Three weeks ago, those of us around Hamilton, Ontario had the opportunity to engage with Andy Crouch over a three day period. We found ourselves immersed in Andy’s enthusiastic vision for God’s people to engage the resources God has entrusted to us to create culture in such a way that the most vulnerable in our communities might flourish. What follows are a few short summaries and some of the lingering thoughts & questions that have stuck with me since then.
The World and Our Calling Lecture (Redeemer University College)
Andy led two public lectures as part of Redeemer’s annual The World & Our Calling lecture series. (A consistently fantastic series, BTW). I was able to attend the Tuesday evening presentation on Creating Culture. Andy’s lecture was wide-ranging, with clear examples of how our North American Christianity has tended to approach our broader culture with hesitancy and fear. He noted that we’ve taken a reactive posture toward the world around us, choosing to condemn, critique, copy, or consume, but seldom to create culture. Andy went on to emphasize that creating culture is not merely making things, but creating in a way that helps make sense of the world. Offering a helpful corrective, Andy encouraged us to take the beginning and ending of the biblical narrative seriously – Gen 1 & 2 and Rev 21 & 22 are essential if we are to see ourselves participating with God in cultivating life so that it flourishes. He then cautioned us to guard against deceptive illusion that flourishing is equivalent to affluence. Playing a piece from Bach, Andy showed how creating culture journeys from the familiar through dissonance and into a resolution. When we flourish when we know others and are known (Parker Palmer’s influence could be heard in this piece) and where we participate in a story that is much greater than ourselves.
Though he did not use the same language, Andy’s presentation, particularly his analysis of our typical postures toward culture, point toward the ways we have become a product of the stories we tell. (Hauerwas’ “we are a storied-people”). We tell ourselves that culture is toxic and so we condemn it. We tell ourselves that culture is against us and so we spend our energy critiquing it. Or we say that culture is merely a tool or vessel for gaining attention, so we attempt to copy it in order to give our message play time in front of a broader audience. Or we might even so that culture is necessary and so we consume it, like water and air – without thinking. The stories we tell, shape our posture within the world.
My take away questions are these: how can those of us in the church engage a different story – one that is not marked by fear of the world, but by desire that the world might flourish in a way that spills outside of our worship services? How can we tell a story where the people who gather with us on Sundays and throughout the week see their primary role as being a community that encourages people to create culture for the common good, rather than resist culture? As a storied-people, perhaps our greatest calling then is not to tell a story with words, but to embody the story with our life together so that others can catch a glimpse of what it can look like to flourish as God’s culture makers.
Chapel at Redeemer University College
Andy did a marvelous job of turning the eclectic chapel audience into a “Redeemer Gospel Choir” teaching us a new song (at least new to most in the audience) with older African-American spiritual rhythms. Andy worked through that song to draw us into a meditation on our calling and opportunity to create culture. One of the more provocative questions that Andy asked during the morning was “Why are Christians from majority world not creating culture that is transformative like the gospel tradition and others before us?” He then suggested that in part it’s because we have resorted to consuming music via CD’s/audio files rather than making music on pianos, violins, and other instruments. Andy pointed out how there is discipline – a long discipline through the mundane – in order to learn how to create culture. Years of playing scales. Years of working with tools and our hands. And in that disciplined direction, Andy noted that creating culture that endures often emerges from within and engages suffering. It imagines and creates opportunity for others to flourish even in the presence of suffering.
I found this chapel space to be refreshing and a tangible example of how creating culture can be encouraged in a worship context. So often we have had a tendency in our North American Christianity to disconnect mission and culture engagement from our worship. Our worship patterns have a tendency to participate in an escape from the world, like a mini-one-hour vacation from our our troubles and stress. Yet, the picture Andy painted, the story he called us to participate in, showed worship to be a formative place for engaging suffering with a vision that we can flourish in the midst of it. The question I’ve lingered with is how to allow space for suffering to be named within worship in a way that recognizes its reality while also forming us to see our role as those who cultivate relationships and opportunities for everyone, particularly the vulnerable, to flourish. It seems to me that there is also a danger in naming suffering to let it become the whole story. How do we authentically engage suffering within worship without making the worship gathering too glib or too glum?
