Richard J. Mouw wrote a book on culture and common grace called He Shines In All That’s Fair. Philip Graham Ryken has a similar book called He Speaks To Me Everywhere. The idea, of course, is that there are glimpses of God everywhere, especially in culture. But what if you live in a cultural context which seems to lack any distinctive rays of individuality, creativity and especially God’s glory?
The Cultural Void
In Jeremiah 29, God tells His people to seek the welfare of the city of their captivity. For me, that is suburbia. Not cool suburbia where gentrification has transformed the past-its-prime strip mall into vintage clothing stores and hip coffee shops. We have Chili’s and Target and if it’s crowded, don’t worry because there’s another one just a couple of miles down the road. Our color palette is various shades of beige and the term “cookie cutter” adequately describes our home architecture. One day, when we moved back to Phoenix in 2008 to plant our church, we visited some friends in a neighboring subdivision. Turning into their neighborhood, one of my boys said: “We’re home!”
I live in Suburbia and I love music, especially live music. Suburban exile means that live music has been stripped from the fabric of our culture with the exception of the occasional lip-sync act at the mall food court. It’s as if the Taliban came in silencing the music, but the special forces are outside the camp trying to drive us out by pumping in “lowest-common-denominator, auto-tuned, mid-era power pop” until we snap. I have to drive close to an hour for quality live music venues.
My first reaction to such an obvious injustice was to blog about it. Once I had done that, I want to do something about it. Though I was tempted to simply complain about my lot in life, Andy Crouch had already pulled my card. In Culture Making, he argues that instead of simply “critiquing” or “copying” culture, we should “create” culture. If our surrounding culture lacks flavor, we should be the salt.
One way to think about the gospel is in terms of “fall reversal.” When Adam and Eve mistrusted and disobeyed on our behalf, they cast everyone after them and all of creation into slavery to sin, decay, disorder, and death. Yet their task to “subdue the earth,” or to bring order from chaos, was not nullified; it just became more difficult. As Adam and Eve wandered from the garden, they left remnants of order behind them, glimpses of God’s character. They were still charged with the task of bringing God’s image to bear in and through a now-broken creation. This charge extends to God’s people to this day, primarily in and through the Gospel.
This is true on several different levels. As the Holy Spirit awakens rebelliously dead souls to life in Christ, the fall is being reversed. The dead are brought to life and God’s people are sent into every sphere of life to show who God is and what he’s like. Likewise, when we bring order from the chaos of life, when we seek justice, when we build community, or when we pursue beauty we are bringing God’s image to bear on the world he created. Therefore, those who have been brought from death to life ought to be at the forefront of creating culture.
A friend and I decided to do something about our city’s musical barrenness. We started hosting concerts at our homes. Not like those sketchy house parties you used to go to where that one band from high school rocked teen angst out of hand-me-down amps and you tried to protect your Dixie cup from the mosh pit in the backyard (no, wait, maybe that was just me). We host musical performances where community is built around artistic expression and we do this for a number of reasons.
We Believe In A Creator God & Culture Is Important
Our God is a creator god who spoke creation into existence and created us in his image.This means that we have creative capacities like God. We can’t create out of nothing but we can take what God has given us and shape it into new statements. We can bring order from the chaos. Not only is this what our God did (Genesis 1 and 2), it is what he has charged mankind with as well.
Many refer to Genesis 1:28 as the "cultural mandate.” We are to shape the world around us, extend God’s order and beauty, and bring order to chaos. It’s telling that the biblical story does not end with a return to the Garden. It begins in a garden but ends in a city. We are commanded to create culture.
The idea of “culture” has taken on various meanings. At its root, the word culture is derived from the Latin cultura, which is a form of colere, meaning to “plow or till.” The idea was one of “cultivation,” particularly in an agronomic context. Hence, the word agriculture. God’s command to “subdue the earth” was also a command to create culture.
Culture is about more than worldview and ideas. Culture is, as Andy Crouch argues: “the name for our relentless, restless human effort to take the world as it’s given to us and make something else” (p. 23). It includes artifacts, music, television shows, newspaper articles, sporting events, origami, that last great meal you had and everything in between. Culture is everywhere and it matters. More than we realize.
When we create culture, we are showing the world what God is like; who he is and what he values. He has brought order from chaos, beauty from tumult and he has charged his people to do the same. When we bring a moment of comfort to a friend’s sorrow, when we create a piece of art from the left-over magazine scraps, when we open our homes, when we have a yard-sale for a friend, when we create music or just open up a space for that to happen, we are creating a culture that demonstrates the character of God. The culture that we leave behind says more about the God we worship than it says about us.
