To Change The World, Week Two

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). The reading schedule is online at

This week’s reading was full of insights. Hunter’s basic argument is this: the intuitive notion that culture is the collection of a society’s private convictions is demonstrably false. Examples abound of majority perspectives failing to exercise cultural sway.
Towards the end of the chapter is a a sentence which will, I suspect, prove to be a helpful summary of Hunter’s thesis moving forward: “All cultural production and all cultural objects are not, in the end, equal; some are of much greater influence than others.” (page 29)
Here are three examples, the first of a majority that has limited cultural influence and the latter two of minorities that have changed the culture:
“This means that in America today, 86 to 88 percent of the people adhere to some faith commitments. And yet our culture—business culture, law and government, the academic world, popular entertainment—is intensely materialistic and secular. Only occasionally do we hear references to religious transcendence in these realms, and even these are vague, generic, and void of particularity. If culture is the accumulation of values and the choices made by individuals on the basis of these values, then how is it that American public culture today is so profoundly secular in its character?” (page 19)
“Consider, by contrast the experience of the Jewish community in America. Except for a brief period in the middle of the twentieth century, Jews have never comprised more than 3.5 percent of the American population. Yet, as David Hollinger has shown, the contribution of the Jewish community to science, literature, art, music, letters, film, and architecture is both brilliant and unrivaled.5 And these contributions were made in a context often defined by open, aggressive, and malicious anti-Semitism; an anti-Semitism manifested in restrictions and quotas against Jews in private schools, camps, colleges, resorts, and places of employment, in public denigration by some of the most respected leaders of the time (including Henry Ford), and in physical assault on Jews, especially young Jews.” (page 20)
“A similar story of influence can be told of the gay community. At most 3 percent of the American population, their influence has become enormous; again far disproportionate to their size. It is worth pointing out too that most of the gains in visibility, legitimacy, and legal rights by the gay rights movement were made during the twelve conservative years of the Reagan and Bush presidencies. Those advances continue largely unabated through the present—a time when a majority in the general population has remained privately troubled by homosexuality.” (page 20)
How can this be the case? It can only be that way if culture is something other than the combined views of the individuals who comprise that culture. He critiques this view, which he calls idealism, like so:
“…idealism misconstrues agency, implying the capacity to bring about influence where that capacity may not exist or where it may only be weak. Idealism underplays the importance of history and historical forces and its interaction with culture as it is lived and experienced. Further, idealism ignores the way culture is generated, coordinated, and organized. Thus, it underrates how difficult it is to penetrate culture and influence its direction.” (page 26)
“In sum, idealism leads to a naïveté about the nature of culture and its dynamics that is, in the end, fatal. Every strategy and tactic for changing the world that is based on this working theory of culture and cultural change will fail—not most of these strategies, but all.” (page 27, emphasis mine)
Then he gives a fascinating critique of a book I like, Culture Making by Andy Crouch. Crouch argues that culture is embedded in stuff rather than in ideas alone. Hunter points out this doesn’t match the facts:
“Over the twentieth century, Evangelicals have been distinguished by their massive cultural output in books and book publishing, magazines, radio, music, bible studies, theology, Christian education at all levels, and so on. Given the success of these ventures, it is clear that consumption has matched production. Without doubt, this creativity has far outmatched the cultural output of probably any other faith tradition in America. It is true that Evangelicals have not been active in high art or in film, but these facts alone do not account for their dramatic marginalization in American society, not least since other much smaller minorities have had a much greater influence.” (page 29)
Crouch and Hunter had a fascinating back-and-forth about it — it’s worth reading.
Solid stuff.

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