Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Culture Making Ch 4 -- Cultivtion and Creation

I truly enjoyed the film Tortilla Soup. Hector Alizondo plays the role of a great chef whose wife has died. Every Sunday, he and his three adult daughters gather for a home-cooked meal. The film dwells on shots of the selections of ingredients and preparation of food .... and we see that this family is bond together by the regular routines of preparation and enjoyment of a great meal.

Andy Crouch evoked memories of that film in this chapter on Cultivation and Creation. He makes the argument that the only way to change culture is to make new culture that displaces it. He gives the example of homemade chili. His kids may protest against it now, but with the consistent creation of it, he will teach them that preparation of food is a delight and a valuable thing. They may make their own recipies as a way of doing something else, anything else other than chili, but they still will have been taught the value of making their own meals.

Crouch thinks through the other stances toward culture in relation to Creation and Cultivation:

condemning culture: does very little... that which is condemned is still there. The show goes on unless an alternative is offered.

Critiquing culture: This looks for redeeming qulaities. It may shape the framework of some, but it only has lasting value if someone creates new culture in response (I'm reminded of a drama workshop I attended years ago taught by Charlie and Ruth Jones. Charlie opened with a talk about TS Eliot, the great poet who decided that his literary talents were better used in writing essays about the culture. Today, nobody reads the essays, but everyone still has to study The Waste Land in some literature class in their career. The illustration holds... analysis has value....but it's lasting value lies in what is done with the analysis. However, Eliots Criticism did arouse some pretty lasting effects.... that perhaps is a subject for a different article)

Copying culture: creation of a subculture is OK and something of a refuge for those in the subculture, but does little to touch those outside the subculture.

Consuming culture: Use the power of the purse to shape culture. Crouch uses the example of Barbara Nicolosi's "othercott" against The DaVinci Code. The idea wasn't to boycott going to movies the weekend of the opening of the lackluster film adaptation of Dan Brown's controversial thriller. Rather, the idea was to go see anything but the DaVinci Code. If Hollywood understands things in terms of dollars and cents, then in addition to punishing objectionable fare, positive and healthy fare needs to be rewarded. Crouch shows how this is a good idea, but on the aggregate scale, the kinds of numbers required to really make a difference are staggering.

Culture Making, by contrast, requires a decision to participate in the cultural tradition of which we are a part. This begins with Cultivation .... learning the tradition. It begins with the habits of conserving the true, the good, and the beautiful in our tradition and teaching them to the next generation. “One who cultivates tries to create the most fertile conditions for good things to survive and thrive.” (75)

Crouch points out that disciplines are simply systematic methods of cultivation. The pianist running through scales. The basketball player practicing free throws. The writer sitting down for his daily 30 minutes of writing. The disciplines we do on the day in day out, week in week out basis are the things that prepare fertile soil for rich and deep culture making.

This is one of the reasons Tammy and I have chosen to put our children in a private school centered on the Classical model. Yes, our children will spend much of their elementary school years memorizing and packing facts into their heads (fortunately they memorize using fun methods like songs, chants, body motion, and a variety of other methodologies).... but the disciplines of learning all these things will become a deep well from which they can draw in later years. Of course, I don't object to christians sending their children to public schools....there are great public schools here in Cincinnati, and many of our congregation members are public school teachers. However, this was a decision that was right for our family.

Another example....I somtimes get some of our members who say "you must read a lot, how do you find time to read all these books?" Admittedly, I do read a lot. However, I've been reading a lot for over 20 years. Just because I refer to a book (or a film) in a sermon, that doesn't mean that I was reading that particular book last week. Over a couple of decades, I've built up a deep well of knowledge about literature, history, and the arts. I'm not particularly more clever than anyone else, I've just been doing serious study for a long time.... and I've been archiving information in notes and journals so that I can come back to it later. This is just a basic discipline that cultivates the mind.

“So underneath almost every act of culture making we find countless small acts of culture keeping. That is why the good screenwriter has first watched a thousand movies; why the surgeon who pioneers a new technique has first performed a thousand routine surgeries; and why the investor who provides funds to the next startup has studied a thousand balance sheets. Cultural creativity requires cultural maturity. Someday my own children will undoubtedly cook me a wonderful meal – but by that time, they will also have learned to love chili. With any luck, they will be both culture keepers and culture makers – both cultivators and creators. And then they will be prepared to both conserve culture at its best and change it for the better by offering the world something new.” (77)

However Crouch points out....that is only the first step. Cultivation only sets the conditions. Then there comes the act of Creation. And here, unfortunately, Crouch ends the chapter. Of course he comes back to the call to create, but I would have liked more.

I would have liked more on the fears that are involved in creating. Creating seems to be a tremendous act of ego.... and it is terrifying. Bayles and Orland, in their work Art and Fear deal with this very issue. They talk about the fear of not being able to make the art we create match the art that is in our head. The materials are never as supple as we hope they'll be. They never fully respond the way we want. Bayles tells the story of learning to play the piano: After a few months practice he moaned to his teacher “but I can hear the music so much better in my head than in can get out of my fingers.” To which the master replied “What makes you think that ever changes?” (14-15)

Bayles and Orland also tell this most revealing story:
A ceramics teacher divided his class into two groups – those on the left would be graded on the quantity of the work they produced, those on the right solely on the quality of the work. The second group only had to produce one pot, but it had to be perfect to get an A. “Well, came grading time and a curious fact emerged: the works of highest quality were all produced by the group being graded for quantity. It seems that while the quantity group was busily churning out piles of work – and learning from their mistakes – the “quality” group had sat theorizing about perfection, and in the end had little more to show for their efforts than grandiose theories and a pile of dead clay.” (29)

In other words, a significant part of culture making....of the cultivation process in doing. We need to be producing.

So I ask ... what are you working on. What creative disciplines (beyond the spiritual disciplines) have you developed?

Soli Deo Gloria