To Change The World, Week Five

To Change The World by James Davison HunterBlog 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

Earlier this week I saw an essay that illustrates many of the ideas from our reading so far: Why Didn’t the Planned Parenthood Videos Change the Abortion Debate? (Joe Carter, Gospel Coalition). Carter makes many points, but two stand out – the video makers failed to coordinate with institutions and they also were attacked by elite networks. To use Hunter’s terminology, Planned Parenthood is an institution on the center and the Center for Medical Progress is an institution on the periphery – they had an uphill battle for which they were unprepared because they apparently held to the naive view of culture Hunter critiqued. I encourage you to read the article and reflect upon the readings so far in light of it.

Hunter is now moving onto the second theme of his book – rethinking power in light of faith. He’s going to focus “on the conservative, progressive, and neo-Anabaptist positions — because in contemporary America, these are the most prominent” (page 109). As Hunter hints, there are more theological options than these. Perhaps we will discuss them as we move through this second essay.

His main point in this week’s reading is that in modern societies discussions of power are inevitably political.

“Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups, and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws and procedures. Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts, and even the family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit. Groups (women, minorities, gays, Christians, etc.) have validity not only but increasingly through the rights conferred by the state.” (page 103)

Hunter says this tendency is evidence of a weak social fabric.

“…the amount of law that exists in any society is always inversely related to the coherence and stability of its common culture: law increases as cultural consensus decreases. By these lights, the fabric of the common culture in modern America has worn even more thin in the last several decades and the extraordinary amount of litigation we have seen in recent decades is just one place we see it.” (page 102)

Given that laws will multiply, the reach of the state will become ever more encompassing, and so interest groups feel it is imperative to get the state to act in alignment with their values. The state cannot simply remain neutral, as Hunter explains:

“There is a tradition in political theory that claims that in a liberal democracy, the state is or should be neutral when it comes to questions of the good. This is wrong mainly because it is impossible. Law infers a moral judgment; policy implies a worldview.” (page 103)

There is, of course, the caveat that this ressentiment-driven impulse toward power-seizing is not always true of individuals – even influential ones – but as Hunter demonstrated in the previous essay the attitudes of individuals prove less significant than the attitudes of institutions.

“I don’t want to overstate the case—clearly what I describe here are not fully and comprehensively established realities; all is not power and ressentiment. What makes it more complicated (and interesting) is that there are genuinely public-spirited people on all sides of all issues. Indeed most people are not resentment-filled and power hungry. But consistent with my view all along is the fact that the motives of individuals and the structures of culture are not the same thing.” (page 109)

This essay is off to a promising start. I’m eager to see how he summarizes the three theological options he mentioned.

To Change The World, Week Four

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
The first part of this week’s reading is a straightforward extension of Hunter’s thought so far, perhaps best summed up by this observation:
Against the prevailing view, the main reason why Christian believers today (from various communities) have not had the influence in the culture to which they have aspired is not that they don’t believe enough, or try hard enough, or care enough, or think Christianly enough, or have the right worldview, but rather because they have been absent from the arenas in which the greatest influence in the culture is exerted. (page 89, emphasis in original)
A book he mentions in the footnotes, Faith In The Halls Of Power by D. Michael Lindsay, is definitely worth reading in conjunction with this one. The book is available online through the Stanford library. I posted some excerpts from it a few years ago: Notes from Faith in the Halls of Power.
What I was most pleased by in this week’s readings were Hunter’s reflections about the perils of elitism.
The significance of every person before God irrespective of worldly stature or accomplishment and the care for the least are the ethical hallmarks of Christianity…. This is why elitism—a disposition and relationality of superiority, condescension, and entitlement by social elites—is so abhorrent for the Christian. Its foundation is exclusion on the implicit (and sometimes explicit) view that people are not equal in love and dignity before God. Thus, by its very nature, elitism is exploitative. So far as I can tell, elitism for believers is despicable and utterly anathema to the gospel they cherish. (page 94)
Whatever its larger influence in the world may be, a culture that is genuinely alternative cannot emerge without faithful presence in all areas of life. This will include networks (and more, communities) of counter-leaders operating within the upper echelons of cultural production and social life generally. These are realms of performance and distinction that may be rare and inaccessible to the average person, but they are still critically important to both the renewal of the church and its engagement with the culture. (page 96)
Here is my challenge to you, someone who is being conditioned by Stanford to serve in elite roles. Whatever you wind up doing, learn to love what you do without disdaining less elite believers. This is harder than you think it will be. A part of elite culture you must remain vigilant against is ostentatiously despising people who relish popular culture. One key marker will be whether you truly view believers who have never heard the word intersectionality and who view Denny’s as the pinnacle of cuisine as brothers and sisters worthy of celebrating and defending. In other words, be elite without being elitist.
Worth reading in this regard is the recent David Brooks New York Times column and its frenzied responses.
How We Are Ruining America (David Brooks, NYT): “To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.” This column spawned much derision on social media, but I strongly agree with Brooks. Here are two sympathetic reactions from Freddie deBoer on the left and from Rod Dreher on the right. Dan Drezner takes it in a different direction.
The above snippet will be featured in today’s Friday email.
Given our summer reading, I supposed I should highlight that this is from a New York Times columnist. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but I deliberately choose articles from high-status institutions and individuals that are either directly relevant to the Christian life or are germane to a Christian view of human flourishing. I don’t hold to this rigidly, but it’s something I am very aware of when composing each Friday email. It’s one small step towards helping our community interact with the most influential parts of culture.
Incidentally, if you don’t get those Friday emails and are interested in them, you can sign up at

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

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.

To Change The World, Week One

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through the book, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful).

It’s the first week of our summer reading project. Yay! Our book this summer is To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, a Christian who is a sociologist at UVA. This is a thoughtful book about Christianity, politics, and culture. The reading schedule is online at


In chapters one and two Hunter is setting the stage for his argument. A quick summary: as Christians we want to change the world and we have an intuitive notion that the best (or only) way to change the world is one life at a time. Hunter will go on to argue that this is a huge mistake.

Here are some passages that stood out to me:


“In the Christian view, then, human beings are, by divine intent and their very nature, world-makers. For Christian believers, an obligation accompanies God’s gift of life…. People fulfill their individual and collective destiny in the art, music, literature, commerce, law, and scholarship they cultivate, the relationships they build, and in the institutions they develop—the families, churches, associations, and communities they live in and sustain— as they reflect the good of God and his designs for flourishing.” (pages 3-4)

“I contend that the dominant ways of thinking about culture and cultural change are flawed, for they are based on both specious social science and problematic theology. In brief, the model on which various strategies are based not only does not work, but it cannot work.” (page 5)


“To understand how to change the world, one must begin with an understanding of what is to be changed. In short, everything hinges on how we understand the nature of culture. What is meant by culture, and what it is composed of, are of critical importance, as we shall see.” (page 6)

“It is this implicit view of culture that motivates certain communities of Christians, especially Evangelicals, to focus on evangelism as their primary means of changing the world. Evangelism is not only a means of saving souls but of transforming individuals and, in a roundabout way, the culture…. As the logic goes: if people’s hearts and minds are converted, they will have the right values, they will make the right choices, and the culture will change in turn.” (pages 9-10)

“At the end of the day, the message is clear: … if you have the courage and hold to the right values and if you think Christianly with an adequate Christian worldview, you too can change the world. This account is almost wholly mistaken.” (pages 16-17)

And on that note, this week’s readings come to a close. Eager to see how he critiques this widespread view of culture.