If all we leave behind is a choked thoroughfare of strip-mall banality, dotted with chain stores and microwaved restaurants, what are we telling the world about the God we worship? That he is willing to make things just tasty enough to get people through the door but not spicy enough to drive anyone away? What are we communicating when our “art” competes with the starving artists’ clearance sale this weekend at that shady motel?
Christians should make the best culture because we have the least to fear and the most to celebrate because we have been given life! I worship a God who brought order from the chaos and continues to do so in every area of my life and has given me a desire to see beauty spring forth from the parched ground of suburbia.
We have been called to celebrate the creator through creating. We cannot create out of nothing, but we can point to the God who can as we make new discoveries out of what he has left us. Culture matters because the culture we create says a lot about the god(s) we worship. Our mediocre art says, “our God is comfort.” Our reality T.V. shows say, “our god is at-least-I’m-not-that-messed-up.”
My friend and I were not content with the various shades of beige culture of our suburbia so we set out to create a better story pointing to a God who is beautiful and spurs me on to love, appreciate, and create beauty.
God’s People Are Called To Better the City Of Their Captivity
While establishing His covenant with Abram, God says He is blessing Abram and his descendants “so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12). God shows his love not just to his people but through his people.
Society should be better because we, his people, are present. This extends to our enemies. In Jeremiah 29:7, God tells his exiled people to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” Our love for God should manifest itself in the betterment of our cities.
We have not only been called to “preach the gospel” (the message of reconciliation), but to be ‘salt and light,” making things better (the ministry of reconciliation). I wonder, if my church family disappeared overnight, would our city even know the difference? We don’t seek to better the city just for our “best life now” but to reflect a God who has not left his creation abandoned.
The city should be filled with creativity, celebration, and community. House Shows, when seen through this lens, become a kaleidoscopic. They give us a glimpse of something more, something that resonates with the way we know things ought to be.
Jesus Brought The Better Wine
When considering culture, most of the attention is focused on the “cultural mandate” of Genesis 1. This is important because it is the foundation of interacting with culture. But there is more to your home than a foundation. From a Christian perspective, we should ask how the cultural mandate is changed (if at all) by Jesus.
Not only did God call his people to seek the welfare of their captors, he accomplished this through Jesus who entered into the sinful world to bring freedom. Jesus didn’t just enter culture, he made it better. He used community to bring people towards belief instead of using belief to exclude people from community. He brought the better wine. He made people consider their motives. He listened. He healed. He left behind not only words that people could remember but a different culture they could experience.
We don’t host concerts just because we love good music. We belong to a God who not only commanded us to go to the ends of the earth to create culture but primarily to make disciples. Though we do not use the concerts as evangelistic events, we make sure that we have friends there who can listen, declare, and demonstrate the gospel as the Spirit leads. Jesus demonstrated that this sometimes means creating spaces where those who don’t believe feel more comfortable than those who already do. Music is an important way to bridge these boundaries.
Music Brings Us Together And Lowers Social Boundaries
Music can be powerful. People who love the same music often feel a bond. People who have experienced the same music live together often feel a bond. A good performer can encourage self-examination and discovery while also being entertaining. House shows provide a unique opportunity to engage people in the realm of the creative while also being accessible. As people attend more than one of our house shows, we wee deep, meaningful discussions arise in the context of relationship. Music can be a powerful tool in building a community that wants more than what the current version of life seems to have to offer. House shows provide a valuable, non-threatening way to build community.
Artists Are Often Our Prophetic Voices
Not only can music lower social barriers, it can also make us acutely aware of the world’s problems in a unique way. Artists in general, and musicians in particular, are often the prophetic voices of a generation. Songwriters are often the ones saying what the rest of us innately feel: something’s not right. Though the musician may not be a Christian, we are able to enter one another’s story knowing that we agree that things are not the way they should be. This is a great opportunity for people who not only realize that things are broken but who have also been touched by the Great Physician.
Music certainly isn’t the only way to pursue this vision. You might consider hosting a poetry or spoken word night, craft night, wood carving fire-pit nights, or sponsoring artists. You could even partner with local restaurant/coffee shop to host an artist’s opening night, song writer groups, film makers’ night, etc. You don’t even have to have any talent yourself. But you must believe that God gives us glimpses of himself when we bring order from chaos and beauty from the broken.
How has God called you to seek the welfare of your city?
What does it look like in action?
Here is video of Aaron Spiro (Soma Tacoma) performing at one of our house shows.
Tips on how to start a house show movement in your city: House Show Tips
Brent Thomas (MDiv) and his wife Kristi live in Glendale, AZ with four biological sons and one foster child. Brent pastored in KY and TX before moving back to AZ to plant Church of the Cross which exists to make, mature, and multiply disciples through gospel, community, and mission. He sometimes writes at Holiday At The Sea and hosts house shows with The Habañero Collective.
Read more in Proclaiming Jesus by Tony Merida