Scott Kistler’s Review of James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World” (Essay 1, Chp. 6)

Posted: June 26, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Book Reviews, Christ & Culture
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Hunter’s title for this chapter is “The Cultural Economy of American Christianity.”  He tries to answer the question of how Christianity relates to the networks and institutions of cultural power that he has been discussing.  This is a pretty interesting question, where you get a lot of different perspectives from different people.  Hunter mentions that Europeans tend to find our country “remarkably Christian, to the point of being weirdly puritanical” (79), while Middle Easterners would see a Christian culture in decline (think of Sayyid Qutb’s observation about the West).  Non-Christian Americans would notice the influence of Christianity.

Hunter’s argument in this chapter is that Christian influence is rarely near the centers of cultural production.  The large charitable endowments direct a small percentage of their overall giving to religious, let alone traditionally Christian, groups.  Evangelical and Catholic groups tend not to sponsor “arts and culture” in anywhere near the magnitude that the largest foundations do.  There is no Catholic or evangelical parallel to the MacArthur genius grant.  The biggest cultural institutions sponsored by evangelicals are colleges and universities, where scholars tend to face twin difficulties: marginality within the larger academic culture when “they pursue Christian distinctions” and marginality from the anti-intellectual strain in evangelical culture.  In culture, evangelical “parallel institutions” have been the rule: publishing companies, movie production, radio, etc.  Evangelical cultural products tend to be by evangelicals for evangelicals, outside the centers of broader American culture, and popular and market-oriented rather than high-brow.  There are definitely exceptions, he says, but these are the rules.  Catholic higher education, public intellectual activity, and literary has been more successful he says.

Hunter argues that most Christian success is at the lowest, grass-roots levels, farthest from the centers of cultural production: “its cultural capital is greatest where leverage in the larger culture is weakest” (89).  Even the much-vaunted or feared Christian politicians or people in other positions of influence, he says, “are neither operating within dense social networks nor working together coherently with common agendas, not least because they are largely disaffected from the local church” (91).

Hunter sees two problems for Christians trying to influence the culture.  First, within each of the major Christian traditions in America (which he gives as Catholic, Evangelical, and Reformed) there are major divisions between theological conservatives and liberals.  Secondly, many believers are often influenced by powerful cultural forces: “consumerism, individualism, the therapeutic and managerial ideologies.  He notes Christian Smith’s description of “moralistic, therapeutic deism” among young people as an illustration of this (92).  While movements like homeschooling and Alpha try to combat this, he believes that “these are defensive actions by small communities that simply do not have the resources to go up against the behemoth institutions of modern secular culture” (92).  He goes so far as to call American Christianity a “weak culture.”

I’m interested to see where Hunter is going.  He’s laid out a lot of reasons why Christians can’t do much to change the direction of culture given the current situation.  So what to do about it?

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