Sunday, April 29, 2012

Christianity and Culture

Well, as promised, I have finished reading, rereading, processing, and outlining To Change the World. I don't think I've ever learned so much from and thought so much about any book except the Bible. (Going by amount of underlining and margin notes, at least--and previously the Bible was the only book I wrote in) Suffice it to say that I cannot, cannot, cannot recommend this book highly enough. It is a brilliantly thought-out, thoroughly researched, exhaustively argued critique of the methods and ideas behind how American Christianity engages with the world around it, particularly in the contexts of culture and politics. James Hunter dissects and analyzes the assumptions, beliefs, successes, and failure of the modern church's ministry with a surgeon's precision. This book has helped me tie together and think about many, many thoughts and concerns I've been having over the past few years. It is a bit scholarly and densely written, but please don't let that stop you from checking it out. (You can borrow my copy soon, if you don't mind a heavily annotated book)

My response to this book has two phases. I'll be making three big posts that effectively summarize the three essays of the book. Again, my writing skills and research can't do justice to James Hunter; this is just to whet your appetite for the book. After that, I'll probably be posting other various reactions to it (I already have one in mind for my music blog) for a while.

The first essay of To Change the World focuses on culture: how it is made, how it changes, and how the Christian church has interacted with it in the "late modern world" and in history. It begins with what Hunter considers the dominant view on culture in the modern church. In it, "the essence of culture is found in the hearts and minds of individuals". The focus is on the values--or, more generally, worldviews--held by ordinary people, with the belief that a change in these values will cause a corresponding shift in culture.

Accordingly, the church's attempts to reach out and influence culture generally focus on individuals (particularly evangelism or, on a broader scale, "revival") and relationships. This is contrasted with a "top-down" process of change that imposes values on people, rather trying to win them to Christ and His perspective through love. Therefore, it is essential for Christians to hold tightly to what they believe and be authentic to minister to those around them in order to really change this nation for the better.

Somewhat counterintuitively, this bottom-up approach to change has increasingly been translating into political action. The goal is the "renewal" of a clearly flawed and fallen political system, or the introduction of a new kind of "spiritual" politics. The methods are similarly grassroots; the whole idea of calling Christians to "vote their values" to help renew culture by putting God's representatives into public office. More recently, Christians who realize the limitations of the political approach have been focusing more on social movements that try to influence culture from outside government by educating and helping people, and pursuing social goals like stronger marriages, stronger fathers, and in general stronger character in people.

Hunter identifies three common assumptions of these approaches. First, they believe culture is changed one individual at a time. Second they assume cultural change can be planned out and effected in a systematic, programmed way. And third, they assume culture is a democratic entity and that it changes from the "bottom up". They hold up great people like Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, and William Wilberforce as examples of how one person can take a stand for God and make a difference. Then Hunter finishes the chapter with a sentence that made my jaw drop and left me reading it over and over: "This account is almost wholly mistaken."

What are the problems with this so widely accepted and clearly gospel-centered view? Well, as he argues in the next chapter, culture just doesn't work as this view thinks it does, at all. To disprove the notion that culture is truly democratic, he contrasts the relatively small contributions to American culture made by the Christian majority in the 20th century with the contributions of the Jewish community, a much smaller group that has contributed to culture in amazing ways relative to its numbers. Even today, if the majority of Americans still consider themselves to be Christians, why is our culture becoming increasingly secular and materialistic? Culture, Hunter concludes, "often seems eerily independent of public opinion."

A common response of the church to this discrepancy is to see it as a call to action: for Christians to step up, take hold of their faith, and fight for what they believe in, as if the problem is that we're not trying hard enough, being "Christian" enough. The real problem, Hunter says, is that the common view of culture is simply wrong. It is heavily influenced by idealism, an enlightenment-era philosophy that says that the metaphysical world of concepts and ideas is more significant than the physical one in shaping culture and steering the course of history. It is summed up succinctly in the aphorism, "ideas have consequences". This idealism is also colored by individualism--the view that "the autonomous and rational individual is the key actor in social change"--and Christian pietism, the belief that the most important thing in life is having one's life based on God and the gospel. There is, of course, nothing wrong with either of these things, but they determine the unique flavor of idealism that drives much of the church's approach to engaging culture.

