Two-Legged Tables

Michael Metzger

Those who talk about “making culture” can sound like the chattering classes. So much yak for so little yield. The problem is fuzzy thinking about what causes cultural change. Aristotle once described what causes a table to come into existence. If he was correct about causes, most of the talk about “culture” is merely making two-legged tables.

The occupational hazard of philosophers is going deep, staying down too long, and coming up all wet. Aristotle didn’t run that risk. He used everyday things, like tables, to suggest that everything—even cultures—have reasons for their existence. In the case of tables, Aristotle cited four—the first being the material cause. It is the wood out of which tables are made. The second is the formal cause—the form of tables. They’re not just blocks of wood. The third is the efficient cause, the carpenter by which tables are made. The fourth is the final cause, the purpose for which tables are used—either as desks, dining, or other things. It’s admittedly a bit complicated; but that’s how reality works.

Cultures are created the same way. The material cause of American culture—that out of which it is created—is the ideas and images. In the U.S., it’s the importance of constantly updating and staying connected, along with images such as cool people wearing black outfits in winter. These ideas and images take shape—the formal cause, or that of which cultures are created—in items like Facebook and black outfits sold in chic stores.

The efficient cause of American cultures—that by which it is created—is institutions like Google and individuals like Sergy Brin. They enjoy a credibility and authority to be listened to and taken seriously in the wider world. These influentials have what Pierre Bourdieu described as the power of “legitimate naming.”1 Naming is as ancient as Genesis, when God caused the cosmos to come into existence by naming it. Adam began to make culture by naming the animals. Select institutions and individuals have the credibility and authority to be listened to and to name things—to define reality.

Albert Einstein said the most important thing anyone can do is to name something. You see his point in the story of Oliver Wendell Holmes and William James. They said no one has the right to impose his or her religion on anyone else. Tolerance has become a valuable commodity in American culture. Today, it’s our common coinage, how Americans describe what’s good and true and beautiful. Language leads to the final cause of cultures—that for which they are created. Final causes determine what’s meaning-full. It’s the culmination of key ideas, items, institutions, and individuals.

Aristotle’s four causes clarify why faith communities talking about “making culture” and “engaging culture” sound so wobbly. They’re building tables with two legs. Kicking around conversations about “building community” overlooks the reality that ideas must translate into images that become items made by culture-shaping institutions. The tables lack two legs, the formal and efficient causes of culture. They won’t stand up.

Neither will the efforts of professional apologists who have winnowed “culture” down to worldviews and winning the war of ideas. Ideas matter, but they need legs—the material and formal causes of cultures. This is elitism without traction. But it’s no worse than the cottage industry of grass-roots activists who saw off the need for ideas and institutions. They see culture as a bottom-up effort. But this too amounts to a two-legged table. It lacks the material cause (ideas) and the efficient cause (institutions). Pierre Bourdieu coined the notion of cultural capital, meaning central institutions and key individuals enjoy disproportionate influence in making culture. James Davison Hunter concurs: “It is sometimes true that political revolutions and economic revolts occur from the bottom up but on their own terms, they are almost always short-lived.”

The reality is that tables require four legs. Cultures are formed by four causes—material, formal, efficient, and final. Efficient causes are the most enigmatic for Americans. They don’t like the idea that bottom-up is less effective than top-down. Bottom-up isn’t bad, as John Seel points out. Not all of us are called to play the game on the national field. The local level is a great place to serve and be apprenticed in becoming a winsome contributor to culture making. But we’d be strategically wrong to assume that Little League is the same thing as Major League. We must not forget that one of the lessons of Jesus’ parable in Matthew 24:45-51 is that wise and faithful servant ought to aspire to greater stewardship and shalom for everyone.

Four-legged tables mean “making culture” is more complicated than we often assume. Some fear complexity leads people “astray from the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ.” But this confuses simplicity of love that is singularly devoted with wrong-headed, simplistic thinking about culture. Changing cultures requires a definition of reality that is taken seriously. For example, when celebrities have children without being married, the national press is cool with it. [Tom and Gisele are married.] Out-of-wedlock couples having babies is considered cool today—it represents 40 percent of all births. Changing this culture will take more than espousing “devotion to Christ.” It will be complex and messy. It’ll require tables with four legs—material, formal, efficient, and final. That’s reality.

That’s why C.S. Lewis said Christianity is not a simple religion. “It is no good asking for a simple religion. After all, real things aren’t simple. They look simple, but they’re not. The table I’m sitting at looks simple: but ask a scientist to tell you what it’s really made of—all about the atoms and how the light waves rebound from them and hit my eye and what they do to the optic nerve and what it does to my brain—and, of course, you find that what we call ‘seeing a table’ lands you in mysteries and complications which you can hardly get to the end of.”2 We may not get to the end of making culture in this life, but seeing it as similar to making four-legged tables will keep faith communities from sounding like the chattering classes and suggesting wobbly solutions.

1 Nicholas Brown & Imre Szeman, Pierre Bourdieu: Fieldwork in Culture (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2000), p. 89.
2 C. S. Lewis, The Case for Christianity (New York, NY: Touchstone Edition, 1996), p. 35.


