Reforming Christian Education: Omelets or Worldviews?

In his 2008 bestseller, Culture Making, Andrew Crouch, a former Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship chaplain at Harvard University, makes an eloquent argument for encouraging Christians to get busy making cultural artifacts of all kinds, from ideas to books, from ovens to crepes and mousetraps, even cars, missiles, and vaccines. It’s time we Christians stopped condemning and started producing.

He provides both historic and personal examples of responsible culture formation at home, abroad, and in the church. The major theme running through the book is that we do not need any more armchair preachers and philosophers; we need courageous and faithful (Christian) artisans on the ground actually creating sound, constructive, and helpful ways to improve the whole human condition everywhere, locally and globally. And he makes an eloquent case for including our urban environment in the spaces that need to be humanized, not abandoned.

In short, we need Christians doing what God calls them to be doing in this world, namely creating “world meaning” through cultural goods that help all humans, not just those in our local church. If Christians actually do that with integrity and cultural savvy, then the reputation of the church will improve to the point where it might even be considered relevant in the future.

When Christianity Today ran a lengthy review of the book, it also included five case studies of Christians actually doing what the book recommended. This was hailed in the evangelical community as a breakthrough for the twenty-first century … and for evangelicals, it probably was.

When I first read the book, I was excited by the fresh language and the homegrown illustrations, as well as the sophistication of the underlying theology, which highlights the long and diverse cultural narrative in the scriptures, over five thousand years of historic change.

I was not too impressed with the actual thesis: “This book is for people and a Christian community on the threshold of cultural responsibility.” That was old hat to those, like myself, who grew up in the Canadian Christian school movement with the heated debates in the 1960s about “the cultural mandate” vs. “moral rearmament” as opposed to Christian witness options. The Dutch immigrants who fought the Nazis in World War II and then came to Canada to set up other institutions did not need lessons in practicing cultural responsibility or in recognizing good and evil.

My Kuyperian colleagues and friends cut their intellectual teeth on the problems of trying to integrate an old Dutch pluralistic political model into the Canadian traditions of paternalistic socialism. And indeed, the book is weak on the political implications of its own perspective, as one would expect of an author who honestly admits that writing is his own favorite cultural artifact, not reforming political institutions.

Apart from the new vocabulary, the new twist on the old story, (in Revelation) and the new questions that are worthy of study, Crouch has two themes in the book that the Christian school movement in North America would do well to take more seriously. First, he wants us to be aware that culture is mostly a matter of creating tangible goods, and only secondarily a set of ideas with which we talk about what we’ve done, or mostly, not done. Second, he is at pains to point out that the attitudes and postures toward the prevailing culture evident in many Christian communities are hopelessly incompetent or simply dishonest.

First, Crouch explains the ineffectiveness of worldviews in transforming cultures by commenting on worldview philosophers at certain Reformed institutions, known to readers of this journal.

While he compliments Abraham Kuyper (11) and Nick Wolterstorff (62) he is not happy with the current emphasis on “worldviewism” in the evangelical world exhibited by Brian Walsh or Nancy Pearcey. There are too many theoreticians pontificating on how to fix the world—academics thinking that just changing a worldview will in fact change “the” culture. Regretfully worldviews do not even change the universities in which they teach, Christian or not. Cultural artifacts and institutions, through common grace, have a life of their own.

Crouch’s very significant point is that cultural artifacts, like highway systems or omelets, are made first and then often create their own worldviews. Creating new cultural goods, things or ideas that in fact form culture because people use them, is seldom if ever the result of specific worldviews. Historically formative events are never the result of mere worldviews either, though they often are the result of very sophisticated, but nonacademic thinking and experimenting by gifted/leading individuals wanting to solve a practical problem in their neighbourhood.

So a key lesson for the Christian school movement is that worldviews are an important intellectual factor, but not the dominant motive in cultural formation. For Christian educators this means avoiding getting carried away with “the Christian perspective” while not abandoning it as a posture of constructive critique.

Crouch’s second major contribution to the dialogue on Christians in culture involves his innovative notion of cultural posturing. He wants Christians to be more careful about their critiques as well as more creative in their contributions. For the scholars among us, this is a revision of Reinhold Niebuhr’s classic Christ and culture thesis.

