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by Andy Crouch for Culture Making

Over the last 15 years International Justice Mission has mobilized Christians to address the profound need for structural transformation in public justice systems around the world that, due to a combination of corruption (i.e., human sin turned systemic) and lack of resources, do not serve the poor. Generally the rich can find a way to get these systems (or parallel replacements for them) to work adequately on their behalf. The poor cannot.

IJM has brought professional expertise (investigative, legal, social work, diplomatic, etc.) to bear on these systems, founded its work on a casework model that helps actual clients who have suffered from injustice in a dramatic way, married that casework to a structural transformation vision that realizes that the problem is bigger than individual cases, and been motivated and sustained by profound faith in a realm where even people of good will are often paralyzed by fear and despair. Due to this unique combination of assets targeted at an area of particular need, IJM has had an extraordinary impact, most recently recognized by Google, which is devoting its 2011 corporate philanthropy to an anti-trafficking coalition led by IJM. There is nothing I’m more thrilled by in my lifetime than the growth in breadth, depth, and influence of IJM (with whom I’ve had the privilege to work and volunteer in various ways for many years).

Thanks to generations of hard work and ongoing vigilance, our public justice system in the USA is not systemically broken to the same extent as it is in the countries where IJM works. But today it occurred to me that there is another system in our country that in some ways is as broken as, if not more broken than, its equivalents in the rest of the world. This system does not serve the poor. Generally the rich can find a way to get this system (or a parallel replacement for it) to work adequately on their behalf. The poor cannot—even though they overwhelmingly want to.

What we need in this system is a movement that brings professional expertise in numerous areas, a casework model that actually meets the needs of specific individuals and families in a dramatic way, married to a structural transformation model, motivated and sustained by profound faith in a realm where all too many people have effectively given up.

This system is our educational system.

Who will lead the IJM of courageous, faithful, professional, Christian efforts toward the structural transformation of American education so that it works just as well for the poor as it does for the rich? Could it be that 15 years from now we could have seen as much transformation in the way American Christians see their responsibility for education as we have seen in the last 15 years in the way they see their responsibility for public justice?

That’s what I’d like for Christmas.

The culture of each building, and the culture of the more abstract sphere they represent—retail, water treatment, banking, undergraduate education, and so on—has its own history of making and remaking, of possibility and impossibility. Many things that are entirely possible in a cafeteria—say, a food fight—are all but impossible in a dentist’s office, and vice versa.

Culture Making, p.44

from Etiquette in Society, in Business, in Politics, and at Home, by Emily Post, 1922 :: first posted 13 November 2008

There are certain words which have been singled out and misused by the undiscriminating until their value is destroyed. Long ago “elegant” was turned from a word denoting the essence of refinement and beauty, into gaudy trumpery. “Refined” is on the verge. But the pariah of the language is culture! A word rarely used by those who truly possess it, but so constantly misused by those who understand nothing of its meaning, that it is becoming a synonym for vulgarity and imitation. To speak of the proper use of a finger bowl or the ability to introduce two people without a blunder as being “evidence of culture of the highest degree” is precisely as though evidence of highest education were claimed for who ever can do sums in addition, and read words of one syllable. Culture in its true meaning is widest possible education, plus especial refinement and taste.

from "The Joys and Perils of Overlapping Reading," by Nate Barksdale, Comment, 10 December 2010

For much of my post-college reading life, I‘ve been interested in the experience of shifting between texts, in particular the way that, for a short spell, the text I shift to inhabits the same mental space as the one I’ve just left, so that the second book feels like an increasingly improbable continuation of the previous narrative. Say you’re reading Great Expectations and just as your expectations begin to flag, you switch volumes and the scenery becomes more agreeable, the prose less stultifying, the seedy incidental characters more plausibly named, till at last you give in to reality and admit that you’ve abandoned Dickens for Graham Greene. Better yet, you can shift genres entirely. Sociological surveys may suddenly, with a little sleight of hand, contain sonnets.