The problem with idealism, Hunter says, is that it misconstrues how the world really changes and creates a belief that someone is capable of having influence when that capacity may be weak or nonexistent. It also "mistakenly imputes a logic and rationality to culture where such linearity and reasonableness do not exist but rather contingency and accident." It fatally underestimates the crucial role institutions and social structures play in culture. Ironically, the approach of idealism to culture reinforces the idea of dualism, a separation between the spiritual and physical domains that Christians rightly reject, by disregarding the institutional influence on culture. To be clear, the evangelism, revival, and personal ministry pursued by Christians based on this view are all very good things, but it is mistaken to expect pursuing them alone in any capacity to change culture.

Hunter then offers an alternative view of culture based on seven propositions.
  1. Culture goes much deeper than simply the sum of the things that people believe to be true, their "worldviews". Culture is partially subconscious mindset shared by the people in it, a set of unspoken moral obligations and the things considered "normal", "good", or "acceptable" even if people can't always articulate why. It is closely tied in with language, as language determines how the assumptions and views of a culture rise to the surface of conscious thought by being articulated.
  2. Culture is deeply tied into history; it is "'history turned into nature', second nature, if you will." Cultures have inertia due to their ties with the immutable past.
  3. Culture is based on the interface between abstract ideas and concrete institutions. It is grounded in and produced by these institutions and the elites that run them. The relationship between individuals and these institutions goes both ways, often more toward the individual.
  4. Culture can be thought of as a kind of currency in the form of "symbolic capital", which is basically respect or credibility. For example, the New York Times has more symbolic capital than the Star Tribune, or research from MIT more than research from, say, the U.
  5. Like real capital, symbolic capital is not evenly distributed but concentrated in certain individuals and institutions, which are said to occupy the cultural "center" of their field; institutions with less symbolic capital are more on the "periphery". Symbolic capital is more of a qualitative than quantitative resource, and is deeply tied in with social structure.
  6. Culture and cultural change are generated by intra- and interconnected networks of individuals and institutions. The "great man" theory that attributes cultural change to principled, charismatic leaders like William Wilberforce, Martin Luther King Jr., etc., overlooks the large networks of which they were the leaders and public faces.
  7. Perhaps most importantly, culture is neither autonomous nor very coherent. It is heavily conflated with trends in institutions, social structures, politics, and (especially in the modern world) economics.
This is a starkly different view on culture than the dominant one described above. It paints culture not so much as a separate entity to be molded and influenced as a chaotic emergent phenomenon, an interface between individuals and institutions that runs both ways and deeply influences both in ways seen and hidden.

In light of this, he says, the aphorism "Ideas have consequences" requires some qualifying. In truth, not all ideas have consequences, and some ideas have many more consequences than others. Why is this? Hunter offers four more points to help shed light on how ideas really influence culture.
  1. Cultures usually change from the "top down", not the "bottom up", influenced by elites and institutions closer to the center of their cultural field who have concentrated power to effect cultural change. He touches on some apparent exceptions, such as some political revolutions (this book was written in 2010, so he's thinking socialist revolutions, but also the "Arab spring" revolutions) that "nearly always involve leadership from the ranks of marginal and disaffected elites". Culture is "about how societies define reality" and the capacity to do so is concentrated in certain institutions and groups. In almost every case, grassroots mobilization is an outward manifestation of cultural change, not a cause of it.
  2. Cultural change is typically initiated by elites just outside the center of cultural production. Elites in the very center are most concerned with upholding the current culture; change comes from organizations "on the outside" enough to want change, but with the power to make it happen.
  3. World-changing is most effective when networks of elites and the institutions they lead overlap--especially elites from different spheres of influence (social, economic, political).
  4. Culture does change, but rarely (if ever) without a fight. The changing of culture is at heart a conflict between alternative views on what is and what should be. An alternative vision of culture must be similar enough to the current one to resonate with the current social environment, but not similar enough to be co-opted and absorbed by it.
In sum, Hunter paints a very different picture of culture and cultural change than the common one dominated by idealism, individualism, and Christian pietism. "Ideas have consequences in history, yet not because those ideas are inherently truthful or powerful but rather because of the way in which they are embedded in very powerful institutions, networks, interests, and symbols." Against the power of individual hearts, minds, and values we see the inertia of institutions and the feedback effect culture as a largely separate entity has on them all.

