Tag Archives: Culture

Quick Review: Culture Making

I recently finished Andy Crouch’s Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling and wanted to share some quick thoughts on the book. I had been wanting to get to it for quite a while and some of the discussions I’ve been in recently related to ministry and education gave me cause to finally dive in.

Essentially the book presents a theology and practice of creative stewardship and work. After an exploration into what “culture” is and how it works, there is an analysis of the many ways people engage culture.  The most common expressions of how Christians engage culture are noted as condemning culture, consuming culture, critiquing culture, or copying culture.  There are some similarities to some of the categories offered by Reinhold Niebuhr as well as to more recent work by Tim Keller. But Crouch’s focus is primarily on culture as it relates to creativity and calling (thus the title) as opposed to a full-blown theology and practice of cultural engagement that includes political and social engagement. The term cultural engagement doesn’t really even capture Crouch’s thrust – he focuses rather on “culture-making” instead.

Crouch, drawing on Genesis and the Scriptures, argues for two other paradigms that are more “Biblical” in nature.  He names creating culture and cultivating culture as the two approaches to culture that are often overlooked by Christians, but that provide the greatest redemptive contribution to God’s purposes in restoring the world.  He uses the metaphors “artists and gardeners” to illustrate what is involved.  Cultivating refers to the work of stewarding the best of what humanity is and has created while creating obviously refers to the effort given to bring dreams into reality for the sake serving mankind and glorifying God.

I found the discussion incredibly helpful and enjoyable, especially because creativity and cultivation have long been overlooked. Creativity has had its champions, but I was intrigued by the role of “gardeners” in the church and in the Kingdom of God. I’ve been thinking about this and feel like it is a neglected aspect of the church’s engagement with culture.  Maybe the historian in me is drawn to the idea, but it feels significant to me.

There’s a lot more in the book including content related to power and other topics that are of interest, but the thrust of the book is above – helping people understand the many ways they navigate culture and to consider that the best way to impact society for good and for God is through the creation of new cultural goods. The argument being that bad or insufficient culture isn’t transformed until something better comes along to replace it. One of the incisive criticisms Crouch levies at the church is noting how most efforts to bring Christian worldview to the table in relation to culture stops in the realm of critiquing culture, falling well short of creating culture.

My final note is that Crouch gives an insight in his introduction that really stuck with me. He notes the popular maxim, “Pray as if it all depends on God and work as if it all depends on you.” I’ve always understood the kernel of truth here and the call to diligent stewardship exercised in dependence on the Lord, but something never fully felt satisfying to me.  Crouch critiques the application of this phrase, affirming that we need to learn to work as if it all does depend on God – because it does. Stewardship is implied, but the freedom of exploring vocation in the guidance of the Holy Spirit opens doors for creativity and inspiration.

I think this book gives a lot to chew on – not every person may be gifted or inspired to be a creator or a cultivator, but these are elements that every community would be wise to nurture for the sake of both worship and mission.


Quick Review: The Kingdom of Christ

I was able to recently read Russell Moore’s The Kingdom of Christ: The New Evangelical Perspective and instead of providing a full review I will share some of where I think this as a lot of value.

This is theology and doctrine resource so it’s heavier reading and there were parts where I labored through it.  Other parts were very compelling because the implications are significant for the church’s impact on society and its understanding of its identity and mission.

The book is fundamentally a treatment about how a new unity of evangelical theology and thought has slowly developed since the culture wars of the early 20th century.  The key figure throughout this book is Carl F.H. Henry as Moore unpacks Henry’s critique of evangelicalism in the post-war era and explores his beliefs of what is theologically required for the church to have a faithful and responsible witness to and engagement with society.

The heart of the book is really tracking how reformed and covenant traditions as well dispensational branches of evangelicalism have found some common ground and through dialogue and engagement have corrected some errant theology and found a foundation from which there can be a unified understanding on how to engage society.

Doctrinely speaking, the book takes a fairly deep dive into the integration of eschatology, soteriology, and ecclesiology for the sake of a healthy theology of mission in the world today in the face of the extremes of isolationism and capitulation to the world.   One expression of this that is discussed thoroughly is the liberal protestant movement towards the social gospel compared to the perhaps dualistic isolationist faith of the fundamentalists in the early 20th century.