Originally published as "The Stories of Scientists," by Nate Barksdale, Comment, Fall 2010, reprinted (with illustrations!) here

Foucault’s pendulum has fallen. On April 6, the steel cable snapped and sent it crashing onto the polished floor of the Musée des Artes et Metiers in Paris. The 28 kilogram brass weight ended its 159-year career—the dented bob is, a museum spokesperson affirmed, beyond repair—doing what it was meant to do: obeying the law of gravity. I have to admit I shed a tear (or at least the idea of a tear) for the fallen bit of scientific history, not because I’d visited the pendulum myself, or even read the 1988 Umberto Eco novel which takes its title and climax from the now-not-swinging orb. I have my own tangled history with pendulums—one stretching back, depending how you count it, decades, even centuries. It’s quite a bit of weight to bear, but a tale worth telling.

from "A sprig of verbena and the gifts of a great teacher," by Kathleen Parker, Washington Post, 14 April 2010 :: Thanks Mimi!

[My] fellow students at Dreher High School in Columbia, S.C., were way ahead of me when Mr. Gasque finally called on me to identify some part of a sentence he had written on the blackboard. His back to the class with chalk in hand, he stood poised to write my instructions.

Every living soul knows the feeling of helplessness when a crowd of peers awaits the answer you do not know. Whatever I said was utterly ridiculous, I suppose, because my classmates erupted in peals of laughter.

I have not forgotten that moment, or the next, during all these years. As I was trying to figure out how to hurl myself under my desk, Mr. Gasque tossed me a sugarcoated, tangerine-colored lifesaver from the good ship lollipop.

He whirled. No perfectly executed pirouette can top the spin executed by Mr. Gasque that day. Suddenly facing the class, he flushed crimson and his voice trembled with rage.

“Don’t. You. Ever. Laugh. At her. Again.” he said. “She can out-write every one of you any day of the week.”

It is not possible to describe my gratitude. Time suspended and I dangled languorously from a fluff of cloud while my colleagues drowned in stunned silence. I dangle even now, like those silly participles I eventually got to know. Probably no one but me remembers Mr. Gasque’s act of paternal chivalry, but I basked in those words and in the thought that what he said might be true. I started that day to try to write as well as he said I could. I am still trying.

from "The lost art of handwriting," by Umberto Eco, The Guardian, 21 September 2009 :: via 3quarksdaily

My parents’ handwriting was slightly slanted because they held the sheet at an angle, and their letters were, at least by today’s standards, minor works of art. At the time, some – probably those with poor hand- writing – said that fine writing was the art of fools. It’s obvious that fine handwriting does not necessarily mean fine intelligence. But it was pleasing to read notes or documents written as they should be. My generation was schooled in good handwriting, and we spent the first months of elementary school learning to make the strokes of letters. The exercise was later held to be obtuse and repressive but it taught us to keep our wrists steady as we used our pens to form letters rounded and plump on one side and finely drawn on the other. Well, not always – because the inkwells, with which we soiled our desks, notebooks, fingers and clothing, would often produce a foul sludge that stuck to the pen and took 10 minutes of mucky contortions to clean.

from "The Champions of Marriage - Part 1," by Tim Stafford, Timstafford's Blog, 22 July 2009

My son Silas related a startling experience at Stanford. His dorm of about 100 residents had a “get to know you” session. At one point they asked students to divide themselves according to a series of questions—how many played a musical instrument, how many had acted in a play, how many had three or more siblings, that sort of thing. One question was whether their parents were divorced. Almost everybody in the room—all but a handful—rushed to the side of “intact family.” Silas was amazed. He expected a very high divorce rate among the families of these liberal-minded students.

College graduates may think and talk very liberally, but they don’t act like all choices are equal. Most college educated people are quite careful and determined when it comes to marriage, as with most things in life.

These statistics help explain, by the way, why the intelligentsia don’t treat divorce like the plague it is. Intellectually they may know that divorce is a very common thing and a very bad thing. But in their daily experience, among their friends and colleagues, the problem is not severe. It involves significant failures and deep wounds, but only among less than one fifth of the families they know well. College-educated opinion leaders are like people who read about bad traffic, but who find that whenever they get on the freeway, traffic is light.

from "The Way We Live Now - Kindergarten Cram," by Peggy Orenstein,, 3 May 2009 :: via Patton Dodd

[Testing] neither predicts nor improves young children’s educational outcomes. More disturbing, along with other academic demands, like assigning homework to 5-year-olds, it is crowding out the one thing that truly is vital to their future success: play.