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  1. These are very helpful thoughts, Mike, including your entire series on “making culture.” It seems to me that making a culture that reflects the nature of God is a task that human nature often opposes. In Romans 1:18-32, Paul gives us a pretty good (although incomplete) portrait of natural human values and desires. What’s portrayed by Paul is a disdain in the human heart for a culture that reflects God. Perhaps this is one of the “messy” factors that we need to consider, too. We are swimming upstream, trying to build a culture that is not appealing to the unbroken human heart. What’s amazing to me is how through history believers have transformed cultures in amazing ways even against the tide of opposition. Such accomplishment is miraculous, I think, and an encouraging call to persevere and work together. Thanks for your part in that.

  2. More grist for the thinking mill, Mike. I’m also learning that I make more of an impact on the culture I live in when I get really good at doing one thing. When I infuse that one thing with all I am and all I have, then I have a bigger impact.

    One more thought. I just heard recently that the best classes are taught my teachers in love with their subjects. Sure they love their students, too, but that almost seems a by-product. That really helped me understand both my student and teaching experiences.

    When I was a teacher I think I always felt I needed to love the students first, but when I think on the classes and teachers I most enjoyed learning from, it was those that truly loved their material. They barely knew me and yet I still felt inspired by their teaching.

    Maybe it’s a stretch to connect it back to the four-legged table, but when I think about where I can apply your ideas, I find the “love-the-subject” guideline a helpful signpost.

  3. Bruce:

    I think you’re on to something with your emphasis on love. I’d recommend Matthew Stewart’s new book, “The Management Myth: Why The Experts Keep Getting It Wrong.” Stewart says modern management is not based on an accurate assessment of human nature. It’s disconnected from reality and dismisses the contributions of philosophy and history. All that to say, a wonderful read, as he’s a gifted writer.

    Regarding your wonder, my good friend Tim – consider that Paul saw redemption as the restoration of all things (Colossians 1). Things transcend people and souls, important as they are. When we see people as social and cultural and physical beings – as well as spiritual beings – then redemption takes on the three and four dimensions (or however many there are) of reality.

  4. Behind the scenes of this blog, It’s come to my attention that this might read as a veiled critique of Andy Crouch’s book “Culture Making.” Not so. The real source of my concern is the loose language about culture making and the wobbly ways so many try to work it out. Andy’s a good, good man – a thoughtful believer. My concern is more along the lines of a rich idea being thinned out it as it’s spread around. That’s a problem we all face – it’s not Andy’s problem.

  5. Good to hear from you, Mike.

    “Regarding your wonder, my good friend Tim – consider that Paul saw redemption as the restoration of all things (Colossians 1). Things transcend people and souls, important as they are. When we see people as social and cultural and physical beings – as well as spiritual beings – then redemption takes on the three and four dimensions (or however many there are) of reality.”

    I guess I see culture as the environment in which we exist in this world and the development of that is more based upon the principles of this world, rather than upon Christ. Are we to seek to change these things or rather be a part of God’s work to call men out of this darkness and into the kingdom of light?

  6. Tim:

    You confuse darkness with the world. As my colleague John Seel pointed in an earlier column response, 2/3rds of the references to “the world” in scripture are positive. Being called out of the darkness is being separated from the assumptions and systems that are antithetical to the kingdom. It does not demand withdrawal from the entire world and cultures. Calling people out of darkness does not mean ignoring our world’s cultures and pulling people away from as much involvement in them as possible. We are made as enculturated beings, that is God’s design. It is literally impossible to be completely aware of all the cultural influences that shape our behavior (we only know in part). It would be like staying on top of a large beach ball while floating in the ocean. Theoretically possible, humanly impossible. Therefore, if we are serious about salvation – and see it as involving the whole person and whole societies (“all things,” as Paul wrote) – then we are serious about making cultures where people, even though largely unaware of their influences, flourish. That’s what it means to love our neighbors, shalom.

    So… shalom to you, my friend. I hope this helps a little…

  7. Mike,

    I’ve been reading and enjoying your blog since last year. In many of your posts, including this one, you talk about a bottom-up versus top-down approach to culture making. You appear to be advocating for the bottom-down approach, which intrigues me. For the majority of my life, I have been told that the “trickle down” effect capitalism was supposed to have was not working. Instead of looking to government to feed people, I was told that the church was supposed to handle such things. Is this church initiated idea of social welfare actually a bottom-up approach, or do you think that by creating an institution, it too is top-down?

    This morning I read an opinion article from Comment online, where the author appears to be supporting a bottom-up system, because he sees it as a something that builds relationships, where as top-down systems just make rules. (You can find his article here: While I don’t know that I agree with this author, he did stir up a question I have been wrestling with in regards to bottom-up/top-down: Do you think that instead of just being “apprentices”, that when we engage in culture making on a local level, we are actually contributing to the state and national level as well? I can’t help but think that if we do not train and encourage people to be moral when they are just young kids in an after school program, we can’t expect them to become moral leaders when they grow up. Perhaps this is what you are implying in your post; that we need top-down institutions to guide us rightly, but we also need moral people in these top-down institutions, who learned to behave the way they do, because they were taught it on the local level. Thus, it seems to me that both bottom-up and top-down institutions are extremely important, and we need to encourage both in order to sustain our culture.

  8. Peter:

    You raise many excellent questions and I certainly admire the work of Cardus (I even write for them on occasion). To address your inquiry, might I refer you to my seven-week series that began in July of 2009? It’s right here at this site and is titled: “Why Institutions Matter.” The question is not top-down versus bottom-up, but rather central versus peripheral institutions. If you have an opportunity to peruse the series, tell me what you think. I’d welcome your comments.


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