I found it interesting in that I have one set of grandparents that were fundamentalists (independent baptists) and another grandfather who probably would fall more in line as a pragmatic liberal protestant.  I have both sides of this debate in my own family history and it’s interesting to reflect on the strengths and limitations of each, particularly from a doctrinal standpoint.

But of critical importance for most Christians today is the eschatology piece.  This book is a great resource to really think deeply about how poor eschatology or an inadequate theology of the kingdom of God leads to really poor assumptions about how to engage the world and society. The prevalence of “Left Behind” theology and attitudes that it’s all going to burn any minute so why invest deeply in engaging society is an attitude and perspective that undermines the integrity and witness of the church.  This book provides a healthy corrective to that type of theology.

All in all – while the general outlook for mobilizing evangelicalism towards a healthy biblical and theological foundation seems bleak because of how hard it is to see sound theology spread to the local level and the masses, it is encouraging that scholars seem to be uniting in these core areas in the face of rising new challenges.


Quick Review: Quiet

Over the past month I read Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain.  As I share some thoughts, I disclose that I am an introvert myself, which was part of why I read the book.

The book itself really isn’t about introversion entirely.  I found that a little misleading as there are plenty of things that deal with ethnicity and culture as well as popular culture.

One of my reactions to the book felt like it was more naming the obvious as it relates to introversion in life, relationships, and the workplace. I didn’t find the content to be extraordinarily revolutionary regarding the dynamics or experiences of introversion – in part because I am one and because I’ve been exposed to the concept through tools like the MBTI and others over the last couple decades.  But there were some great nuggets that I enjoyed and I think it’s worth reading – especially for extraverts.

One of the sections I found interesting dealt with the rise of the personality cult of leadership and two of the leaders compared and contrasted were motivational speaker Tony Robbins and Evangelical pastor Rick Warren.  I don’t think they are anywhere in the same boat, but it was insightful and worth thinking about how stereotypes or contemporary culture has impacted what people believe about what leadership is or should be. The Tony Robbins section was very entertaining to me and exposes the business as a grand marketing scheme that reinforces certain presupposed values about life and leadership.  The Saddleback scenario is more of an indictment of pre-packaged spirituality that allows people to be entertained without authentic reflection.

As I thought about the above examples – it did make me reflect more on my journey working for what I would describe as an “extravert” organization where social initiative is deeply embedded in the values and mission of the organization.  That’s always been a challenge.  I’ve learned it, but I also am not surprised that I’ve only found myself thriving when I’m in places where I am not required to be functioning socially in those ways.  These are new thoughts for me, but it was good to think again after more years of experience.

There’s a helpful section related to culture and stereotypes about leadership anchored in historical paradigms in the east versus the west.  While I feel like the author at times comes across unnecessarily critical of extraverted or outgoing leadership, it’s a helpful exploration of how Asian leaders or others that share similar qualities are marginalized in the western leadership context.  It unpacks some of the things we use to regularly interact over when I was working in Epic, an Asian-American ministry.  I’m facing some of those things now as I do leadership development in an international graduate school and seminary context.

One thing I didn’t like was that the author came across as a bit as having an agenda.  Maybe it was the audiobook version as I did this book while commuting over a couple weeks, but I just didn’t like the tone of the book or some of the assumptions or conclusions in the book.

One note I found to be quite irresponsible was the argument that Jesus was representative as a “western” god who was charismatic and outgoing compared to eastern gods who are more figures of silent wisdom.  When she attempted to enter into the religious sphere, including her treatment of Warren and Saddleback, she was somewhat out over her skiis.  But to say Jesus was an extraverted and charismatic leader in the western mold is just not true and reflects an uninformed knowledge of the Jesus of the Bible.  But there is a helpful takeaway – recognizing how cultures view wisdom should impact how you would want to represent Jesus and his teachings.

If you are an introvert and have never thought about your experience, then this would be great for you.  If you are an extravert and you are interested in seeing where your blind spots might be impacting the people around you and how you can help a large number of people around you succeed, then it’s a great book for you as it will open up your mind to some important social and corporate realities that impact how we go about what we do.

One last note – I really enjoyed the practical suggestion included of a “restorative niche” – a space or break that allows introverts to recharge.  This is something I want to think more about as I can often have extraverted activities stacked back to back to back but then I crash.  I need to schedule some introverted restorative niche space intentionally to allow me to manage my energy better throughout the week.  That was a great takeaway for me.