A survey of 254 teachers in New York and Los Angeles the group commissioned found that kindergartners spent two to three hours a day being instructed and tested in reading and math. They spent less than 30 minutes playing. “Play at age 5 is of great importance not just to intellectual but emotional, psychological social and spiritual development,” says Edward Miller, the report’s co-author. Play — especially the let’s-pretend, dramatic sort — is how kids develop higher-level thinking, hone their language and social skills, cultivate empathy. It also reduces stress, and that’s a word that should not have to be used in the same sentence as “kindergartner” in the first place.

from "The Value of Music," by Karl Paulnack, director of the music division of the Boston Conservatory, as found at the Web site of the Mankato Symphony Orchestra :: thanks, Gwen Griffith!

One of the most profound musical compositions of all time is the Quartet for the End of Time written by French composer Olivier Messiaen in 1940. Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered the war against Nazi Germany. He was captured by the Germans in June of 1940, sent across Germany in a cattle car and imprisoned in a concentration camp.

He was fortunate to find a sympathetic prison guard who gave him paper and a place to compose. There were three other musicians in the camp, a cellist, a violinist, and a clarinetist, and Messiaen wrote his quartet with these specific players in mind. It was performed in January 1941 for four thousand prisoners and guards in the prison camp. Today it is one of the most famous masterworks in the repertoire.

Given what we have since learned about life in the concentration camps, why would anyone in his right mind waste time and energy writing or playing music? There was barely enough energy on a good day to find food and water, to avoid a beating, to stay warm, to escape torture—why would anyone bother with music? And yet—from the camps, we have poetry, we have music, we have visual art; it wasn’t just this one fanatic Messiaen; many, many people created art. Why? Well, in a place where people are only focused on survival, on the bare necessities, the obvious conclusion is that art must be, somehow, essential for life. The camps were without money, without hope, without commerce, without recreation, without basic respect, but they were not without art. Art is part of survival; art is part of the human spirit, an unquenchable expression of who we are. Art is one of the ways in which we say, “I am alive, and my life has meaning.”

from "Dwelling in Possibilities," by Mark Edmundson,, 14 March 2008 :: via Santiago Ramos at Good Letters

A Romantic, says Nietzsche, is someone who always wants to be elsewhere. If that’s so, then the children of the Internet are Romantics, for they perpetually wish to be someplace else, and the laptop reliably helps take them there — if only in imagination. The e-mailer, the instant messenger, the Web browser are all dispersing their energies and interests outward, away from the present, the here and now. The Internet user is constantly connecting with people and institutions far away, creating surrogate communities that displace the potential community at hand.

Then too, booking by computer has made travel easier and, by eliminating a certain number of middlemen, kept it reasonably cheap. So there’s an inducement to take off physically as well. The Internet is perhaps the most centrifugal technology ever devised. The classroom, where you sit down in one space at one time and ponder a text or an issue in slow motion, is coming to feel ever more antiquated. What’s at a premium now is movement, making connections, getting all the circuitry fizzing and popping.

For students now, life is elsewhere. Classes matter to them, but classes are just part of an ever-enlarging web of activities and diversions. Students now seek to master their work — not to be taken over by it and consumed. They want to dispatch it, do it well and quickly, then get on to the many other things that interest them. For my students live in the future and not the present; they live with their prospects for success and pleasure. They dwell in possibility.

from "Following Christ 2008 Theme: Human Flourishing," InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, 8 March 2008

Are there universal elements of human flourishing, things that every person needs to flourish? If so, which of these are immediate gifts of God and which can be created, shaped, or nourished by the practice of the academic and professional disciplines?

Why do men and women fail to flourish? To what extent does sin, both personal and systemic, account for this failure?

