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Excellent, not elite

Q&A | Author Andy Crouch argues that everyone should strive to make culture by humbly mastering a field that intersects with the world's brokenness

Issue: "Libyan exodus," March 26, 2011

Christianity Today senior editor Andy Crouch graduated from Cornell and Boston University, was an InterVarsity campus pastor at Harvard, and served as editor-in-chief of Regeneration Quarterly. He's the rare author of an excellent book-Culture Making (IVP 2008)-who also can play a terrific piano.

At what age did you start being a culture maker? Funny you should ask that: It's my earliest memory. I was 4 years old. My mom was a classical pianist and piano teacher. I remember her coming out of her studio, my babysitter bringing me in to see her, and I proudly performing the "ABC Song." (Sings "A, B, C, D, E, F, G, offers to continue).

What did you major in at Cornell? Classics. As much Greek as I could take, and as little Latin.

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What did you plan to become? (laughs) A very holy person who could read the New Testament in the original language. I somehow absorbed in my twisted, adolescent mind, that I'd then have access to spiritual depths that others didn't. That turned out to be completely not the case. Most surprisingly, you discover when you read the Gospel of Mark, it's like USA Today in terms of the level of writing.

Wasn't Mark using street language so as to communicate with common folks, not elites? Does the difference between street and elite play into the difference between your book, Culture Making, and James Davidson Hunter's book To Change the World? He seems to argue that elites make culture, and you write more about everyone making culture. Is that a valid distinction? Yes, that's so true. Dr. Hunter and I have different instincts. When you ask when I first made culture, I don't think of my first publication in a national magazine. I think of the "ABC Song," because that's culture. Where does cultural influence come from? It's very mysterious-the Holy Spirit can work through a lot of different vessels.

Let's talk about other people who aren't usually seen as culture makers. I wrote Culture Making with two groups in mind: women who don't work outside the home, and plumbers. I thought it a good test for a book about culture to be able to give it to my plumber and have him see what he does in the same way artists and filmmakers see their work.

Did you give a copy to your plumber? Yes, but I haven't seen him since-his visits tend to be expensive! I also wanted mothers to realize the basic unit of culture is the family, and what happens in those first five years shapes people for the rest of their lives. That's as much culture making as anything that happens in the White House or on Fifth Avenue.

Some people aspire to be part of the elite. Pursuing being elite is a terrible idea. I partly say this because I worked at Harvard for 10 years, and most people who pursue being elite end up being shaped solely by that: They become nothing but elite. I'd much rather have everyone, whatever their prospects for being elite or not, pursue excellence. Excellence is often accompanied by humility, whereas being elite often is not. People who have obtained mastery of certain fields, I've found, are surprisingly humble, because they've become aware of how difficult their work is.

So, to be a serious culture maker, pursue excellence, not status? The key to becoming a serious culture maker is you learn to tell when you played the scale well and when you didn't. I can only do that in a primary way with maybe three things in my life: I've learned to play the piano with a serious level of excellence, I think I've learned to write with a serious level of excellence, and a year ago, at age 41, I started learning the cello. It takes 10,000 hours to develop mastery of something, but my goal is to seriously engage with the cello.

Why cello? My wife plays the violin, my daughter is learning the violin, our son is very serious about the viola, and so I realized if dad would just get his act together we'd have a full string quartet. That's the proximate reason for the cello. I also neared a midlife crisis. I didn't want it to be a car, but mid-life crises need to be bulky, expensive, take up a lot of time: You need to caress them the way you would a woman, so you know, the cello fits.

Did you get a bright red cello? It's an ordinary cello, but a red convertible cello would have been ideal!

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