Sunday, May 30, 2010

To Change the World: Part 2, The Weak Culture of Christianity

This is Richard Beck's second post on the James Davison Hunter book, "To Change the World". Excellent insights here as well. 

I've long believed that the backward thinking of fundamentalist and evangelical Christians that withdraws from academia, literature and the arts was an immoral acquiesence of our cultural roots and influence. 

This is only made worse by the vapid ghettoization of Christian value in things like "Christian music" and "Christian fiction" and "Christian bookstores", etc.

To cite Neibuhr, the cross belongs in the center of the square - not in some ignored back alley. But this will require real and meaningful engagement and creativity and intellectual accomplishment (as Christians were known for up to the 20th century).  

To Change the World: Part 2, The Weak Culture of Christianity

In Part 1 of discussing James Davison Hunter's book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World we noted that one of the reasons Hunter feels that Christians are ineffective in influencing American culture is that Christians are working with poor ideas about the nature of culture and cultural change. Christians tend to think you change culture by battling--person by person--to effect a values-based revolution, winning over the hearts and minds of the American people.

And yet, Hunter has us pause and think about something odd: This nation is overwhelmingly Christian. Given this, how did the majority group become so culturally marginalized?

Hunter has us contrast the cultural influence of Christians with the Jewish and gay communities. Jews make up 2-4% of the American population. And yet, their cultural influence in the arts, sciences, and letters has been enormous. In a similar way, about 7-8% of the American population is gay. And yet, this small group exerts enormous cultural influence, mainly in the arts and entertainment. Ellen DeGeneres gets to judge American idol, James Dobson never will.

How are we to explain these differences? How come Christians generally (and evangelicals particularly) are so impotent in the culture wars when they vastly outnumber these other groups?

The answer goes back to Hunter's claim about Christians being confused about cultural change.

Recall, Christians tend to think that cultural change will occur through a populist values revolution. Hunter thinks this is a confusion because culture is so much deeper than values. Culture largely works outside of awareness, in play well before we get to "values." It's like that joke David Foster Wallace told about two young fish:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, "Morning, boys, how's the water?" And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, "What the hell is water?"
Culture is just like that. You don't even notice it. So it's really hard to even fight about it. Or "win hearts and minds" about it. Let alone create a "values revolution."

Read the rest of the article at Richard's blog. 

1 comment:

Steve said...

One of the things I'd like to see is a comparison of today's life with an earlier time when we supposedly more Christian. I'm not sure the old days would do as well as some people think. Take politics for example. The standards that politicians are held to today are much higher than before. What was allowed in terms of sexual propriety and financial shenanigans and conflict of interest in the old days was considerably more than today. After reading snippets of Knoxville history from a local historian through the years, it seems to me there is evidence of plenty of crime and lack of religious practice and conviction. Today, it seems to me, many who do not attend church and maybe even consider themselves skeptics, are driven by Christian values and live them out.