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To Change the World: The Significance of Cultural Capital


This is the third post in a nine-part series for the SPECTRUM Summer Reading Group. The nine posts will be drawn from the chapters of To Change the World by James Hunter. You can find the reading schedule here.

Over one hundred and fifty years ago, when Adventism was but a gleam in Ellen White’s eye, Karl Marx wrote, “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point is to change it.”i Marx, it seems, has convinced us all. Even Andrews University announces in its motto: “Seek knowledge. Affirm Faith. Change the World.”  Adventists once hated the world and wanted to escape from it, then for over a century ambivalently accommodated to it, and now want to change it. But is this parade of viewpoints due to changes in our understanding of the gospel, of society, of culture, or of something else? James Hunter’s sprawling argument investigates this same question in American Christianity at large, and he thinks the time has come for another change. 

Our reading this week completes his first essay, in which he has painted a picture of Christianity through the centuries that parallels that of White’s Great Controversy. His viewpoint is also that of an alternative, educated remnant who influence cultural elites by their “faithful presence.” Contemporary American Christianity by contrast, he assesses, is too political, too middle class, and avoidant of the creative arts. Mainstream Protestantism no longer produces culture the way it once did. It has been partly replaced by Evangelicalism, but its newer schools and institutions are now “doubly marginalized” by its anti-intellectualism and by the wider pluralistic intellectual climate which does not take its endeavors seriously.  Catholics and Evangelicals produce lots of books, films and television programming, but they are all excessively populist and aimed at themselves. Since the 1960s, Hunter complains, “none of the movements in contemporary Christianity have been prominent in creating … the arts, humane letters, the academy, and the like.” Social, cultural and financial capital does not coordinate; Christians may be in positions of influence, but they are not “working together.” This is to say, when Christians buy movie tickets, none of this goes back to other Christians so they can make more movies. 

Is Hunter’s complaint true? Only if he ignores the whole history of African-American culture and the absolutely vital role of the black church and spirituality in America–an egregious omission. The union of civil rights with Christian leadership over the last half century has changed America enormously. (Note: send email to James Hunter that we now have a black, Christian President!) Black culture also provides norms for American music and other expressive arts, and is arguably the most productive culture in the West. And what about Latino culture? Or other immigrant groups?  Hunter’s argument is built from selective blindnesses such as these, as if only “mainstream” or white culture and Christian witness mattered.  

The wider point is that American culture is very broad, pluralistic, and includes many kinds of Christianities, some of which are declining, and some emerging. The model of cultural capital for American Christianity is no longer dominance but diversity.   A much better analysis of what the author calls the “invisible omnipresence” and diversity of Christianity today is found in American Christianitiesii.

In Chapters Six and Seven, Hunter offers statistics and charts showing the flow of “cultural capital” from elites to the masses, asserting time and again that we cannot expect change from the bottom up, and that a Christianity which tries to change culture by appealing to the masses will not succeed. 

This is unsound reasoning, opposed by two facts: American Christianity has been largely democratized already, and anyone who comes to USA from abroad knows that America is by far the most Christian of English speaking countries. The values and practices of Christianity are so interwoven with life here that the culture seems excessively religious, compared to anywhere in Europe, Australia or even Canada. Asian immigrants, Jews, Muslims and African immigrants immediately recognize that they are in a very different world here. When I read Hunter’s claim that Christianity is America is “appalling, irrelevant, and ineffective” I wonder if we are on the same continent. Christianity as a cultural agent here builds hospitals, trains educators, generates thousands of not-for-profits, shapes civil conduct and standards of decency, supports human rights, and supplies undercurrents of myth, metaphor and material for media, politics and even business. 

Hunter is looking for a mode of cultural leadership that rarely existed anywhere–maybe in a past when a few male, religious leaders made pronouncements and everyone listened.  He criticizes particularly “the young” who do not bow to religion as an authority.  He doesn’t notice the thousands of young designers, musicians, movie makers, writers, teachers, counselors and consultants who daily contribute to the cultural capital of Christianity. They blog about their faith, attend Bible study groups, and volunteer to build clinics in Haiti. The prevailing models of dissemination of ideas and cultural capital, however, have changed. TIME and NEWSWEEK, magazines, which regularly covered the state of Christianity in America, are now only a few pages thick, but over ten million websites covered Pastor Terry Jones’s burning of the Koran. 

So, where is the center of cultural production today? Who is doing the coordinating? The unspoken answer, if Hunter wants to know, must include Jews, New Agers, Buddhists, secularists, and a few rich Catholics like Mel Gibson.  The center of cultural production now, it seems, is everywhere, and no one is in charge. It is on both coasts and in Chicago and Miami and Grand Rapids. Take Anne Lamott, whose books and lectures on faith are enjoyed by tens of millions. Or the artist William Thomas Thompson whose paintings and diaries expressing fulfillments of biblical prophecy have gained attention nationwide. He may not be a cultural elite but he is on the internet. Or Jin, the Asian Christian rapper, actor and model. The so-called elites have been watching popular culture for decades to find new ideas for their cultural products. Maybe Hunter has it backwards.

This brings me to his core concept–what he calls “faithful presence”–which he will develop in his Third Essay. For now, there are two ways to understand this. No doubt certain core values and ideas of Christianity do not mesh well with the individualism, consumerism and materialism that Hunter deplores. And there is a sense in which Christians have always stood for their core values against oppressive powers.  But Hunter thinks that is to be the norm for Christians everywhere. I don’t think this is necessary or possible. 

I have another explanation for this alternating pattern of “faithful presence” and cultural power. History shows that when Christians hold little or no power in a culture, they resort to a stance of “faithful presence” and resistance to mainstream culture because that is all they can do. But when they have freedom and the positive attention of a nation, they can also educate, publish, build institutions and exert social influence. If they become a sizable minority or even a majority, they can also shape politics, direct public policy, influence media and even shape the wider world. This is where we are today.

Marx, it would seem, has won the day. We now believe in a social world–as well as a natural world–that can change.  Christians believe they can be agents of change; even heaven-hungering Adventists want a greener, cleaner, more peaceful planet. Is world-changing Christianity compatible with what Hunter calls “faithful presence”?

In later chapters, Hunter spells out the implications of this phrase: Is it passive or active? Real or symbolic? Cooperative with or avoid of political power? In a nation and on a planet where widespread needs for change prevail and vast opportunities for good exist, how these options are exercised and actively engaged by Christians will certainly shape the future of the world.


Graeme Sharrock, a graduate of Andrews University and the University of Chicago, lives in Chicago and is the owner of Parliament Media, which supports the work of the Parliament of World Religions.

i. Karl Marx, Theses on Feuerbach,” No. XI, (1845).

ii. See Catherine A. Brekus and W. Clark Gilpin, eds., American Christianities: A History of Dominance and Diversity (University of North Carolina Press, 2011).

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