Rick Hogaboam’s Review – “To Change the World” (Chp. 4)

Posted: June 23, 2010 by Rick Hogaboam in Book Reviews, Christ & Culture, The Mysterious World of American Evangelicalism
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Hunter offers 11 propositions on culture—seven about culture and four about cultural change.  I will use my friend Scott Kistler’s summary of these 11 propositions:

  1. Culture is a system of truth claims and moral obligations: These are often unconscious rather than “exist[ing] as a set of propositions” (33).  Culture is how define reality, and it is found in what we think of as “obvious” and is found in our language.  As it’s been said in at least one sociology class that I’ve had before, culture is like water for a fish: it’s assumed.  Therefore, it is not easy to change or challenge one’s own culture.
  2. Culture is a product of history: The fact that culture has been built over centuries also helps to give culture its staying power.  Cultures have changed over time and therefore they continue to change; “it is just that they are not easily changed in these way or changed in the direction we want them to change.  The inertia built into culture by virtue of its relationship to its long history tends to make it lumbering and erratic at the same time” (34).
  3. Culture is intrinsically dialectical: Culture is not only symbolic, it is also made.  In other words, we make something with the symbols.  Ideas are therefore connected with the institutions that produce culture.  Speaking sociologically, he gives examples of these institutions: “the market, the state, education, the media of mass communications, scientific and technological research, and the family” (35).  There is also the dialectical (two-way) relationship between individuals who make these institutions and institutions that influence individuals through their cultural production.  “Institutions have much greater power,” he writes, but our prevailing cultural theory about individual hearts and minds tends to ignore their power (35).
  4. Culture is a resource and, as such, a form of power: Certain people and things in cultures have more cultural power than others.  He calls this power “symbolic capital.”  He gives numerous examples: certain people (like a person with a Ph.D.), schools (like Yale), newspapers (like the New York Times), and awards (like the Nobel Prize) simply have more symbolic capital than other things in the same category, and they can transfer some of that power to other things.  As he notes, think of the process of book “blurbs” that can give a certain prestige to a book because of the reputation of the “blurber.”
  5. Cultural production and symbolic capital are stratified in a fairly rigid structure of “center” and “periphery”: As Hunter says, this follows the previous proposition.  Certain people and things are at the center of cultural production, while others are at the periphery.  “With cultural capital, it isn’t quantity but quality that matters most” (37), and I should note that I think he means quality as judged by the culture’s symbols and institutions.  USA Today, he notes, outsells the New York Times, but the Times’ position at the cultural center allows it to enjoy greater status and confer status on other cultural products.
  6. Culture is generated within networks: Contrary to the “great man” theory of history expounded by Hegel and Carlyle, he writes that “the key actor in history is not an individual genius but rather the network and new institutions that are created out of those networks” (38).  While brilliant people may lead “networks of similarly oriented people and similarly aligned institutions,” that is their necessary context to make the great impacts that they are credited with making (38).
  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.  Our economy commodifies and sells many non-physical cultural products and the increasing power of the government means that government has a great role in cultural production (like public education).  A culture also has “fields,” cultures within cultures.  I think what he means by this are things like professions and voluntary associations, although it’s not entirely clear how these are different from cultural institutions.  I imagine that these are in some ways secondary institutions, not the great commanding institutions of society.  Finally, there are what we usually call subcultures, although he doesn’t use this word: “relatively distinct, and often competing perspectives” relating to regional, ethnic, religious, or other differences (40).
  8. Cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up: Because the production of culture is so influenced by elites, institutions, and networks, long-lasting change is most likely to come through these processes
  9. Change is typically initiated by elites who are outside of the centermost positions of prestige: The elites at the center aren’t going to challenge the norms that they are influential in creating, but challenging those norms takes some form of power, which elites not at the center have.  He gives the analogy of Vilfredo Pareto, whose writings have influenced Hunter on this point: elites are either lions (defenders of their tradition) or foxes (challengers of elite traditions).  When foxes succeed, they have difficulty establishing order, and then lions come back or “the foxes become lions” (43).
  10. World-changing is most concentrated when the networks of elites and the institutions they lead overlap: Cultures change when elites cooperate.
  11. Cultures change, but rarely if ever without a fight: This is pretty self-explanatory.  Hunter also draws on Robert Wuthnow’s work to note that for an alternative to take hold, “its discourse, moral demands, institutions, symbols, and rituals” need to be close enough to the culture not to seem alien, and different enough to not be “co-opted” by elites.

