Cultural Complexities

Chapter 4 of Hunter’s book is superb. In it, he describes what actual cultural change looks like, and he gives us this description in 11 propositions. It is superb, not because these 11 propositions cover everything, but rather because they reveal how much needs to be covered. I have a few yeah, buts, but I will get to them in a minute.

First is my summary of his 11 points, the last four having to do with the dynamics of cultural change.

1. Culture is a system of intertwined truth claims and moral obligations;
2. Culture is shaped over the course of history;
3. Culture is inherently dialectical, with that dialectic existing on two levels. The first is the dialectic between ideas and institutions, and the second between individuals and institutions;
4. Culture is a resource, and a form of power;
5. Culture is an entity that has both a center and a periphery;
6. Culture is generated by supportive networks for influential leaders;
7. Culture is not autonomous, and is not fully coherent;
8. Cultures change from the top down, not from the bottom up;
9. Cultures change when second-string elites get dissatisfied;
10. Cultures change the most when the networks of elites and the institutions they lead overlap;
11. Cultures change, but not without a fight.

My first caveat is something I am not yet sure whether Hunter would agree or not. This would require an additional proposition, or a significant expansion of his first one. It is striking to me that there is no mention of worship here. Culture is a religion’s exoskeleton, and every culture is the external embodiment of some cultus, worship. Every culture has a worship center, and every worship center has an external cultural shape — or is newcomer in the midst of challenging the current cultural shape that is the work of the other gods.

Truth claims and moral obligations, which Hunter rightly points to, arise out of worship, and can arise in no other way. If there is no God, what is truth? If there is no God, there is no moral obligation. If there is a God, I bind myself to Him (religio) in worship. As the Breastplate has it, “I bind unto myself today, the strong name of the Trinity.” It is clear that Hunter has a central place for the institutional Church, but I want worship as a verb in the present tense. Places where God was worshiped once have insitutional influence between of it, but not indefinitely. What is it that overcomes the world? Is it not our faith? More on this later, no doubt.

 

A second point. Hunter says this: “The idea, suggested by James Dobson, that ‘in one generation, you can change the whole culture’ is nothing short of ludicrous” (p. 45). I think that Hunter is not keeping a clear enough distinction between statements made for public consumption, and a settled theology of cultural change. An activist mobilizes a crowd for a state-wide election differently than an academic carefully parsing the history of the world. A sergeant giving his troops the raw business before they charge the machine gun is not going to sound very nuanced. “On the other hand . . .” Demagoguery is simply the wicked use of this reality — but it remains a reality for all that. Nehemiah tells his men that they were fighting for their God, their wives, their families, and their homes (Neh. 4:14), which could easily be represented as rah rah simplistic, right?

This has struck me before when I have met men who were evangelical leaders and heavily engaged in the culture wars,and say I had been tempted to think they were superficial because of how they spoke in their press releases. But these men often have a very good understanding of the complexity of the situation they are in. All this is to say that Hunter is right to point out how complex cultures are. I just want to add here that being a cultural activist is complex too, in other ways. And while there are rabble rousers who only know how to start a hubbub, there are also many thoughtful men who know how complicated the challenges are. So if they put out a brochure for a conference on “taking America back,” the chances are pretty good that they don’t believe it will be done with an election or two.

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