To Change The World, Week Three

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). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2017. The reading schedule is online at

I hope you’re loving this book as much as I am. I find a stimulating observation on nearly every page. Last week I accidentally skipped one of the readings (chapter four), so today here are some thoughts on both chapter four and chapter five.

“Imagine, in this regard, a genuine ‘third great awakening’ occurring in America, where half of the population is converted to a deep Christian faith. Unless this awakening extended to envelop the cultural gatekeepers, it would have little effect on the character of the symbols that are produced and prevail in public and private culture. And, without a fundamental restructuring of the institutions of culture formation and transmission in our society—the market, government-sponsored cultural institutions, education at all levels, advertising, entertainment, publishing, and the news media, not to mention church — revival would have a negligible long-term effect on the reconstitution of the culture.” page 46

As it turns out, there actually was such great awakening that goes largely unrecognized by historians. It was the Jesus people movement of the 60s and it played out exactly as Hunter describes. You can read more about it in God’s Forever Family by Larry Eskridge. The fact that most of you don’t know about it (and even Hunter appears not to, or at least not to appreciate how much it serves his purpose) illustrates Hunter’s thesis, much as the temperance movement does.

“Such is the story of one of the most powerful transatlantic social reform movements of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—the temperance movement. This movement failed, of course, not least because it did not and could not address the culture of restraint on which the particular interest of temperance depended. In the end, the ideal of ‘temperance’ finally expired in derision with the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933, the word now having disappeared from our public vocabulary.” page 46

That last sentence is stunning — a word that identifies the highly successful movement of the last century has now disappeared from our day to day vocabulary. Moreover, Prohibition (a crowning success of the temperance movement) has become synonymous with failed social policy even though Prohibition actually achieved significant good: check out this Harvard prof’s NY Times op-ed from 1989 arguing Actually, Prohibition Was a Success.

Contrast that with the Protestant Reformation.

“The success of the Reformation, as Protestants like to tell it, was a result of the triumph of truth over falsehood, true Christian morality over corruption in the medieval church, genuine piety over false piety, and so on. To be sure, there was sham godliness, spiritual and moral corruption, and theological (p.65) fabrication for which the Reformation stood as a corrective. But there were other reform movements of the late medieval period that contended for the same things as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and Hus and yet either failed or were rendered impotent. What made the Reformation of the sixteenth century successful, though, were factors that were not exactly theological or spiritual in nature.” pages 64–65
“At its heart, of course, the Reformation was an intellectual and moral revolution, originating within the theological faculty of a German university, which challenged and offered a bibliocentric alternative to late medieval theology and religious practice. Foundational to this revolution was the fact that the leading reformers were all scholars of the first order. In addition to the Bible, they had mastery over the ideas, logic, language, and texts of classical thought and medieval scholasticism.” page 66

There is another useful illustration of the Christianization of pagan Europe:

“In sum, the conversion of barbarian Europe took centuries. The movement of change was from the higher echelons of the social order to the lower; indeed it took multiple generations after royal conversion for Christianization in the culture and among the common people to occur. Looking back, it is easy to be ambivalent about all that occurred. One can find Christian faith that is at its most exemplary—enacted love that is humble, courageous, sacrificial, generous, and so on. One can also find Christianity syncretized with paganism and rife with corruption—forced conversions, bribery, greed, calculating, power-hungry, and exploitative. There is much here to learn from and emulate and every bit as much to detest.” pages 60–61

Incidentally, footnotes 101–106 are quite interesting and give further historical illustrations. I guess they were in the initial text and an editor made him trim the chapter down.

These historical summaries are meant to illustrate Hunter’s eleven theses about culture and cultural change. I’ve summarized them below in case you didn’t have a chance to read chapter 4.

One: Culture is a system of truth claims and moral obligations

“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 view 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.… Most of what really counts, in terms of what shapes us and directs us, we are not aware of; it operates far below what most of us are capable of consciously grasping.” (page 33)

Two: Culture is a product of history

“Culture takes form as the slow accretions of meaning in society over long periods of time.… 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. (pages 33–34)

Three: Culture is instrincally dialectical

“To put it bluntly, culture is as much an infrastructure as it is ideas. It takes shape in concrete institutional form.… Another way to say this is that culture is intrinsically dialectical. It is generated and exists at the interface between ideas and institutions; between the symbolic and the social and physical environment.” (page 34)
“Institutions cannot exist without the individuals who make them work, but individuals cannot be understood outside of the institutions that form them and frame all of their activity. That said, in the formation of culture, one should not be under the illusion that the dialectic is evenly balanced. While individuals are not powerless by any stretch of the imagination, institutions have much greater power.” (page 35)