In the face of such failure, how is the gospel good news and how does it help us flourish ourselves within our vocations and beyond?

Is it really true that to fully flourish one must be a follower of Jesus? How can such an outrageous claim be presented compellingly in our culture?

Must our bodies be doing well for us to flourish? In what ways does our embodiment affect our flourishing?

What does pursuing excellence have to do with human flourishing? Is elitism inherent in excellence, and does it impede human flourishing in a diverse society?

Will the career and personal path I’m on lead to my flourishing and that of others? Are my vocation and occupation in sync? Should I perhaps change paths, and how can I know?

What kinds of suffering stifle human flourishing, and what kinds can contribute to it?

How can we prepare to flourish and help others flourish in the face of an uncertain future and rapid social, cultural, economic, and technological change?

by Andy Crouch for Culture Making

Every year there is a terrific lineup of summer courses at Regent College, in Vancouver, British Columbia. There may be no better place in North America to find inspiration and education for Christian culture making.

This coming year Week 5 (27–31 July 2009) is especially rich, including Michael Ward, author of the extraordinary book Planet Narnia: The Seven Heavens in the Imagination of C. S. Lewis, and Calvin College’s Quentin Schultze. The erudite and wide-ranging theologian John Stackhouse will be teaching a course called “The Ethics of Filmmaking and Other Media” with producer Ralph Winter (X-MEN, et multa cetera). “It will cover how money, sex, power, and ideology affect commercial filmmaking,” John writes on his blog, “with particular reference to Hollywood but to other other film centres (such as Vancouver itself) and, indeed, to other media as well.” If you’re an aspiring filmmaker, I suspect it will be well worth the trip.

In a sign of the embarrassment of riches available these days, the very same week I will be in Santa Fe, New Mexico, at IMAGE magazine’s incomparable Glen Workshop, teaching a week-long seminar on “Culture Making: Meaning in the Material World.” Other faculty include Makoto Fujimura, Lauren Winner, Barry Moser, and Over the Rhine. Wow. I’ll post more information when it’s available. Whether it’s Vancouver or Santa Fe, maybe a summer course registration should be on your Christmas wishlist this year.


Non-white medical students are more likely to embrace orthodox medicine and reject therapies traditionally associated with their cultures. That is one finding from an international study that measures the attitudes of medical students toward complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). While seemingly counter-intuitive, white students view CAM more favorably than their non-white counterparts, the study authors say….

n the first study, U.S. medical students wanted more courses about CAM than students in Hong Kong, for example. (The Hong Kong school was not included in the 2nd survey of fourth year students.) The second study continued to support that trend with the least interest in CAM measured in Asian and black students.

by Andy Crouch for Culture Making

In December I will have the great delight of helping give away $6,000 to three individuals or teams who have innovative ideas for integrating their Christian faith with their vocation. The Bosscher-Hammond Prizes, sponsored by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship’s Graduate and Faculty Ministries, are a juried competition that will culminate during IVCF’s Following Christ 2008 Conference, 27–31 December 2008.

But for the jury I’m chairing to have the maximum delight, we need some really good submissions—and the deadline for initial entries is Wednesday, 15 October.

So, are you, or someone you know, thinking about a project that demonstrates the integration of faith, learning, and practice and that in some way shows “how the academic disciplines and professions can contribute to human flourishing”? And are you, or someone involved with the project, actively affiliated with an institution of higher education or a 2008 graduate of one? Then get yourself on over to the Web site for the prize and send off an executive summary by the deadline, followed by the full submission no more than a month later. (By the way, in additional to the cash prizes for the winners, 26 semifinalists will receive free registration for the Following Christ conference.) I’d love to help recognize your work and vision for cultural creativity, so do apply and—unless your innate competitiveness hasn’t been properly sanctified!—spread the word to others as well.

from "The School of Life," by Andrew Price, GOOD, 29 September 2008

London’s new School of Life, based in a Merchant Street storefront, offers courses on “the five central themes of our lives—work, play, family, politics and love.” The school’s courses treat the classics (like Shakespeare’s sonnets or Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina) as works with practical, not just academic, value. It’s a refreshing approach. “Real” college literature and philosophy courses are often too distracted with their cerebral exercises (”deconstructing the narrative,” or whatever) to consider whether these works of genius might have actual applications in everyday life.