Quick Review: 13 Hours

Over the weekend I read 13 Hours by Michael Zuchoff, which I had wanted to read since seeing the “13 Hours” movie that came out in the fall.  The book and the movie shine a spotlight on the political backdrop, but they really both focus on the actual events of what transpired as opposed to all the political implications (though I know there remains a lot of debate and controversy over what happened).

This is similar in its detail and feel to the Black Hawk Down account.  It’s a survival story, but there’s some dimensions to this one that make it unique and more personally compelling in some ways.  While Black Hawk Down events involved military personnel, these events involved former military who functioned as operators in high risk situations.  The heroes here are contracted workers often on the line between staying in this dangerous life or making a clean break in favor of a domestic life focused on family.

These events or crisis situations all seem to have some common themes – leadership failures, paralyzing bureaucracy that puts lives at risk, and incredible heroism in the face of greater danger.

Some of what stood out to me were the ways in which advanced preparation helped the operators in their defense of the compound – whether it was in reconnoissance or first aid.  In crisis – these operators relied on a lot of instincts and knowledge and there was no time to do much reflective though.  It affirms that there are things we need to have ready to go at a moments notice.  Daniel Kahneman speaks to some of this in Thinking, Fast and Slow where only through a lot of intentional practice do some things transfer from “slow thinking” to “fast thinking.”

It also affirms  what can happen when there is a failure of preparation.  The death of the ambassador in the account was done in part because a lack of preparedness that was accentuated by a lack of resources.

Finally – the book and the film leave you on the note that the real heroes did not get a lot of reward or credit in contrast to many of the CIA operatives and people that they were protecting.  Some of this is because they were contracted, but it’s interesting how power and politics can so often taint the narrative.

So not everyone is into these types of books or movies, but they are helpful in that they bring a healthy dose of reality to you that unsettles you and it takes you into the human condition – both the best of it and the worst.

Hope & the Fragility of Ministry

To see the background on this new series click here.

There’s a line from the second movie of the Lord of the Rings trilogy that resonates with the reality of ethnic minority ministry in our organization. Things are looking bleak and the voice of Galadriel (Cate Blanchett) is providing a mid-movie narration. She’s says with somber urgency,

“The quest stands at the edge of a knife.
Stray but a little and all will fall.”

Obviously a little dramatic, but this captures some of the reality of doing ethnic minority ministry in my experience and from my vantage point (which is in a white dominant context).

The overall ministry and effort so often seems like it is only one conflict, one bad decision (either someone within our immediate context or someone outside of it with power), or one failure away from disaster.  There’s a weariness that comes with doing ministry where the bottom feels like it could fall out at any moment.  And over time it can become a deep weariness.

It takes a depth of character with a strong capacity to stay connected to hope in the face of discouraging realities and to persevere in what feels like a sysyphean challenge. To that end I co-wrote this post for my ministry addressing hope as a key dimension of leadership capacity and development when serving ethnic minority communities in a multi-ethnic context.

I’ve been tested in what my hope is in, where to look for it, and how to look for it amidst discouragement.  At times I’ve wondered why is hope so fleeting serving in these contexts. From a multiethnic standpoint I couldn’t help but think that part of why I struggle with hope is the pioneering nature of what this ministry involves. In a predominantly white ministry context with years of history – like many churches and organizations have – it’s very easy to depend on strategies and resources and find hope in what has worked in the past.  Yet what has worked in the past in an ethnic majority context does not always or even most of the time translate to ethnic minority or multi ethnic pioneering.

Hope has to come from somewhere else.  I had to learn that – sometimes I had to learn the hard way.

A helpful resource for me in my journey of sustaining hope was a short ebook entitled Deepening the Soul for Justice by Bethany Hoang.  I shared some thoughts a couple years ago on the book here.

The fragility is real.  The potential for internal or external sabotage lingers. But there’s a hope in Christ and God’s Kingdom only to be found on the other side of the fragility and discouragement.

How do you stay connected to hope?

How do you help others stay connected to hope when the ground feels like it could give at any moment?