TrueCity conference: Redeeming the Gift of Power
TrueCity Hamilton sponsored Andy for a discussion of power, and Andy’s new book: Playing God. There was some overlap in the presentations between this and the couple days Andy spent at Redeemer University College. However, there was also more space to engage in dialogue with other Christian leaders from around the Hamilton area.
Andy’s opening remarks included the statement that “the only way to redeem culture is to create more culture.” Andy pointed to cities as the places where people tend to gather for the most wonderful and most destructive outworkings of what people imagine their world could look like. He also highlighted the potential for Christians to engage in restorative culture making in these urban environments so that we experience flourishing together. Andy noted that one of the clear examples of this kind of restorative work is the Brightmoor Gardens in Detroit.
Flourishing in Andy’s perspective is centered around a society’s attention to the most vulnerable. He suggested that flourishing is measured through the vibrancy of life for those who would not thrive without a community that is committed to them. Several aspects of the dialogue that emerged here have stuck with me. One comment about about how there is all sorts of attention to children once they are born, but their vulnerability before birth is often overlooked in our culture. Another comment was made about how perhaps the most difficult person to care for is the one who has the resources to hide or mask their vulnerability from others and even from themselves. Andy pointed out that flourishing is like gardening – there are lots of surprises and plenty of ongoing work along the way. Too often, we assume that to seek the flourishing of others requires that we set aside our own passions. Andy countered this line of thinking, suggesting instead that we are able to contribute most to the flourishing of others when we serve through our passions.
The afternoon session reflected our idolatry and the distortions of relationship and the image of God that accompany it. Andy drew our attention to the lie inherent in idolatry – that our vulnerability can be overcome and our power increased so that we become like God and never die. However, one of the signs of an idol is that what starts out as pleasure and power becomes a slave-master that controls us. The distortion of our identity through idolatry can come through all-powerful benevolence and all-powerful corruption. Both can be task masters that distort our image (we have no needs) and the image of God in others (they have not gifts). Andy then suggested that the way out of this distortion is to attend to God’s character, particularly his character of compassion. “God-like compassion is to free others so that they can flourish by freeing others to flourish.” In this mutuality we begin to see that diversity is part of the fabric of God’s creation and that the beauty and strength of diversity become evident when all people contribute to the flourishing of everyone else.
Perhaps, more than anything else, Andy’s presentation at TrueCity was about a recovery of the common good through the restoration of God’s image in us and in others. I am reminded of Calvin’s take in the Institutes that we serve others because God’s image is in them – no matter how distorted we may perceive it to be. And Bucer’s perspective that we serve others on account of God’s image in us – we have been created so that we might participate in the flourishing of others. Together the mutuality of those two accounts of God’s image opens up a reciprocal and symbiotic relationship that we have with another. To paraphrase, I am not flourishing unless I am participating in the flourishing of others, which is seen in their participation of the flourishing of others. Created in God’s image, we pursue the common good so that others will have the opportunity to discover and live into God’s image of pursuing the common good.
I have been reflecting on this restoration of God’s image in us and the challenge in that to spend ourselves on behalf of others, particularly those who are most vulnerable in our society. James’ litmus test – “Religion that God the Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after the orphan and widow in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” – seems to be at the heart of this recovery. Who are the orphans and widows in our community? How are we listening to them? How are we spending ourselves and bending the resources God has entrusted to us in ways that promote, celebrate, and cultivate their flourishing? If the proclamation of Good News in Jesus Christ is about living in such a way that the vulnerable in our communities flourish, then the calling of the church, and therefore the engagement of its resources, ought to be weighted toward and abundantly accessible to the vulnerable in the communities in which our churches have been planted.
My linger question from this day, and perhaps for all three days of Andy’s visit is: “How might such a mission oriented vision bent toward the flourishing of the vulnerable impact the way we worship, engage discipleship, and extend care within our churches?”