Four: Culture is a resource and, as such, a form of power

“…symbols in the form of knowledge, technical know-how, credentials, and cultural accomplishments can also be thought of as a form of capital. Particularly in the cultural meaning imputed to such things, culture can be understood as symbolic capital. Though, unlike money, symbolic capital cannot readily be transferred from one generation to another, or from one individual to another, like money, symbolic capital can be accumulated. Some individuals, some organizations, and some objects have more and accumulate more symbolic capital than others.” page 35
“…accumulated symbolic capital translates into a kind of power and influence. But influence of what kind? It starts as credibility, an authority one possesses which puts one in a position to be listened to and taken seriously. It ends as the power to define reality itself.” page 36

Five: Cultural production and symbolic capital are stratified in a fairly rigid structure of “center” and “periphery”

“…one may be able to get as good an education at Bluefield State College in Bluefield, West Virginia, as one would at Harvard, but Harvard, as an institution, is at the center and Bluefield State is at the periphery of cultural production. Therefore, someone with a credential from Harvard will find many more opportunities than someone from Bluefield State and will more likely end up in a position of greater influence than the other.” page 37

Six: Culture is generated within networks

“…the key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks. And the more “dense” the network—that is, the more active and interactive the network—the more influential it could be. This is where the stuff of culture and cultural change is produced. In making this case, I don’t want to underplay the role of individual charisma and genius. Within any network, there is usually one who provides a certain unprecedented leadership, who offers a greater degree of articulation or who puts more at risk financially, socially, and reputationally, or who provides the connective tissue for the network itself. This is where we do find the greatness of a Martin Luther or John Calvin, a William Wilberforce, a Dorothy Day, a Martin Luther King, and so on.” page 38

Seven: Culture is neither autonomous nor fully coherent

“In some ways, the expansion of the state in the last several decades is due to its growing role in the production of knowledge and information. Science and education are, in the main, appendages of the state, as are the myriad regulatory agencies dealing with health, occupational safety, welfare, and communications among others. So too, of course, is the judiciary. This means not only that the state provides much of the financial, personnel, and administrative infrastructure for the knowledge industry but also that the state can limit dissent through its coercive powers. It is in the realm of education where these powers are most critically at work.” page 40

Eight: Cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up

“Even where the impetus for change draws from popular agitation, it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites.” page 41
“In a very crude formulation, the process begins with theorists who generate ideas and knowledge; moves to researchers who explore, revise, expand, and validate ideas; moves on to teachers and educators who pass those ideas on to others, then passes on to popularizers who simplify ideas and practitioners who apply those ideas. All of this, of course, transpires through networks and structures of cultural production.” page 42

Nine: Change is typically initiated by elites who are outside of the centermost positions of prestige

“Wherever innovation begins, it comes as a challenge to the dominant ideas and moral systems defined by the elites who possess the highest levels of symbolic capital. Innovation, in other words, generally moves from elites and the institutions they lead to the general population but among elites who do not necessarily occupy the highest echelons of prestige.” page 42

Ten: World-changing is most concentrated when the networks of elites and the institutions they lead overlap

“The impetus, energy, and direction for world-making and world-changing are greatest where various forms of cultural, social, economic, and often political resources overlap. In short, when networks of elites in overlapping fields of culture and overlapping spheres of social life come together with their varied resources and act in common purpose, cultures do change and change profoundly. Persistence over time is essential; little of significance happens in three to five years.” page 43

Eleven: Cultures change, but rarely if ever without a fight

“By its very nature, culture is a realm in which institutions and their agents seek to defend one understanding of the world against alternatives, which are always either present or latent. That work is the work of legitimation and delegitimation; of naming one normal and right and its competition, deviant, inferior, stupid, inadequate, ridiculous, un-American, politically incorrect, or just plain evil.” pages 43–44

To sum up: 

“at every point of challenge and change, we find a rich source of patronage that provided resources for intellectuals and educators who, in the context of dense networks, imagine, theorize, and propagate an alternative culture. Often enough, alongside these elites are artists, poets, musicians, and the like who symbolize, narrate, and popularize this vision. New institutions are created that give form to that culture, enact it, and, in so doing, give tangible expression to it.” pages 77–78

Also, I thought this observation was insightful:

“To live in a culture is, in most times and places, to experience the world as stable and enduring. This is true even in times of great social change and cultural upheaval. We tend not to experience the change as change but only really recognize it for what it is in retrospect.” page 78

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