Rick Hogaboam’s Review of James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World” (Chp. 6 “The Cultural Economy of American Christianity”)

Posted: June 29, 2010 by Rick Hogaboam in Book Reviews, Christ & Culture, Discipleship/Sanctification, The Mysterious World of American Evangelicalism
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James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World”, Chp. 6 “The Cultural Economy of American Christianity”

Hunter notes that Christians tend to be middle class folks and don’t present a bunch of monetary clout, while at the same time noting that faith-based philanthropy has been impressive. Hunter observes (81), “…its economic influence is not in the leadership of American capitalism, but primarily within the middle classes”.  Later on, Hunter adds (81), “faith-based philanthropy is impressive”. I think here of the recent stats I have seen which show that Christians have out-given their liberal counterparts when it comes to charity.

In speaking of cultural resources, Hunter does seem to note that Christians do have a voice, albeit a small one. He moves on to assess cultural capital, and things get worse for the Christian. I think that Hunter rightly notes the decline of denominational influence in America (85):

The cultural production of the mainline tradition now tends to exist within denominational and transdenominational bodies and tends to be oriented to its own internal needs and interests. Its public voice, once prominent and vigorous, has become so marginal that it is nearly invisible outside of its own constituencies.

The modern Evangelical world was created in reaction to the liberalism and decline of the mainline denominations, but have not fared much better, according to Hunter. Though Evangelicals have created “parallel institutions” to combat and compete with their secular counterparts, Hunter offers harsh criticism for the Evangelical community, “Many Evangelical scholars are committed to academic excellence, but they work in a community that neither values it highly nor supports is generously” (86).

Hunter admits that there are exceptions to the rule, but that Evangelical efforts fail because of three features. Hunter states, “First, the works that are produced are almost exclusively directed to the internal needs of the faithful” (87). Essentially, Christians make stuff for Christians. Tough to have cultural impact when we cater to ourselves as a sub-culture.

Secondly, Hunter proceeds, “Second, this cultural productivity all tends to operate closer to the margins than to the center of the broader field of cultural production” (87). We use our own movie producers, book publishers, music publishers, etc, and thus don’t appeal to a broader audience. While I agree that marginal parallel publishers won’t have a broader impact on society, I would also say that much of this is due to an intentional shunning from those producers at the center. They don’t want to propagate the work of Christians as a matter of conviction, but will only do so when there is a buck to be made (“Purpose-Driven Life”, “Your Best Life Now”), and even then I think that the big book distributors mock the whole Christian subculture as one infatuated with self.

Thirdly, Hunter offers the following criticism (87-88):

Third, cultural production in the Evangelical world is overwhelmingly oriented toward the popular. Very much like its retail politics, its music is popular music, its art tends to be popular (highly sentimentalized and commercialized) art, its theater is mega-church drama, its publishing is mainly mass-market book publishing with heavy bent toward “how-to” books, its magazines are mass-circulation monthlies, its television is either in the format of a worship service or the talk show….While there are exceptions to the rule, overall, the populist orientation of Evangelical cultural production reflects the most kitschy expressions of consumerism and often the most crude forms of market instrumentalism.

I have one response to Hunter: OUCH!!!

Hunter concludes the chapter (92):

For all of the vitality and all of the good intention among Christian believers, the whole (in terms of its influence in the larger political economy of cultural production) is significantly less than the sum of its parts. And thus the idea that American Christianity could influence the larger culture in ways that are healthy and humane is, for the time being, doubtful.

I sadly concur with Hunter. He hits the nail on the head when he accuses Evangelicals of not prizing academia, thinking, and an easy demographic for “how-to” and self-help books. He is right when he says that most of our cultural output is for ourselves. He is right in stating that we are “popular”. I would even add that we are about 6-12 months behind the culturally popular. When Guitar Hero is the rage, expect a Christian parallel of “Praise Hero” in about 6 months. I think that the Christian demographic is strongest in the South, and no disrespect to the South, but the biggest popular cultural artifact of the South is Nascar. I actually applaud the social conservatism of the South in their views of marriage, etc., but it really doesn’t stretch much beyond that. You really don’t think of the typical Southerner as the one who wishes to change the world, let alone know the geography of the world. Just the typical stereotype. Southerners are known more for Americana than Academia, aspiring to be a “Duke of Hazard” rather than a Duke in society. Count me in as one who was a zealous purveyor of a bumper sticker as the way in which to change the world, who would gather in a safe Christian establishment and herald the new book on how to be a better Christian, and praise the latest “cool” Christian flick which featured antiquated special effects and subpar actors. It is stupid for Christians to think that we will make a global impact by seeking the approval of man by being “cool” as they popularly define it in the moment. We must grow up.


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