Why and How I Celebrated the 4th: Reflections on an Imperfect Union

The fourth of July is fun.  Since becoming a parent it’s become a fun holiday because there’s parades and fireworks and it’s fun family time. This year I found it interesting to consistently be seeing things from two extreme perspectives.

One, being those that equate America as being a Christian nation and argue that everything would be great if we just went back to our roots, spiritual and traditional.  The other extreme is the increasing percentage of folks, who in reaction to the Christian Americanism fanaticism end up choosing to meditate and dwell on all the ways this nation has failed to live up to his professed standards for all people and the ways in which we have an integrity problem.

I’m not here to tell people what they should do.  Do I throw up in my mouth a little when I see “The American Patriot’s Bible” or “God’s Promises for the American Patriot” on sale at the Christian bookstore?  YES.  But I don’t go so far as to say that this country’s legacy is only that of hypocrisy, oppression, and marginalization.  Though there’s been plenty of those things to go around along with untold pain and suffering through the generations.  I just felt like expressing why I celebrated and why I feel good about how and why I celebrated. In every story there is a beginning.

Origin stories or myths are important.  Within them, significant values are embedded that shape what is to come.  The history of a nation is no different.  The origins of our country were unique, fascinating, and incredible and that generation’s investment, blood, and labor set the stage for a new world power of sorts.   I LOVE American Revolutionary War history.  When I’ve been in places like Independence Hall in Philadelphia or at various monuments in D.C. or other places that are landmarks or places of great historical significance, things slow down for me in a weird way and I start to connect with the larger story and it feels quite spiritual to me.

As a history major I’ve always found meaningful connections with places where great and significant events have taken place. But I’ve also studied the ethics of war and just wars and one could also find plenty of arguments to make as to the self-serving and elitist motivations for rebelling against Britain.  It’s not black or white as we consider the morality.  It gets even more gray when we consider the dynamics with the Native American populations and the slavery issues.  In short – it wasn’t a completely pure and holy endeavor.

But one thing I believe to be true is that despite the imperfections and moral limitations of some of these men involved, as they were bound to the some of the norms of their time, they did something that I have great respect for.

They served.

In retrospect, it’s clear that they didn’t serve everyone nor did they serve all in equal fashion.  Our country paid the price for that and continues to until this day in many ways.  Yet they created a new reality for a new time and new generation.  They used the means and wisdom at their disposal to create a better world (for most at that time), one that allowed for personal freedoms. Over time, origins which are seldom perfect, become opportunities for myth making by majority cultures that want to anchor society in the memories and values that have shaped its story (though often to the neglect of the stories of the marginalized).  The fourth of July for me is not about wholeheartedly immersing myself in myth, especially that one that argues that we were founded as a Christian nation.  But I most definitely will celebrate the historic events that led to the founding of this country that has been blessed in its range of freedoms and liberties and prosperity.

Reading the accounts of all that went into the forming of this nation is nothing less than inspiring.  It’s incredible.  And I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall in many of the proceedings. I believe God was at work in ways I may not understand. But the fourth of July should also be a time of grieving – a time of entering into the ways in which our celebrated values and hopes and dreams have gone and are going unfulfilled for millions of people.  It’s at the heart of hypocrisy to celebrate our country as being great and full of virtue, yet refuse to consider the ways in which that’s just not fully true. The founders of our country sought out to “make a more perfect union.” I think the fourth of July is a great opportunity to celebrate the ways in which they did just that.  Because in many ways they very much did that along with many who followed in their footsteps.  But today we should not celebrate “a perfect union” as if we are stuck in a refrain of “We’re #1! We’re #1!” as if we’re at a team sporting event at the Olympics.  We should celebrate and consider the example which that generation provided us about what is required  to create “a more perfect union.”

Our awesomeness as a country is not something that was set in stone or written in the sky once and for all.  It was connected to the spirit that existed to invest in a new reality that witnessed greater freedom and opportunities for all (well – most anyway).  We should follow this example and be attentive to, act on, and pray for those things which need an infusion of those very values that we say makes our country great.  In short, we should rededicate ourselves to what does contribute to a more perfect union in recognition that there is great need of love, mercy, and justice.