The final message of all of this is that "cultures are profoundly resistant to intentional change--period." The idea that an Evangelical movement can "redeem" culture in a single generation is "nothing short of ridiculous." The methods currently advanced--evangelism, politics, social reform, and the creation of artifacts, all have their own good effects, but on their own they will not have a lasting effect on culture. Because of how deep and embedded culture is in our lives, "the most humane understandings of personhood, relationships, community, time, space, freedom, obligation, material wealth, cannot be established or recovered through a five-year plan or even in a generation--certainly not through politics, not through social reform, and not even in and through revival."

In the following chapter Hunter does a quick tour of the history of Christianity and its engagement with culture through the ages. He isn't as  good a historian as he is a social scientist, but it's still a good read. Christian dominance of the culture of late antiquity, he says, did not happen overnight with Constantine's declaration, but gradually over the course of centuries as people of higher and higher status converted, Christianity climbed its way up the ladder of culture production. As higher-status  peopled converted, Christianity's influence on the intellectual, philosophical, and aesthetic culture of the day increased.

In the following centuries, monasteries became the dominant centers of cultured for much of Europe, "culture" at this point largely consisting of the preservation of the "classical" Greek and Roman traditions. This was when the church started gaining political power equal to or greater than states. Evangelistic efforts at this time focused on converting the nobility, since only once they had converted would it be safe for their subjects to do so. Cultural changes moved from the higher reaches of the social order to the lower.

In the late eight and early ninth centuries, commonly known as the "Dark Ages", was the Carolingian Renaissance, an "exceptional flurry of cultural production" in which many advances were made by education, literature, law, theology, architecture, art, and music. Much of this was due to the reforms of the king Charlemagne and Alcuin, an English monk who was prominent in his court and provided the cultural leadership, "in effect the architect of the Carolingian renaissance". It was at this time that the idea of a "liberal arts" education was developed, and many schools were set up by the church to promote universal literacy among the clergy and to provide universal elementary education. The vision of society was largely from Augustine, that of a machine made of many parts working together--reflecting the vision of the church as a body made of many parts in 1 Corinthians 12.

Then he moves on to the Reformation. The view of the Reformation as simply truth triumphing over falsehood and corruption ignores the efforts of the highly educated scholars who were the prime movers. The theologians at the heart of this movement presented a "bibliocentric alternative to late medieval theology and religious practice". The Reformation was as much a revolution in education as in religion, and these theologians introduced many new universities as well as the notion of the "academy" as a place for the development and international sharing of ideas. These academies became esteemed centers of learning and people came from all over Europe to receive an education there. The success of the Reformation also depended on the emerging commercial elite for mass distribution of ideas via the printing press and on the political elite for protection from persecution.

For two secular examples, Hunter gives the Enlightenment and the socialist revolutions of the 20th century. The enlightenment was largely dependent on state patronage to provide both economic and administrative resources as well as freedom for intellectual and artistic innovation. Where these factors were in place, the Enlightenment flourished. Socialism was entirely driven by the top-down propagation of Marx's ideas through intellectual elites "whose theory was both highly abstract and difficult to read by any but the most intellectually trained thinkers"--ironic given its focus on a revolt of the masses.