All individuals and communities have attitudes about other groups in their society, and attitudes to other events, institutions, and customs. Thus, many churches have strong views on card playing, going to the movies, watching TV, using birth control, premarital sex, gays, and drinking alcohol. In the not-too-distant past, most denominations preached clear moral positions on all these issues based either on a pro- or anti- culture posture, and then bolstered their position with scripture texts, thus sadly creating political culture wars on issues that are mostly personal and contextual.

As a result of this absolutist approach to personal morality, the credibility of the church sank to all-time lows among the dominant educated classes, especially after Prohibition and the Depression. After all, if the “new” morality leads to new forms of suffering and discrimination and corruption, then it is probably not as inspired as one might think.

Crouch argues for a modest fivefold rubric of gestures to help Christians deal with their own culture. A gesture is a conscious attitude of response (93) that should not be allowed to harden into a posture or a blind tradition. He recommends that we use all five:

  1. Yes, we should condemn some cultural artifacts, habits, and customs, such as the global sex trade, pornography, terrorism, and drug cartels. These are clearly evil and not reformable.
  2. We should definitely critique many cultural forms, especially in the arts, because this will spark conversations about norms and ideals. But these activities are not inherently evil, and the critique should be led by the practitioners in that specific field.
  3. We should continue to consume many useful and spiritually safe goods that are unlocking the treasures of God’s creation. I like single malt scotch and golf; my wife prefers sherry and swimming; one of our four children is a teetotaler expert on fruit juices and runs 15 km a day. These kinds of normal human enjoyments should not be moralized to the point of becoming political pawns for ideologues of any kind, Christian or not.
  4. Some cultural artifacts, such as music and fashion can be copied and infused with Christian style or sensibility, or they can just be copied. I still prefer to worship with J. S. Bach rather than M. W. Smith, but I can appreciate the preferences of others. Sometimes a bit of humility will be good for the church. It does not have the corner on “the truth,” though it may have a corner on salvation. Crouch points out that after Pentecost, every language, culture and institution was capable of bearing the good news of redemption (93)!
  5. Finally Crouch comes to the two postures that are most scriptural, and have been least explored by the church in the last century—creating and cultivating, to use the metaphors found in Genesis. This is done by providing an environment in which purposeful work is encouraged, rewarded, and made possible, and in which the stewardship of cultural goods is taken seriously! Only after you have been a culture creator yourself are you in a credible position to critique the artifacts produced by others.

What about the world of education? Teachers are excellent examples of cultivators, namely professional people who prune, train, and support the budding new intellectual potential that each child brings into the world. It is a slow and painful process, but the rewards are great in the end, and the possibility of encouraging future creators and leaders is exciting. That promise may even be inspiring!

I believe that Crouch’s culture-making paradigm contains the solution to the malaise now pervading the Christian school movement in North America.

We have declining enrollments in Christian schools for two real reasons, namely cost and loss of cultural purpose. Many middle class Christian families do not have the cash flow to pay for tuition. That issue needs to be addressed with financial plans, not with accusations of lack of commitment.

However, the real public issue is: What do Christian schools provide that is of educational value or importance today? A nice cozy safe haven with a preselected family base is not an answer that fits Crouch’s five cultural integrity norms. Are Christian schools culturally formative or reactionary today?

Crouch provides a set of five tough questions that will help assess whether a cultural institution is living in its environment with integrity, the key cultural norm for success. Christian school leaders need to engage in this educationaldiscussion as well as the financial and political ones. Let me illustrate.

The public school missionaries triumphed in the nineteenth century over the sectarian and private school proponents, because their visionary leaders understood that the social problems of the day were the result of the impact of industrialization. This new cultural “form” the churches opposed as an immoral worship of money, or “materialism”! This condemning posture was especially hypocritical since the main supporters of the churches were the old landowners and the new class of freehold farmers, both opposed to the new invention called “the factory.”

Today, Christian educators are in the same predicament as the nineteenth century school reformers. We have a corrupt and tired but powerful secular school establishment, against which we need to marshal a new purpose for schools if we are to be relevant for the twenty-first century. Sugar coating on the secular cake will not get us very far. Instead we need to practice the old definition of full-time Christian service, not preaching, but being busy full-time cultivating in one’s individually chosen area of culture.

Crouch sums up as follows:

“If there is a constructive way forward for Christians in the midst of our broken but beautiful cultures, it will require a rediscovery of these two Biblical postures of creation and cultivation. And that recovery will involve revisiting the Biblical story itself, where we discover that God is more intimately and eternally concerned with culture than we have yet come to believe” (98).