The fourth of July should be an integrative experience of sorts – celebrating the good, grieving the shortcomings, and reconnecting to a new vision of hope in which God can use faithful men to create a new and alternative reality for so many that are not free in so many different ways.  It kind of mirrors many of our own stories too.  We all have different origin stories, but we’ve had moments of triumph and moments of failure.  We call them fools who only celebrate their own goodness because we see the whole picture.  Yet to fall into despair at our failures is to lose hope with the promise with which our stories begin. I feel like this country in some ways on fourth of July.

This year I found myself wishing for my country for that same thing that I pray for myself and others.  I rest in God’s goodness and provision for me with great thankfulness for what He’s done, yet I am sobered by my own failings and ways I don’t measure up to what I claim and intend to be.  Yet what energizes the soul more than a vision of a new reality in which new possibilities and real hope is cultivated and fostered?  This is what I wish more would connect with on July 4th both for themselves and for their country – that God specializes in new realities that honor Him and that lift people up out of slavery and darkness.  Yet those realities aren’t usually brought about when we are looking to the past to reclaim our identity or hope with a sense of entitlement or superiority.

This may or may not resonate with you – but the fourth of July for me has become a time to consider how we can continue to re-write our story as a country moving forward, and maybe how we can be a part of re-writing many stories that need an alternative plot and ending.  That our country has a legacy of heroism and valor in attempts to make a more perfect union is something to be celebrated, but not to be worshiped.

Worship is what happens when we take seriously the opportunities we have to steward what we’ve been given for a both a still more perfect union and for the sake of a love and concern for our fellow mankind. So I celebrated my country as a Christian – and I’m glad I did.  And you know what?  I’m excited to do it again next year 🙂    In the meantime, there are stories being written and I have opportunities to be a part of them. *Originally Posted July 4th, 2011

Quick Thoughts on Wicked

Just finished the novel Wicked: The Life & Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire, the inspiration for the musical/broadway play of the same name which is no doubt more popular or more recognized in pop culture.

I’ll be honest – I like the narrative of the play far better, but there was much here that was interesting.  I did not really “like” the book as a whole maybe because I already had been exposed to the play’s narrative which is substantially different.  The book comes off a bit fatalistic and is a little too crass at some points.  But I do love the premise of the book – that what we judge and blame in society or as communities may be more a product of systemic dynamics, power, and anxiety in some cases than true evil, sin, or wickedness.  The novel turns the Wizard of Oz narrative on its head and in the premise alone forces you to rethink the question of narrative authority – who gets to determine what narrative is real?

Can we trust the historical narrative when there are so many influences that affect what story gets told after a conflict of values?

So I enjoyed those questions that were throughout the novel as well as the many ways in which the origins of evil were explored.  The origins or source of “wickedness” is the dominant theme throughout and covers a variety of influences and ways in which mankind becomes, is labeled, or acts wicked. So the nature versus nurture debate, power dynamics, systemic injustice, and other phenomenon are explored through the narrative.

I found it engaging and I’ve started a project with a friend related to Wicked that hopefully we’ll get to in the coming months because I find it to illustrate how emotional systems function really well.  There’s a more happy ending in the play so I enjoy that one a bit better, but the novel goes deeper into some of the bigger questions of sin in society and questions of evil.

So the novel by in large was ok, but I really did enjoy the questions raised and the premise of the book despite being somewhat disappointed by some of the directions it took – maybe that was part of the point though.

You can check out some of the thoughts from when I saw the play a few years ago in L.A.

Green Zone Leadership: Rose Colored Self-Congratulations

The past few days I’ve posted on themes related to the movie The Green Zone from a couple years back and the book that inspired that movie, Imperial Life in the Emerald City.   The sub-title for the series could be called “How do we know we are serving?” or “How do we know our success is truly success when considered from a human and ethical lens?”

Leadership Phenomenon Observed: Party-based Allocation 

The somewhat disillusioning conclusion to the events captured in Imperial Life in the Emerald City was that Americans who were tasked to lead change and lay a foundation for Iraq’s rebuilding, government, and economy consistently celebrated the greatness of their contribution and work – despite fairly obvious failure and disappointment to anyone truly paying attention to the full impact of the western helpers on the nationals.

Rose Colored Self-Congratulations

Maybe you’ve experienced it – but reading the book it just blew my mind how so many things could just go horribly wrong, so many dollars wasted, and so little tangible results, still could be celebrated as great success.

