Tonight I will cook dinner for my family. Over high heat I will sauté onions and green peppers until they begin to caramelize and turn golden brown. I will add coriander and chili powder, mixing up a fragrant and spicy paste, then — when the whole glorious mess is just short of smoking — pour chopped tomatoes into the pot.
As steam rises from the rapidly cooling pan, I will deglaze it with a wooden spatula, then add red kidney beans, black beans, corn and bulgur wheat cooked in tomato juice. When the whole mixture has returned to a boil, I will turn down the heat to a barely visible simmering flame. I will have spent less than 30 minutes, a good thing on a busy weeknight in autumn.
Then I will light the candles on our table, the little votive lights and the lantern, and — if I’m in the mood — the six candles in the chandelier overhead. I will set out cloth napkins, plates, glasses and silverware. I will call the family from the corners of the house, we will sit down, and I will bring the pot to the table. We will say our prayer of thanks, adapted from a Jewish blessing that has served God’s people for several millennia: “Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the Universe, who gives us this food to eat.” And then we will have our chili.
Actually that is not quite right. Because my children do not like chili.
They particularly protest whenever they see a green pepper looming in the bowl, and they don’t much care for the tomatoes, even though — as Catherine and I have pointed out to them over and over — they are perfectly happy when those same ingredients are served in spaghetti sauce.
In a few years, when my children are older, they will probably like chili, green peppers and all. But suppose they don’t — suppose that this part of our family culture still strikes them as a violation of their taste buds and the Law of Not Combining Green and Red Things. What are their options?
They could protest more and more vociferously until Catherine and I give up on making chili altogether. The problem with this is that Catherine and I love, deeply love, our chili. When autumn comes around each year, we’ll be making chili until we are too old to chop the onions. And we are not particularly indulgent parents — what is served for dinner is what’s for dinner.
Instead of simply protesting, our children could increase the sophistication of their critique of the chili, explaining in more detail why the green peppers are too sour, why tomatoes are appealing when puréed but appalling when chunky.
Alternatively, our children could just give up, consuming whatever we serve. They might even grow to tolerate, if not like, the green peppers and chunky tomatoes. Or, at the other extreme, when they are old enough they could simply stop coming to dinner altogether. Once they leave the house they will be able to cook their chili any way they want.
For the moment, however, they are stuck — no chili, no dinner until tomorrow night. As far as my children are concerned, our dinner is the only game in town. And none of these strategies is likely to change the menu on a crisp fall night when time is short and we are looking for something hearty and filling to serve.
There is one thing our children could do, though, that could have a decisive effect on our family’s culture of the table. If I come home on a Tuesday night a few years from now (when they are old enough that I can trust them with the knives) and find dinner already simmering on the stove, even if it’s not chili, I will likely be delighted. Especially if the food being prepared is a substantial improvement on our usual fare, just as tasty and even more creative than I would have prepared myself.
Consider this a parable of cultural change, illustrating this fundamental rule: The only way to change culture is to create more of it. This simple but elusive reality follows from observations we’ve already made about culture. First, culture is the accumulation of very tangible things — the stuff people make of the world. This is obscured when people talk about culture as something vague and ethereal — such as the common comparison between human beings in culture and fish in water. The fish, we suppose, are completely unaware of the existence of water, let alone all the ways that water both enables and constrains their fishy lives. While it’s certainly true that culture can have effects on us that we’re not aware of, culture itself is anything but invisible. We hear it, we smell it, we taste it, we touch it, and we see it. Culture presents itself to our five senses — or it is not culture at all. If culture is to change, it will be because some new tangible (or audible or visible or olfactory) thing is presented to a wide enough public that it begins to reshape their world.
Second, as the philosopher Albert Borgmann has observed, human cultures have the strange yet fortunate property of always being full. No culture experiences itself as thin or incomplete. Consider language. No human language seems to its speakers to lack the capacity to describe everything they experience — or, at least, all our languages fail at the same limits of mystery. Even though our languages divide up the color spectrum very differently from one another, for example, every human language has a name for every color its speakers can see. No one is waiting for a new word to come along so they can begin talking about yellow. Consequently, cultural change will only happen when something new displaces, to some extent, existing culture in a very tangible way. Our family eats dinner every night and, if our country’s prosperity continues, we will go on eating dinner every night. Our dinner-table culture will only change if someone offers us something sufficiently new and compelling to displace the current items on our menu.
So if we seek to change culture, we will have to create something new, something that will persuade our neighbors to set aside some existing set of cultural goods for our new proposal. And note well that there are a number of other possible strategies, none of which, by themselves will have any effect on culture at all.
It is not enough to condemn culture. Nor is it sufficient merely to critique culture or to copy culture. According to Andy Crouch, the only way to change culture is to create culture and calls Christians to be culture makers. This excerpt from “Culture Making” © 2008 by Andy Crouch is used by permission of InterVarsity Press. Order at IVPress.com.