Hunter concludes this chapter by stating quite boldly, “Christians will not engage the culture effectively, much less hope to change it, without attention to the factors mentioned here” (2010:47).

The take away for me comes really from points six, eight, nine, and ten.

In proposition 6, Hunter views networks as powerful in affecting change. I think history bears this out. MLK Jr. didn’t do it all alone, but advanced the cause for civil rights much more effectively through networks that united the masses in one powerful voice. This makes me wonder if the church would in fact be more effective if we had fewer networks or denominations.  We’re all familiar with the power the Catholic Church has globally and one could consider them a network of sorts. We Evangelicals are so fragmented that the idea of having powerful networks seem like a pipe dream. There have been parachurch and organization attempts—I think of Promise Keepers and the National Association of Evangelicals. Call me pessimistic, but I seriously doubt that the Promise Keepers has affected great change for marital health among Evangelicals. As for the National Association of Evangelicals, they are a joke. Onetime president declared that Benny Hinn and R.C. Sproul were both equally Evangelicals. Haggard was definitely trying to view all fragmented branches as one, but the fact is that Benny Hinn and R.C. Sproul aren’t remotely close. Sproul could probably stomach a Catholic mass before attending a Benny Hinn revival service. There are some large denominations, like the SBC, which have wielded some clout, or have attempted to do so, but is a drop in the bucket compared to what the Pope thinks.

In proposition 8, Hunter sees value in top down institutional change. The Christians need to embrace this role of creating institutions that will seriously rival the centers of academia and the like. It is sad to think that Yale, Princeton, and other Christian founded universities hardly resemble the founding mission, so one could easily be discouraged at such efforts. There have been some lasting institutions that have garnered respect…I think of Wheaton, among others. I am also curious in seeing the legacy New Saint Andrews (Moscow, ID) will leave.

In proposition 9, Hunter notes the importance of elitist engagement for change. I guess there was a bit of truth to the notion that if you could get the smartest, best-looking, most popular student saved, then the whole school would follow 😉 Well, not quite, but it does seem necessary to have some credibility within the higher echelons of academia. I think it is true, but doubt whether we should really play that game as Christians. My Pentecostal heritage bubbles up here, along with the radical Anabaptist reformers, in somewhat despising the elitists of the day. I think of Paul who said that he intentionally didn’t speak in the flowery rhetoric of the day, but instead spoke prophetically in the power of the Spirit so that the confidence of believers would rest not in the cunning wisdom of man, but in the power of the Spirit.  However, I do think that Christians need to make an intellectual appeal to the ranks of college students churning in and out of the university. We do need to rival the talking heads and challenge their assertions.

Proposition 10 essentially states that institutions and elites need to overlap to affect great change. Ummm, I guess that means we create great institutions with excellent elitists. Well, I know it is much more complex than that; however it would be great if there was greater quality control in who should be a pastor in American Evangelical Churches, etc. Once upon a time, it was expected that the pastor would be a community leader of sorts—a generalist on all things, well read on local news, well versed in community concern, Biblically and theologically competent, a reader of books, etc. This has changed. I think we have pastors today who disdain learning, can’t think critically, are clueless on community concerns though they state their great passion is to reach the community (go figure), are Biblically incompetent and theologically illiterate, and thus unable to  affect much change, besides being a pietistic example for the hearts of the people.

I think we would do much better as Evangelicals if we realized the propositions that Hunter proposes and stop disdaining institutions, the mind, and people who are smarter than us.

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