To Change the World, 7

This chapter is a conclusion of the argument up to this point. Hunter warns against elitism and says that all of God’s people must be involved in this world-changing vocation. We all stand equal before God. But too often, “the populism that is inherent to authentic Christian witness is often transformed into an oppressive egalitarianism that will suffer no distinctions between higher and lower or better and worse.” And so there is a tension between ministering in cultural powerful areas and not becoming elitist.
Further, Christian might actually find themselves in positions of power [I should hope so!]. Hunter wants no part of Christians using political power towards “faith-based ends.” One wonders what ends he does want Christians using political power for? Fixing the sewer system? If he is merely critiquing the shallow thinking and foolish sell-outs that characterize much political thinking on the Right, he is fine by me. If he is saying that Christian rulers are an oxymoron (as I suspect he is) then we part company. I can concur with him that saving America isn’t our calling or goal. Not that America anyway. But our Savior taught us:
Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Baptized nations will serve Jesus as King. Rome was the first to do so. Many others followed. All nations are under the rule of Jesus now, whether or not they like it. This does not mean we should “seize power”, indeed, we are not ready to. But Hunter’s turn towards quietism is wrong. He advocates faithful presence – healthy networks of Christians in every field. Amen to that! He wants “an alternative culture”, Amen to that! But don’t cut politics out of that culture, or we are simply asking for future disasters.

To Change the World 6

Hunter examines the “cultural economy of American Christianity.” He traces the obliteration of the WASP establishment in the 60’s to the current position of evangelicalism at the margins of our elite institutions. I would note here that George W. Bush was ostensibly an evangelical and he had a pretty significant position at the center of the elites! And yet he failed to do much of anything, or even try, other than to offer platitudes about “the Almighty.”

Hunter examines giving and the large foundations that support intellectual pursuits. Most Christian giving is in small amounts and to things such as para-church organizations that fail to support Christian scholarship (in his analysis).

He points out that many of the newer institutions and periodicals that have evolved are in response to or are parallel to their elite counterparts. Catholics are doing a somewhat better job with places such as Ave Maria and Christendom College (no mention of New St. Andrews here). Evangelicals have created an ecosystem of cable networks like TBN (debatably evangelical), publishing houses and music all of which apes the world and rarely if ever influences the central places of production. Our books don’t get reviewed by the New York Review of Books for instance.

Furthermore, there are Christians here and there in the main institutions of our day, but they are not connected to larger networks of influence and don’t reflect a unified Church outlook on life. Again I don’t see any reference to Opus Dei in this chapter and I’d be interested to see what Hunter thinks of their work. The bottom line to Hunter is:

In terms of the cultural economy…Christians in America today have institutional strength and vitality exactly in the lower and peripheral areas of cultural production.

He says that Christians are not present where the greatest influence over our culture exists. Now, in our age I don’t know how possible it is for believers to be present in those places of power. Someone who is really sharp and outspoken about Jesus might never get hired to review books by a magazine steeped in hostility to God and the Church. In the past, despite great evil, their was often a veneer of politeness and respect towards religion that allowed for Christians to move in certain social circles that are now closed to them. Perhaps Hunter agrees with this, but in this chapter I got the impression that it is the fault of believers for not being where they should be and being connected to networks, when in fact I think they largely cannot penetrate these places. On the “thick networks” issue he is no doubt correct, but this points to much larger issues with the church and our divisions. I don’t expect these issues to be worked out for decades or centuries as I think the Protestant age is over and now things will stay in upheaval until a new order is established, which will take time.

To Change the World 5

Chapter 5 is called “Evidence in History” and in it Hunter traces how his take on transforming culture has played out in the growth of the Church in Rome, its expansion through the Middle Ages, and the Reformation. I really have very little to say about this chapter. It is a solid run through the past 2,000 years and I agree with it. In all of these cases you have inspired Church leaders who are steeped in the Bible and have a heart for outreach who are also connected to patrons who support them financially and make change possible. In many cases elites are converted (think of those in Caesar’s court already in the New Testament) and populations follow.

