disciple-making, and that right now, the time in which we live is a time for building His kingdom.

I love that building language you’re talking about. You’re talking about what it means to lob a bomb, and how that often falls into the crowd. There are these leaders that are destructive, that are drawing out the worst of humanity, that we want to put a stop to. But if we try to do it by bombs, it almost always falls among the gallery. Our work needs to be about drawing the people, with compassion like the Lord said, looking at the sheep without a shepherd and drawing them to the Shepherd. That is a building, that is a wooing, that is a winning. I believe that fits in with that positive idea. We are culture making. We are kingdom building.

JONATHAN: I think about how thankful I am that’s the approach Christ took with us. Before salvation we were enemies of God. Jesus had every right to come to earth the first time with judgment and destruction. He didn’t need to come with grace for us, with gentleness for us. But He did. It’s incredible that we have an opportunity to extend that to others, and I love how you’re connecting the cultural mandate that was given at the beginning of Genesis to the discipleship mandate, to the Great Commission, and how connected they are in terms of building God’s kingdom and inviting others into that goodness.

Culture-making puts the beauty and goodness of God on display in a tangible way as we love others through our work, whatever that looks like. I think of the doctrine of vocation, how we can love others through the simplest of work, and be culture-makers even if our job is not in the arts, even if we are not creating something tangible but we are simply serving others. Whatever small way we’re doing that, we can be culture-makers. We can show love for others and invite them into the kingdom of God.

Culture-making puts the beauty and goodness of God on display in a tangible way as we love others through our work.

I think that’s often a less flashy and more humble work than the work of culture war. It’s a little bit exciting to be the culture warrior. It’s easier to see how that connects to something big and important. If you’re out on Twitter just tearing apart bad arguments and fighting for the truth or whatever, it’s easy to connect that to your spiritual life. Even if you’re doing it in a destructive way. But it’s hard to see how my simple, everyday job always connects to the kingdom of God. It’s a much slower, more garden-like work. But the fruits of it, I believe, are going to be so much more bountiful.

KELSEY: Absolutely. It’s a slower work, and just as we are doing a work that is a nurturing and a cultivating of it, the Spirit is the one who is producing the fruit. and the fruit is a nourishing fruit. What is produced in us is not even for our own sake, not for our own glory, not for our own nourishment. The long work the Spirit is doing in us to cultivate what He wishes to cultivate in us, the culture that He’s cultivating in us, is something meant for the nourishing of others. A tree does not eat its own fruit.

When we think of that long work, that long transformative work, what it means to be participants in His kingdom, again I think it’s important to realize we’ve crossed over a into another use of the word “culture.” We talked about how can use it as a “we’re talking about the secular world here when we’re saying culture.” We’ve talked about what it means to cultivate. But we’re also starting to use it as a kingdom word, that we’re creating a new big culture.

We’re creating a new kingdom, and that kingdom is a kingdom of service. It is a kingdom of a Leader who served. And that Leader who served, He viewed his creation as important enough to Him that, even as we were fallen and broken, even as we were yet sinners, He came and entered in to renew it and to wage a war on our behalf. A war against sin. A war against our enemy. And He said, “It is finished.”

What does it look like, then, for us to enter into His rest, enter into the long work that is ours to do, and to build a beautiful kingdom? Soli Deo Gloria.

JONATHAN: One more thought I wanted to bring up. I feel like we talked about our own response to the news. Our assumption here has been, the way we respond to the outside world, through the lens of culture-making or culture war, will trickle down to the children we’re teaching or parenting. I want to touch on a thought about older children and teenagers, who are beginning to shape their own cultural responses.

By the time I was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, I had big opinions on culture, many of which came directly from my parents, some of which I was starting to form on my own. Maybe as parents or teachers, we’re in a place where we feel like we’re not falling into the trap of culture war. But maybe our teenagers are the ones who find themselves culture-warring. Do you have any thoughts for the parent or teacher who finds themselves trying to disciple a teenager who is full-on ready to be a culture warrior?

KELSEY: I recognize both how I resemble that comment as a parent, how I resembled that comment as a teen, and what I’m watching in my own teen daughters’ lives, particularly my eldest. She is so justice-oriented, so she would have that tendency toward the culture warrior. It’s so important for me to think about how it is a big emotion stage. That’s going to be a characteristic of that stage, to have those big responses to things. I can sometimes want correct that instead of just going, “What a minute, this is so natural as a part of their learning process, that they are going to be responding with that bigness.” It’s not been that long since they were toddlers. Don’t my tell my teen daughters I said that! [Laughing].

You know, those emotions are still being wrangled. They are still learning how to even name them, to put words to it, and the “why” of it. One approach can be to interrogate their emotions. Asking them some questions. “Interrogate” is a strong word. I don’t mean interrogate them, but with curiosity, let me ask myself, “Why am I feeling this way? Why am I thinking this way?” They often need that question-asking gently done for them, modeled for them.

I will ask my eldest, “Why are you responding that way? What is it that has hurt you, or what is it that’s stirred you?” Not to be accusatory, not to feel like an interrogation, but to allow them to be in process, to think about their thinking, to think about their feeling, and to drive them back to what they know of the truth. What do you remember about what God says about man? What God says about Himself? How do we form a scriptural perspective to approach the brokenness that’s in this world?

It gives us a chance to see where there are holes in what they’re believing, and to nurture them and nourish them with the gospel. What is the Lord’s heart for His enemies? What is the Lord asking us to do when we perceive someone as enemy? What does it mean to bless those who persecute us? Those are some of the things I think of when I think of those big emotional responses, that “I just want to put a stop to what’s wrong with the world.” Again, we need to remind them: Whose work is it to put a stop to what’s wrong in the world?

JONATHAN: We’ve been talking about culture war and culture-making for a bit now on the blog, and we’re wrapping it up here. Do you have any closing thoughts on this pretty huge topic, before we wrap it up and move on to the other things in our work?

KELSEY: This is going to be something we return to often in our work. There’s never going to be one podcast that fully explores all of being kingdom-builders, culture-makers, shapers, or even care-givers. I love that term, from another of our books, what it means to be generative in our process, to be those who care for culture.

All of our other work is going to be steeped in that, because it’s one of those over-arching perspectives. As we talk about leadership, it will come out. As we talk about the value of life, it’s going to be a nurturing concept. So check back here for more material that relates to culture-making.

JONATHAN: And where can people reach out to us if they have any questions?

KELSEY: We really want to be in dialogue with you. Just as we have modelled conversation today related to how we’re learning, and how we sharpen one another’s learning, your conversation, your questions, your comments—they’re so very welcome into our process. We’d love to have the honor of being involved in yours.

Reach out to me. My email address is kreed@gwpub.com. We’d love to hear from you.

JONATHAN: And be on the lookout for more News Coach things coming in the future. We’re really excited to share with everyone, and we’ll have more news on that. So stay tuned to God’s World News on Facebook. You can follow Kelsey on Twitter at @TheNewsCoach. And you can always visit the blog to read more, and listen more. We have videos going up on social media to share with you as well. We’re excited to go through the work of walking through this complicated world alongside you.

KELSEY: He has equipped us for the work.

Kelsey Reed

Kelsey Reed