How does this happen? Why does it happen?

I’m sure it’s complicated with politics, ethocentrism, and other things playing a part.  But it’s simple too.  None of us ever want to look at something we’ve worked hard at and enter into that feeling that it might have been a total failure and all of our work was worthless.  That’s kind of dark place to go to.

So we find something to feel good about.  We seem to have endless capacity for justification, rationalization, and glass half-full thinking.  We can walk away never experiencing the impact, the pain, the reality of missed opportunities or unintended consequence.  There’s an existential crisis in this of sorts – for to come face to face with the possibility that all of your best efforts were just not good enough is to be pretty close to the deeper questions about who we are and whether we can make a difference in this life.

There’s the overly positive people – who only can see the “wins” no matter whether the losses overwhelm them.

There’s the spiritualizers – who believe whatever you’ve done somehow is what God wanted to happen.

There’s the positive fatalists – who believe that whatever happened was meant to be so why question it and just be content with your efforts and approach.

And of course there’s the blamers – those who congratulate themselves and justify the success of their personal efforts while blaming others for the failures.

Resolving Not to Grieve

Something we see in the Green Zone is an unwillingness to face disappointment, failure, and missed opportunities. In short, we see resolution to avoid grief.  Instead, we must focus on the bright side.  Or maybe we rationalize that we did our part and now it’s up to “them” to do theirs.  That’s a pretty insidious mentality though especially amidst clear failures.  In a sense it’s blaming those you are “helping” for the failures of setting them up for success.   This happens – we invest dollars and throw bodies at problems or priorities without much awareness or thought as to the dynamics involved, and then when the results we want don’t happen we find it a little easier to put it on the little guy instead of look in the mirror.  And it comes from an inability to grieve – to face our own failures in setting others up for success.

Walter Brueggemann describes this “resolution to not grieve” as a part of the “royal consciousness.” It’s part of the psyche that comes with being part of the establishment that has an instinct towards self-preservation.  It’s why people just seem to struggle to empower those not in power, no matter what their stated hopes and intentions are.  There’s a general lack of awareness of what is serving.  It’s all seen through the eyes of privilege and power.

In ministry or general leadership, I’m sure most of us have had experiences where we’ve been part of great initiatives that didn’t go well or even good.  I’m sure most of the time you’ve seen a general effort to have positive takeaways.  How often have you truly entered into the grief of failed efforts to serve others, failed stewardship of resources – human or financial, or even the sad reality of missed opportunities.

When’s the last time you were a part of an authentic sense of loss about a missed opportunity – what could have been and we just missed the moment?  Culturally we just love moving on and just focus on the next thing. We can sometimes grieve tragic and obvious failure, because it’s in our face.  But what about missed moments that represent what could have given huge lift to a situation or people and was missed because of a lack of preparation, awareness or intentionality?

Recommendations for the Aspiring Serving Leader

Learn to be able to see your failures.  I think a certain capacity to handle failure precedes being able to see them sometimes.  But we have to be able to ask the hard questions about whether people were served.

More often than not we focus on whether we worked hard or not as an indication of our service.  But we should ask the question, “Were the people we were trying to serve, truly served?”  It’s a sure sign that you are drifting from the heart of a servant when your thoughts primarily go to your intentions or effort in evaluating whether you did the job. 

I’m not advocating focusing on the negative. I’m advocating focusing on the people.  Feel good about what can be felt good about. As humans we don’t usually struggle with finding things to justify our efforts and feel good about. But feel bad about what you should feel bad about. Acknowledge it. Feel sad. Make amends if needed.

Aspire to find the “moments.”  Don’t settle just for the “low hanging fruit”, but for what truly will inspire, serve, and help in a given moment in context.  Pay attention to not just what went wrong or went went right – but also about what good could have been accomplished if we just were intentional about it.


How do you guard against losing the sight of people’s reality when evaluating your success? How do you fight the temptation to justify your own contributions and existence in the face of disappointment and failure?


Article: Rethinking Culture & Mission

I wanted to highly recommend an article that I helped edit and spent some time on this year.  This is an article on culture and mission by a teammate of mine Adrian Pei who has done great work here.

This article to me represents the future of a lot of ministry discussions about contextualization and how to navigate culture and ethnicity in ministry.  It’s worth the read!