In the opening chapter of For the Beauty of the Church (W. David O. Taylor), Andy Crouch highlights the distinction between creation and culture. The story of creation is about creatio ex nihilo – the creation of something from nothing. In extension, culture is about creation out of what has already been created (creatio ex creatis).
Culture – God’s idea
In the scriptural account of Genesis 2:4-15, God had already created vegetation. In planting the Garden of Eden, God begins the work of culture before handing it over to Adam. Culture is God’s idea. It is at the same time a gift and calling from, and obedience to, God. Crouch says, “Culture is what we make of the world.”
Deep down in the layers of the earth, God placed gold, onyx and bdellium stone – minerals not useful like iron or granite might be. In placing these minerals out of sight, Crouch suggests that humanity is made all the richer for exploration, experimentation and craftsmanship, as they realize the full potential of these gifts. “God has placed primordial humanity in a world that will only reach its full potential for beauty when it is cultivated, explored – where more goodness waits to be unearthed. The world is even better than it appears,” he says.
But the original cultural mandate suffers a devastating twist when humankind begins to make decisions toward their independence. No more waiting to walk with God in the cool of the evening.
No waiting for their education or maturing in the knowledge of good and evil. No waiting for anything. They want their desires met immediately. After Adam and Eve give in to temptation, they are no longer the perfect beings they were created to be. And they know it. Their new understanding prompts them to stitch fig leaves together to cover their shame and nakedness. The entitled couple accepts the forbidden fruit and their culture-making changes. It is no longer limited to caring for creation; it becomes a contextual response to the morning news. The world has changed overnight. Their culture-making sewing project is now a defensive mechanism to avoid a new threat – of vulnerability, of being known, of trusting their fellow humans and their Creator.
Culture itself becomes a birthplace for sin; Cain murders his brother in a cultivated field; Noah becomes drunk in his vineyard; brick and bitumen – not gold and precious minerals – become the dull materials used for a tower built from a stance of independence, power and selfishness.
Thankfully, God doesn’t leave them (us) alone. He inverts this culture birthed from pain. He sends his own Son, who on the evening before his death takes not wheat and grapes (nature) but bread and wine (culture) to share with his disciples. Crouch says, “Jesus takes culture, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to his friends. Taken, broken, blessed and given, these cultural goods … become sign and presence of God in the world.” We receive the gifts of God for the people of God, beautiful cultural gifts to nourish the soul.
The art connection
Our understanding of art is closely connected to our understanding of culture. Art is culture, although culture is not necessarily art. Art is using our imagination to make something out of that which is already created – something that resonates with meaning for us, something contextual.
Art is the term we use for everything we make of the world that can’t be described as having a specific utilitarian use. What is the point of preparing a beautiful table and delicacies, when an austere setting and plain food gets the job done? Why grow ornamental plants rather than vegetables and fruit? Why write music or poetry?
We do these things because God has placed in us a longing for beauty and meaning. We can’t explain art except to say that’s exactly what it is. It serves no utilitarian purpose, although we can certainly argue its potential for good. Although it is able to change us, art does not coerce. It doesn’t ‘do’ anything. It simply elicits enjoyment and reflection. Art and worship share this characteristic.
But more in Part 3, Beauty and Art in Worship.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable –if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things. (Phillipians 4:8)