To Change the World: Part 2, The Weak Culture of Christianity

In Part 1 of discussing James Davison Hunter's book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World we noted that one of the reasons Hunter feels that Christians are ineffective in influencing American culture is that Christians are working with poor ideas about the nature of culture and cultural change. Christians tend to think you change culture by battling--person by person--to effect a values-based revolution, winning over the hearts and minds of the American people.

And yet, Hunter has us pause and think about something odd: This nation is overwhelmingly Christian. Given this, how did the majority group become so culturally marginalized?

Hunter has us contrast the cultural influence of Christians with the Jewish and gay communities. Jews make up 2-4% of the American population. And yet, their cultural influence in the arts, sciences, and letters has been enormous. In a similar way, about 7-8% of the American population is gay. And yet, this small group exerts enormous cultural influence, mainly in the arts and entertainment. Ellen DeGeneres gets to judge American idol, James Dobson never will.

How are we to explain these differences? How come Christians generally (and evangelicals particularly) are so impotent in the culture wars when they vastly outnumber these other groups?

The answer goes back to Hunter's claim about Christians being confused about cultural change.

Recall, Christians tend to think that cultural change will occur through a populist values revolution. Hunter thinks this is a confusion because culture is so much deeper than values. Culture largely works outside of awareness, in play well before we get to "values." It's like that joke David Foster Wallace told about two young fish:

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"
Culture is just like that. You don't even notice it. So it's really hard to even fight about it. Or "win hearts and minds" about it. Let alone create a "values revolution." Because whenever you point out the culture we are swimming in the general response is "Water? What the hell is water?"

Here is Hunter describing culture:
Only in a highly abridged sense, then, is culture a worldview. Perhaps the most important thing to realize is that this "worldview" is so deeply embedded in our consciousness, in the habits of our lives, and in our social practices that to question one's worldview is to question "reality" itself. Sometimes, we are self-conscious of and articulate about our worldview, but for most of us, the frameworks of meaning by which we navigate life exist "prereflectively," prior to conscious awareness. That is, our understanding of the world is so taken-for-granted that it seems utterly obvious. It bears repeating that it is not just our worldview of what is right or wrong or true or false but our understanding of time, space, and identity--the very essence of reality as we experience it.
So "change the world" Christians are facing a bit of a problem. How do you change reality itself? Particularly when you are a part of it? We can call this the "What the hell is water?" problem.

But cultures do change. So how does that happen?

According to Hunter, cultural change isn't bottom up. It is, rather, top down. Recall, culture is less about populist sentiment than about institutions that have differential cultural leverage, what Hunter calls cultural or symbolic capital. Much of this cultural capital is simply the power to define reality itself. This power is granted by a variety of cultural institutions. For example, I can put "Dr." in front of my name. That's a form of cultural power, which grants me leverage to name reality when topics related to psychology come up on this blog. (On theology I'm generally full of crap.) However, I also work at Abilene Christian University. Ever heard of it? Probably not. The point is, if I was Dr. Richard Beck from Harvard or Cambridge then I'd have even more cultural power. I'd likely be writing books that appeared on bestseller lists, writing op-ed pieces for the New York Times, and be a regular guess on Oprah and cable TV. And as my cultural capital increased I'd have greater and greater power to name and define reality.

The point is, cultural change occurs via the work of cultural elites. A slowly rising flood of books, editorials, movies, and cable interviews that slowly change how we see the world. The settled consensus begins to be challenged intellectually and artistically and, eventually, the culture changes. Think about cultural changes in America. Abolitionism during the Civil War. The Civil Rights movement. The 60s. Thinks about how elites drove all those changes. The culture changed because sermons changed. Newspaper editorials changed. Books got published. Entertainers challenged the status quo.

And all this creates a bit of a problem for Christians, particularly evangelicals, who have (not illegitimate) problems with the existence of elites in their midst. And yet, this frustration simply recognizes the truth of the matter: There are so few of them and, yet, they have the cultural power to define reality.

In the face of this reality Christians have done something very curious. Rather than intentionally trying to produce cultured elites--as the Jewish and gay communities have produced--Christians have largely abandoned the institutions of cultural power (think about New York and Hollywood) to create their own subculture. Their own music, movies, books, and TV shows. And as Hunter notes, the output of this cultural production has been absolutely astounding. Because, like we said, there are a lot of Christians out there! Think of a book like The Shack. A publishing phenomenon. And yet, a Christian sensation like this leaves hardly a cultural ripple, being mainly consumed by the Christian subculture. Plus, a great deal of the Christian cultural output is kitsch. Christian writing, music and art is generally perceived to be of low quality. And if you've been in a Christian bookstore recently (I was yesterday) you understand this assessment.

In short, Christians do have a vibrant culture. It's just what Hunter calls a "weak culture." Christian cultural production is strongest where the leverage for cultural change is weakest. Hunter on this conclusion:
In terms of the cultural economy, however, Christians in America today have institutional strength and vitality exactly in the lower and peripheral areas of cultural production. Against the prevailing view, the main reason why Christian believers today (from various communities) have not had the influence in the culture to which they have aspired is not that they don't believe enough, or try hard enough, or care enough, or think Christianly enough, or have the right worldview, but rather because they have been absent from the areas in which the greatest influence in the culture is exerted. The culture-producing institutions of historical Christianity are largely marginalized in the economy of culture formation in North America. Its cultural capital is greatest where leverage in the larger culture is weakest.
Oddly, rather than working to enter the arenas of cultural power many, mostly evangelical, Christians actively foster and take pride in an anti-intellectualism. Rather than creating a richer Christian culture, the goal is to battle "the elites." Given this strategy, how could you possibly hope to win the culture war? If you foster anti-intellectualism and take pride in kitsch then how are you going to win this battle to "name reality"?

Well, you basically give up on trying to change culture and attempt to grab the only other power available to you: The government. Because while you don't have cultural capital (those damned elites have that!) you do have the numbers and you can turn churches into voting collations.

And so Christianity goes political.

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One thought on “To Change the World: Part 2, The Weak Culture of Christianity”

  1. I mean no offense but why the gay community included in the groups that were being compared in terms of cultural influence? I mean, gay people can be Christians or Jews at the same time. I think it's inappropriate to include a group that is not mutually exclusive in such comparisons. but good analysis, though!

    Hookah Guy

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