My main take away in thinking about this chapter a bit was that most change is sheer providence and riding the wave of timing and opportunity. I doubt that Luther set out to turn the entire world upside down and shatter the unity of the Western Church. I doubt that Augustine was plotting to dominate Western intellectual history via his writings. Things happened and they were in the right place at the right time. The vibe I am getting from this is that being intentional is fine and making plans is fine, but really we have zero ability to forecast the effects of what we do and we certainly cannot force change onto the world. A lot of our worldview training and strategic thinking looks laughable in the light of this. We should do what we do, work and pray, raise our kids and make it our ambition to lead a quite life. God will take care of the big changes. If you are rich or well positioned academically then you might be in place to make a greater contribution, but most of us will not do so. There are only a few figures riding the waves of change.

I think of the Beatles in this regard. What they were and what they did cannot be duplicated because they were at the right place at the right time. The culture was seething and things were changing rapidly. These guys caught the wave and rode it. They didn’t have a mission statement about how to change music. They were just there when it all happened. Serendipity, as Hunter says. I also recall one of my pastors growing up who talked about the fall of Communism and how the Church was scheming and planning to do this and that, and then God simply knocked a wall over and knocked regimes over in a matter of months. The unthinkable happened and it wasn’t due to any grand design or 50 year plan. I take comfort in this. God is in charge of the storm and it isn’t up to me or you to out think the world and come up with some think tank that produces young leaders who will overthrow everything.

To Change the World, 4

I really liked this chapter. It presents “an alternative view of culture and cultural change in eleven propositions.” Scott already posted them, and since I am short on time tonight, I will copy and paste Scott’s list in an abbreviated form. The 11 propositions are:

  1. Culture is a system of truth claims and moral obligations.
  2. Culture is a product of history: The fact that culture has been built over centuries also helps to give culture its staying power.
  3. Culture is intrinsically dialectical: Culture is not only symbolic, it is also made.
  4. Culture is a resource and, as such, a form of power: Certain people and things in cultures have more cultural power than others.
  5. Cultural production and symbolic capital are stratified in a fairly rigid structure of “center” and “periphery.”
  6. Culture is generated within networks.
  7. Culture is neither autonomous nor fully coherent: Culture is not independent from other factors in a society, but rather is bound together with institutions like the economy and the state.
  8. Cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up.
  9. Change is typically initiated by elites who are outside of the centermost positions of prestige.
  10. World-changing is most concentrated when the networks of elites and the institutions they lead overlap.
  11. Cultures change, but rarely if ever without a fight.
I wish I had time to expand on all these points, but let me instead riff on them a bit. I find the views put forward in this chapter to be very in line with how Biblical culture seems to operate and with my own experience in life. I have a largely Norwegian heritage and I grew up in Minnesota. These cultural markers stay with me wherever I go (it’s why I love Garrison Keillor so much)! My family jokes about these things, but they are real. Our reticence to confront people publicly, our suspicion of those who are noisy or draw attention to themselves, our point of view on just about everything is real, and yet hard to define or articulate. It’s the same with everyone, although American life is a jumble of ethnic heritages and Church histories, these things still impact us. I hate being told to clap or repeat something a pastor says, not for any identifiable propositional reason, but due to cultural sensibilities that have been caught, not taught.

I am deeply influenced by marketing and by the corporate culture I exist in. Corporations seem to be only the people that make them up, and yet they are so much more. Ideas and sensibilities carry on through time and are greater than any individual. IBM meant a man in a grey suit with a short haircut. Apple means design principles inherited from Dieter Rams and a certain devotion to elegance and secrecy. Adidas (to me) meant East Coast kids at raves who drive BMW’s and play soccer. This list could be multiplied infinitely. Things press down on us in an unconscious way and stamp their impress on us, and yet we think we are making independent choices. Read Marsden or Noll about the history of American Evangelicals and see how captive we are to notions of freedom and liberty from Common Sense Realism and the American Revolution, and yet all the while thinking these notion are gleaned directly from the Bible. So I agree with Hunter that institutions matter, corporations matter, states matter, and individuals matter.

