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How Can We Make Something As Big As Culture?

“Frying frittata cakes layered the air with pungent promise.” —“Great Sky River,” Gregory Benford

To me, the above sentence is one of the most beautiful in all of modern literature. It’s just one of those combinations of sounds that roll off the tongue in a surprisingly pleasant way. The alliteration, the personification, and the word choice all contribute. While my affinity for this sentence might be subjective and unique to myself, what is clear is that there are a lot of cultural cues hidden in those nine words.

Who is frying the frittata cakes? What do they smell like? Who thinks that the cakes smell like promise? And what does this promise mean to them?

You’ll have to read the book for yourself (or books, “Great Sky River” is the third book in Gregory Benford’s Galactic Center series) to answer these questions. But we can learn a lot about the definition of culture, and even our relationship to it, through asking questions like these.

In his popular book, “Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling,” Andy Crouch of Christianity Today gives us a framework of five questions for understanding and diagnosing culture when we are only looking at a tiny fragment.

1. What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world is?
2. What does this cultural artifact assume about the way the world should be?
3. What does this cultural artifact make possible?
4. What does this cultural artifact make impossible (or at least very difficult?)
5. What new forms of culture are created in response to this artifact?

Crouch walks through this framework with the example of an omelet. An omelet tells us that in the culture we are observing, people like eating cooked eggs. There are chickens (or other birds) in enough abundance that produce eggs and there is a heating source able to cook them. To the fifth question, the existence of omelets means that a market might be created around cooking and preparing omelets, it means that special omelet making utensils might be created, and so on.

We talk a lot about our call as Christians to make culture, to engage culture, and even to transform culture. In the on-going conversation started by Richard Niebuhr’s “Christ & Culture,” we often wonder what exactly culture is and how do we make it? How does culture-making play itself out in our practical, everyday lives?

These questions are particularly acute in our lives, as we almost always see small cultural artifacts, not large cultural movements.

[pq]We make big cultural changes one small piece at a time—often without seeing the big picture.[/pq]

We recently looked at the new film, Interstellar, and discussed how despite the fact that its makers are not Christ-followers, the film’s excellent craftsmanship still gives glory to and points to the Craftsman. We looked at the Christian rapper Lecrae, and how he does “his Christian duty not by putting crosses on his albums (or scoring a high Jesus-per-minute-ratio), but by making good albums.” It’s easy for us to see how films and rap albums make culture, but what if you like to make omelets? Does that really have the same kind of cultural impact? Is it still making culture?

Crouch’s helpful contribution to this conversation is that everything, even small things like omelets and frittata cakes, are cultural. We make big cultural changes one small piece at a time—often without seeing the big picture…

“Did you hear that? They’ve shut down the main reactor. We’ll be destroyed for sure. This is madness! We’re doomed. There’ll be no escape for the Princess this time.” – C-3PO

You may recognize those words as the opening line of “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.” Some of you might have gone back and watched the original Star Wars trilogy since the release of the new trailer. In a recent interview for BBC America’s miniseries “The Real History of Science Fiction,” Anthony Daniels, the man inside the C-3PO suit, spoke about his experience making the film. He recalled that during the filming, the actors lacked the big picture. They didn’t know how the bizarre scenery and dialogue they acted out each day played into the final story and at times they were greatly discouraged.

One day on the way to the set, Daniels joked with Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) that if the film flops, everyone will know that Mark was in the film, but they may not even know that he was because he’s in a suit the whole time.

When Daniels finally saw the movie, and heard his voice deliver that opening line, he called it “masterful.” All of the little pieces, random scenes, and short lines fell into place and he saw the whole story unfold before his eyes. He points out how much meaning those few short sentences convey. These strange robots are on a vessel that is under attack, there is a Princess who is escaping from something—and she’s done it before.

It’s these masterful small details that were brought together to create one of the most influential films in contemporary culture. But even the actors who made the masterpiece didn’t know its greatness until it was complete.

No matter what your vocation, what your interests, or your God-given talents, you are making culture in small ways every day. Our friend Elise Amyx recently shared that sometimes changing the world feels boring.

We should all have a strong sense of hope and optimism about making a real difference in the world through our vocation, no matter what our age might be. But we shouldn’t expect “changing the world” to feel like we’re on top of a mountain. Most moments will feel ordinary.

Aim to be a good steward of your gifts and talents, and glorify God through every small contribution to culture. It’s the combination of these small cultural artifacts that will help pave the way for Christ’s coming Kingdom.