Friday, November 12, 2010

Why We Are Not Going to Change the World -- Hunter's Sociological/Theological Analysis

After giving some of my own experiences with the three motifs for change presented by James Davidson Hunter in his book:To Change the World, I will now continue to present some of his key ideas.

To the thesis that individuals can change culture James Davidson Hunter presents a counter thesis: culture changes individuals. Cultural change does occur but not in the ways we as Christians have thought. We have thought that a great individual, acting alone has at various times changed the culture. We have thought that certain key ideas have changed culture. We have thought that if enough people became Christians and in so doing changed their values, culture would change. However, culture is changed very slowly, and with conflict “…through dense networks of elites operating in common purpose within institutions at the high-prestige centers of culture production.” (p. 274).

This statement is worth careful consideration.

Dense networks. Hunter gives example after example of dense networks throughout history that have worked together. Almost always there are key people within those networks, people who formulate and articulate concepts and modes of action, but without the network they would be mere voices in the wilderness. (For an excellent discussion of this read Malcome Gladwell, The Tipping Point.)

Elites. Culture, says Hunter, is about how societies define reality, and the capacity to do that is not spread evenly throughout the society. “Deep-rooted cultural change tends to begin with those whose work is most conceptual and invisible and it moves through to those whose work is most concrete and visible.”(p. 41). Thus there is what Paul Ricoeur spoke of as a sedimentation process. Picture a lake with various streams coming into it. The input contains various chemicals, minerals, salts, etc. which hang in the water, but which eventually sink to form the sediment. The input, says Ricoeur, is innovation. This is what Hunter’s elites do. They live in universities, they head major corporations and control the media. As they work and play together their ideas gradually sink down to form the sediment of society, that is, the culture.

Within institutions. One of the failures of contemporary evangelical thinking, in my opinion, has been to naively underestimate the importance of institutions. This, as Hunter points out, is especially true of those who do not grasp the importance of the institutional side of the church. Institutions, be they churches, universities, charities, various societies such as The Order of Canada, are places where elites can form networks, and are a vehicle for the elites to transmit change into the culture.

High-prestige centers of culture production. Culture is produced in many places, but there are places which have high prestige, and the culture production that comes from these places spreads. Thus, the high prestige place for theatre is New York City, movies, Los Angeles, social and political commentary, the Eastern seaboard, and much of that influence spreads to Canada from those centers. Canada’s social and political commentary as well as its media production is based in Toronto.

Culture production that comes from dense networks of elites operating from high prestige locations becomes the texture and fiber of society. Christians, but in particular, Evangelicals, have failed to be part of this production. Evangelicals have not produced enough elites to form dense networks, and they do not locate themselves in prestige locations. Hunter gives a stunning and, for an evangelical, embarrassing rundown of what appears to be almost a conscious effort to do the exact opposite, that is, to place ourselves as far from the centres of influence as possible; to maximize our marginalization in the culture.


• While there is evangelical scholarly work that is good, much of it is published by evangelical presses, not by high prestige presses.
• The works of literature produced by evangelicals are huge in volume, but are seldom reviewed in prestige publications, i.e., The New York Times.
• There is not one evangelical research university.
• There is little evangelical presence in the media, in any location.

So what’s the point? Is the point that we should, as James Dobson says in one place, work harder? Should we take Hunter’s analysis, absorb it, figure out what we are doing wrong, raise ten billion dollars and launch a new strategy to create a Christian culture, to change the world? No. Give it up. It’s not going to happen. Hunter points out that America has never had a Christian culture. And in my opinion Canada has never had a Christian culture. And, even if everything was done right it – elites were enlisted, culture production from high prestige locations began, etc., it would take about three hundred years to bring about the true culture change that is envisioned. And that won’t happen because the main problem with all of this will continue to be a problem -- sin, or, as Hunter puts it, the corruption of power.

This is the irony that lurks in the title. Those who have embarked on this project are quickly enmeshed in what Nietzsche called the will to power. This is especially true for the Christian right and the Christian left, but surprisingly it is also true of the neo-Anabaptist movement also. I might here recommend SJS' comment to my "If not Chicago, how about Detroit" post.

Next, a closer look at Hunter's analysis of the Christian triad of Right, Left and Anabaptist.


SJS said...

Indeed some institutions provide valuable expertise and care for us, but unless they have a Christian worldview they likely will not view life, temporal and eternal, in the same manner. For example, from my experience with hospitals and miscarriage, non-Christian doctors clearly do not value human life in the same way. Christians, generally speaking, highly value life. We select meaningful names for our children, we appreciate and love them, we pray for their well-being, and go to great lengths to protect and provide for them. We cannot possibly get this depth from institutions who do not share our perspective on human life.

In regard to evangelicals, academic research, and media influence. I agree with you that this is something we are missing in Canada. There are a few evangelicals involved in academic research, but clearly we are in need of some development in this area.

Finally, as I prepare to Chair a committee meeting tonight I am reminded of my responsibly to God and others. A responsibility to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with my God. To serve Him with a heart for people that is reflective upon, and inclusive of the needs of even the least.

Robert said...

I would be interested to hear your views on the following 3 points (I realize you are commenting on a specific book here, however from this blog and your last 2 'table talks' I am curious as to your views...) : 1) disunity in the church as a critical missing element to church speaking to and influencing culture at least in the past 40 years; 2) the church corporate and united taking responsibility for/repenting of root sin in the country as a critical missing factor to speaking with spiritual authority; 3) expectations of the effect of raising the 'level' or 'amount' of prayer notably for leaders and those in authority especially via 24-7 prayer and house of prayer movements.