from "Thinking is Making, and Making is Thinking," by John Maeda, Our (and Your) RISD, 17 September 2008

hand holding a grass sculpture

In the moments when I can attend one of my children’s soccer games, I find great pleasure from sitting in a field of grass. Since I was a child I have been making little sculptures out of blades of grass … as I did so just this last weekend during a match. Coming off of the inauguration, it made me think of our Provost Jessie Shefrin’s phrase, “Thinking is a kind of making, and making is a kind of thinking.” I make. Therefore, I think. I hope you make something interesting today.

from "Old Dogs, New Tricks: Built to Scale," by Mark Slutsky, GOOD, 11 September 2008

Two major ambitions defined my childhood. One was to become what I imagined headlines would refer to as “the first kid in space.” The second, which seemed more reasonable, was to become a great pianist. I realized when I was very small that I wasn’t like most people: I was double-jointed. I could bend the top joints of my fingers forward at will to create a sharp right angle, and pull my thumb all the way forward or backward to touch my wrist. This would, I thought, give me abilities at the keyboard that no other pianist could boast. I could only imagine the wild flourishes and the daring arpeggios I would master. I had a natural advantage, and I intended to use it.I was also a bit of what you might call a quitter back in those days. So when my mother took me down to the music Conservatory and the stern woman in charge told me I would have to learn the recorder—that fat, beige, orthopedic-looking thing—I walked away in disgust.

I nurtured no lack of rock-star fantasies and concert pianist daydreams over the next couple of decades, but I never touched another instrument—until now, at the probably-too-late age of 31. Maya, my enthusiastic and very patient teacher, begins the process by explaining the basics of music theory: tones, pitches, harmonics, chords, rhythm. I’m also learning how to read music, a completely different challenge than the instrument itself. Getting from this theoretical stage to actually playing a song feels like learning to dance by studying the properties of gravity. How do you turn these concepts and rules into something beautiful?

Well, for one, you play a lot of scales. I play them until my hands ache. I feel like every sullen adolescent forced to practice by well-meaning parents. When was the last time I actually had to practice something, anyway? I’m out of practice at practicing.

from "A Cultural Conversation with John Maeda," by Dominique Browning,, 2 September 2008 (Non-subscribers can access this article through 9 September 2008 here)

A RISD education is classical and rigorous; first-year students are required to practice the fundamentals of drawing and sculpture. Foundation Studies are taught in rooms filled to the ceilings with thousands of skeletons, taxidermy, minerals, reptiles, birds. (A sign warns “The doves are out so please close the door.”) Other departments cover everything from photography to ceramics. The curriculum is so conservative as to be radical.

Some of RISD’s studios probably haven’t changed in a hundred years. The stuff of art and design is everywhere, in the charcoal dust, the heaps of wet clay, the scraps of wood. A RISD education focuses on what you can do with your hands; an architecture student is expected to be able to draw, a print-maker to use a press. . . .

“A designer is someone who constructs while he thinks, someone for whom planning and making go together,” says Mr. Maeda, cocking his head, widening his eyes, moving his hands as if he were shaping a pot. Mr. Maeda considers himself post-digital; he has outgrown his fascination with hardware and is driven by ideas. “I want to reform technology. All the tools are the same; people make the same things with them. Everyone asks me, ‘Are you bringing technology to RISD?’ I tell them, no, I’m bringing RISD to technology.” He describes a visit to the campus by an executive from Yahoo. Mr. Maeda took him to see the visual resources center in the new library. Hundreds of thousands of drawings, photographs and news clippings, and images of art, architecture and decorative arts—on slides—are cataloged and stored in old-fashioned metal and wood file cabinets. The Yahoo executive was stunned. “This is a real live Google!” Better, says Mr. Maeda.

"Dave Eggers makes his TED Prize wish: Once Upon a School" (2008), :: via GOOD Magazine