CT on culture

I drafted this a while ago and was reminded of it when I heard the term “culture war” on the news last week. What’s a culture war, I thought to myself why is there a culture war? Anyway, thought I’d finally post this response.


My wife pointed me to an article titled Faithful Presence on the Christianity Today website a couple months ago, more an interview of an author than an article, addressing American Christianity’s misdirected attempts at changing or redeeming culture.

The first half of the interview sounds a lot like conversations I’ve had over the past five plus years in places like the ArtsandFaith.com forums. Three pages into the article I found myself wondering why the interviewer, promising that the book referenced in the interview will change American Christianity, quoted a review suggesting in even stronger language that “Reading it will make many people indignant, but leave nobody indifferent.” So far I hadn’t read anything that I’d consider so groundbreaking, even if the ideas still lied on the outskirts of Christian thought.

I found myself arguing points that probably didn’t need to be argued.

“Both perspectives fail to recognize that culture is also infrastructure. Culture is constituted by very powerful institutions that operate on their own dynamics independent of individual will.”

But there are many different levels of culture, from National to very localized. Such localized cultures won’t be constituted by such institutions.

“Looking at our entertainment, politics, economics, media, and education, we are forced to conclude that the cultural influence of Christians is negligible.”

The point of many recent comments about changing culture is that many or most Christians haven’t necessarily been trying to change culture — indeed haven’t been a part of or even thought of being a part of culture — for decades, but instead have been living in self-created ghettos.

“By and large, American Christianity has produced a huge cultural economy, but it operates on the periphery of status rather than in the center. The importance of cultural capital is determined not by quantity but by quality.”

Which is something that Christian artists involved in this conversation have been saying for years now, that quality is more important than quantity.

In all likelihood the book in question, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, probably answers some of my nitpicking. I probably won’t get around to reading the book, sadly, as the stack of books I plan to read and already own is already too much for my own pace. So I’m commenting here on the interview and the ideas therein.

Halfway through the interview the direction did seem to change. The conversation turned to influence in culture and how certain small and elite groups of people end up steering an entire National culture. This wasn’t an entirely new idea to me either but it captured my interest. Without changing the elite of a culture, you won’t change the culture Hunter notes. “But didn’t the Vietnam War protests and the civil rights movement, both populist movements, force elites to change?” the interviewer asks. Hunter responds

“In the case of the anti-war movement, you must look at the demographic base of that protest. It was overwhelmingly white and upper-middle class, and disproportionately well-educated. This was not a protest that was organized by the working class or poor. In the case of the civil rights movement, it was black intellectuals in the church who mobilized people. The movement didn’t gain the kind of traction it needed to really change laws and public policy until white intellectuals and clergy from the North became involved.”

So how do we become elite then, or gain the ears of the elite, or can we change culture — assuming we want to — so that the elites don’t have so much sway (without creating a communist state)? Or do we change our strategy to work within the existing culture? Hunter suggests a “post-political” strategy:

“What would a post-political gesture look like in the pro-life movement? Borrowing an example from a friend, imagine ten thousand families signing a petition in Illinois that declares they will adopt a child of any ethnic background and physical capability. If they wanted to do something spectacular, they could go to city hall for a press conference, announcing that in the state of Illinois there are no unwanted children. That would be a public—but not political—act. Such an act leads with compassion rather than coercion.”

I’m definitely game for anything that calls itself post-political. First off it seems to undermine the presumed and unhealthy power of politics in our present day and age. I’ve talked in the past about how politics in and of itself isn’t something that can be used to change people.

The most interesting quote from the article needs an explanation, which, again, I’m assuming comes in the book.

“Culture is far more profound at the level of imagination than at the level of argument.”

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About pcNielsen
Paul Nielsen founded The Aesthetic Elevator late in 2005. He owns a piece of paper, located somewhere in his house (not on the wall), stating that he earned a B.F.A. from the University of Nebraska around about 2001. While there, he studied studied architecture, graphic design and ceramics, graduating with a degree in studio art. Paul presently serves as communications manager for a small non-profit doing their print design and marketing. He spends as much time sculpting in his studio as possible — which is not nearly enough. Visit his website at pcNielsen.com.

One Response to CT on culture

  1. brian says:

    HI,
    I found your blog linked from the Rabbit Room, and have enjoyed it.

    I read the James Davison Hunter book because of the Christianity Today interview, and found the book not nearly as good as the article. It was an adventure in circling around the point, and after I got about 1/2 way through, I finally determined that he wasn’t going to make any more points. He basically just said over and again that culture isn’t changed “one person at a time,” but in more subtle ways, and in ways influenced by elites. True enough, I suppose, but then what?I skimmed the 2nd half of the book, but I never found the point where he suggested a way for anyone who wants to change things.

    My own sense is that there is no culture-changing shortcut; that only by trying to live lives of real depth and responsibility ourselves can we begin to see new possibilities that may or may not be emulated.

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