This week, I’m privileged to publish a lengthy interview with Andy Crouch – the author of one of my favorite books of last year: Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Andy is a senior editor at Christianity Today International and was editorial director of the Christian Vision Project from 2005 to 2008.

Before you read this interview, consider reading an excerpt from Culture Making in Christianity Today: “Creating Culture: Our Best Response to the World is to Make Something of It”.

Trevin Wax: You critique the way that evangelicals talk about “the culture.” Why is our talk about “the culture” misguided?

Andy Crouch: Well, first of all, we use the phrase “the culture” way too often. Culture has many scales and many spheres. We can speak about “the culture of the American Southwest” or “the culture of Ivy League institutions” and we’ll be talking about very different things. But there’s also “the culture of my neighborhood barbershop” or “the culture of my block.” Each of these scales and spheres has its own distinctive patterns of possibility and impossibility.

When we talk about “the culture,” we pass over all of those distinctive patterns. We usually use it as a shorthand for the culture mediated through certain institutions—Hollywood, the national media, and so forth—but it would be much more useful to talk about “the culture of Hollywood” than just “the culture,” because that immediately orients you to a specific place with a specific history.

“The culture” is just too broad a term to be useful, and it obscures many of the cultural settings where we actually can do the most good.

Trevin Wax: You also critique our emphasis on “impacting” the culture. What is the harm in speaking this way?

Andy Crouch: “Impact” is a terribly misleading noun masquerading as a verb. As in, “I want to move to New York and impact the culture.” (Bonus points if you want to “just really impact the culture.”)

This betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of how cultures work. Human cultures are designed to absorb and deflect impact. There is nothing a culture resists so strongly as “impact.”

Peter Berger and others have made a very persuasive case that one of culture’s essential functions is to ward off the “impacts” that threaten us from the outside world—the unpredictable calamities of nature, the threat of other tribes and nations, and the ultimate perplexity of death.

So if you want to provoke a really effective immune response from a culture—if you want to ensure that every cultural resource will be mobilized against you—set out to “impact” it.

Trevin Wax: If seeking to “impact” the culture is not the way that culture changes, how does cultural change take place.

When cultures change in beneficial ways, it is almost never the result of “impact” but rather patient and long-term cultivation, measured in decades or centuries. I am very dubious whether “impact” is the right word even for such a dramatic effort as William Wilberforce’s campaign against the British slave trade, given that it took quite literally his whole lifetime to accomplish.

The best example of cultural “impact” I can think of in our lifetime is the 9/11 attacks. They created impact, all right. But did they create anything good? No. And think about how remarkably quickly, in retrospect, our whole culture mobilized to regain its sense of normalcy, to resist any real change in our values, priorities, and lifestyle. On September 12, 2001, I never could have imagined how quickly we’d be back in shopping malls.

But that’s how cultures work. The only way to change them—in beneficial ways—is over a very long period of time.

Trevin Wax: Tomorrow, I’ll ask Andy about some of the successes of evangelical “culture-making.”