In summary, none of the described movements was simply caused by a popular shift in values or the popular appeal of the alternative culture. The effectiveness of these movements was dependent on many structural conditions such as the particular identity of the individuals and institutions originating them, and often on resources provided by political patronage.

From here, Hunter moves to an inventory of the "cultural economy" of American Christianity. First, he notes that its most visible area of influence today is the political realm, where it is represented by a myriad of groups seeking to shape current political issues. Economically, Christianity has by far the most influence in the middle class.

On the cultural side, he looks at faith-based patronage, the enabling factor for much of the cultural change described in the previous chapter. For many years, about 40% of the total philanthropic giving in America has gone to religious organizations. At least 80% of this was from individual donations rather than from corporations or foundations, whose faith-based donations were relatively small. Among self-described Evangelical foundations, the majority of giving went to evangelism and missionary efforts. Compared to the most generous foundations, very little money from Christian foundations went to supporting intellectual, artistic, and cultural innovators.

He then moves on to "cultural capital" as described earlier. Here he sees a considerable decline for Christianity in the last 50-70 years, especially within mainline Protestantism which once had a good deal of cultural and intellectual influence. Evangelical Christian scholars have difficulty gaining credibility both within their fields and among fellow Evangelicals because of its "long-standing tradition of anti-intellectualism." Instead, Evangelical Christianity has put much cultural capital into the development of fairly robust "parallel institutions" that mirror the mainstream means of culture development and production. Hunter notes that these institutions are largely insular, directed inward toward the needs of the Evangelical community; on the periphery rather than in the center of cultural production at large; and "overwhelmingly oriented toward the popular". Evangelicals who are present in fields of influence usually seem to be there more by accident than anything else.

In other words, American Christianity has largely withdrawn from its once-prominent place in institutions that serve as centers of influence in cultural and intellectual production. He presents a "culture matrix" showing three fields of culture (knowledge, morality, and aesthetics) and notes that the areas of each in which the cultural economy of Christianity is strongest are all on the lower, popular side rather than the higher side in which culture is influenced and originated--particularly in the arts. "The cultural capital American Christianity has amassed simply cannot be leveraged where it matters most."

While the church undeniably continues to do good in innumerable ways today, it is not active in ways that actually influence culture. Besides its withdrawal from centers of cultural production as described above, two other possible reasons are its extreme disunity and lack of centralized leadership; and  its unwitting syncretism with secular cultures of consumerism, individualism, and self-help which manifest themselves in myriad ways throughout its various divisions. Overall, Hunter concludes that American Christianity, for all its strengths, is a marginal and weak culture.

Finally, he goes back to humanity's God-given mandate of developing, cherishing, and restoring God's creation, a mandate that extends to every person and every area of life. The Christian belief that everyone is equally loved and valued by God, central to this mandate, is at odds with the elitism that Hunter has argued is central to how cultures change. For all its potential (and actual) abuses, the populism espoused by American Christianity is well-meaning and biblical, but profoundly at odds with its stated mission of changing culture. This is a tension that the church needs to address presently.

Another issues is that of the church's relationship with power, explored in much more depth in the second essay. Whatever way of engaging culture the church chooses implies the use of power in some capacity. In another hard-hitting sentence, he asserts that the church's use of political power to achieve faith-based ends is "completely wrong and, in my view, an utter distortion of the creation mandate." More generally, he says that the church's tendency to lay claim to God's plan for history and try to influence it to match that plan is a mistake. As an alternative, he hints at the idea of "faithful presence" in all areas of life, not just the most common--an idea laid out in much more detail in the third essay.

That concludes my summary of Hunter's first essay. I'm going to leave my own reflections and evaluations for later, and hope that the second essay, exploring the relationship of the American church to power, goes a bit faster.

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