To his point about the elites being crucial to change, I again agree. This is why Opus Dei is important and successful in Catholic evangelism. Read about Opus Dei and see how they operate: they target educated, elite and rich people who then spread the work to others. They are probably responsible for the conversion of Sam Brownback, Clarence Thomas and others and members that I know of include Roberts, Alito, Louis Freeh and many others. They have powerful ideas and powerful devotional practices that make evangelicals look shallow and tawdry and so they make converts. I think Protestants need an answer to them or we will have a totally Catholic Christian elite in our nation quite soon (we seem to be trending that way on an intellectual level already).

Calvinists today are largely unaware that their movement was at one time the progressive wave and the new thing that took the young intellectuals by storm centuries ago. It was not old men in studies who caught fire and spread Calvinism, it was the same people who a few decades ago would be Marxists and today would be into whatever is coming after post-modernism. C.S. Lewis captures this marvellously in his book English Literature in the Sixteenth Century. Listen to him:

This will at least serve to eliminate the absurd idea that Elizabethan Calvinists were somehow grotesque, elderly people, standing outside the main forward current of life. In their own day they were, of course, the very latest thing. Unless we can imagine the freshness, the audacity, and (soon) the fashionableness of Calvinism, we shall get our whole picture wrong. It was the creed of progressives, even of revolutionaries. It appealed strongly to those tempers that would have been Marxist in the nineteen-thirties. The fierce young don, the learned lady, the courtier with intellectual leanings, were likely to be Calvinists. (43)
Calvinism caught the wave and came to power as the leading edge of revolution. So many waves have followed: Transcendentalism, Deism, Communism and so forth. But my point is that Calvinism will not triumph by 25 people in an OPC somewhere clinging to the faith of their fathers, it will have to change and catch a future wave into the center in order to influence the culture truly again.

This also jives with what James Jordan has frequently said about most of the Biblical characters: they were rich or leading men in their day. We are trained that they were all poor and bedraggled, and some where. But Abraham had hundreds of servants and riches, David and Solomon were probably the equivalent of billionaires in our day. Many of the Apostles were probably at least Middle Class businessmen and Paul did not get his education at public school! The Bible itself was preserved by a hieratic caste of priests and scribes who had access to ancient languages and learning stretching back to Egypt and beyond. The Biblical culture was alien even to Israel itself! A small core of godly men preserved rich knowledge in the midst of a completely idolatrous culture around them where idols were in the very Temple of the Living God. In short, elites made the Bible and preserved it. Ministry to elites is vital, not at the expense of the poor, but certainly in tandem with it. The history of missionary efforts in Europe and other countries shows elites converting and mass populations following their lead. But contemporary evangelicalism exalts the masses and thinks that catering to them will produce cultural change – it has not happened. I am aligned with Hunter on these points and strongly encourage you to read this chapter, if nothing else in the book.

To Change the World

Rick Hogaboam, Scott Kistler and I will be reading To Change the World by James Davison Hunter and posting our thoughts about it as we go along. Hopefully we will interact with each other too. I come at Hunter’s book as a postmillenial, Magisterial Anglican and a post-Reconstructionist along the lines of Peter Leithart and James Jordan. Of course those labels may not mean much to most people, but I put them out there to say the obvious which is that I am not neutral on the subjects Hunter will discuss, I pretty much have my mind made up already.

In Chapter 1, Hunter outlines the Creation mandate of Genesis 2.15: “Then the Lord God took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.” He says that humans as part of our very nature are inclined to build churches, institutions, families and in short, worlds. This rings of Tolkien’s phrase that we are sub-creators. This perspective on Genesis 2.15 is indeed central to the mission and thinking of many modern Christian institutions and thinkers.

Just how central it is becomes obvious as Hunter takes a quick run through Protestant and Catholic mission statements that span groups from liberal to conservative. From the ELCA to Focus on the Family, churches and para-church ministries say that they want to “impact culture” or bring about a revolution of justice. Indeed, one has only to subscribe to certain Christian magazines engaged in the culture war (as I do) to be inundated with appeals for money in order to fund these organizations who believe that they can turn the tide in our culture.

Hunter’s quick summation concludes with this reflection:

I contend that the dominant ways of thinking about culture and cultural change are flawed, for they are based on both specious social science and problematic theology. In brief, the model on which various strategies are based not only does not work, but it cannot work.

Further Reading

Doug Wilson has been posting his running commentary on the book, available here.

There is an interview with Hunter here.