We’re very excited to release our latest EWP Talk: Andy Crouch’s brief but powerful address at Karam Forum 2018. Drawing on the imagery of Isaiah 5, Crouch spoke about the challenge of separating real flourishing from transitory prosperity in the midst of economic growth and technological innovation. In a world where we can have instant gratification in so many ways, what is of lasting importance?
“If you want to have a biblical conversation about flourishing, you are going to end up – sooner or later – at the story of the vineyard,” said Crouch. The image of Israel as the Lord’s vineyard, most fully developed in Isaiah 5 but recurring in many other places as well, contains a wealth of potential insight that speaks to the present state of our own civilizations and cultures.
Like us, the Israelites were prosperous. But the story of Isaiah 5 is not a happy one. The vineyard produces “wild grapes,” which explode with seeming abundance, but aren’t properly tended and don’t last. Crouch compares worldly prosperity built on fragile foundations to sidewalk chalk art in the tradition of trompe l’oeil (“deceive the eye”). It isn’t what it appears to be; take one step to the side and the illusion disappears.
And it’s doomed to be washed away in the next rain. The Lord wants flourishing from his world, Crouch points out, so if we don’t pursue real flourishing we can be sure our efforts will ultimately fall apart.
The point is not that economic success is bad; the point is that we need to change our definition of what counts as economic success. We tend to seek out activities and accomplishments that are “low friction” – that involve less investment and provide a shortcut to enjoyable experiences. But low-friction activities are by their nature unstable; precisely because the barriers are low, today’s quick fix is quickly replaced by tomorrow’s quicker fix. Crouch points to the music industry, which is contracting rapidly because access to recorded music has become effectively free.
What are we producing that is worth preserving? Crouch suggests that while the Bible does not have a “prosperity gospel,” it does have a “posterity gospel” – it calls us to prioritize what kind of world, what kind of culture and what kind of civilization we leave for our grandchildren. We should invest in things that are worth passing on.
The flourishing life is a pruned life. The Lord prunes his vineyard and it flourishes sustainably.
And the irony is that once we accept the pruned life, the massive power and wealth of modern markets become tools we can use to accomplish the Lord’s purposes. An internet-based music community allows musicians to collaborate digitally and produce art that is superior to what the major labels produce. Crouch even points to fast-food restaurants like In-N-Out and Chik-Fil-A, which have been built on serious and worthy visions of what a fast-food restaurant ought to be like. It is people – from the CEO to the fry cook – who live the pruned life who produce and sustain such visions of flourishing.
“This is where the church needs to be,” concludes Crouch, “going to every part of the world of mere affluence and turning it into a vineyard.”