James Davison Hunter, Please Recognize Your Allies

REVIEW: To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter

In this book, James Davison Hunter, a respected sociologist, seeks to provide insight into the possibilities for Christians to change culture. As much as this book has been lauded as the most important book on the subject since Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, with “wide-ranging examples” (as Nicolas Wolterstorff writes in the blurb on the back of the book), what Hunter offers is neither groundbreaking nor particularly insightful.

It’s not that his premise is wrong; in fact, it is fundamentally correct. The problem is that in his attempt to cite examples of Christians attempting to change culture with poor results because of faulty premises, he paints mere caricatures of many of them. And in so doing, Hunter does not recognize that there are Christians that are actually allies in his cause.

It’s as if Hunter thinks he is the only one who understands the Creation Mandate, the Christian call to faithfully be present in every sphere of influence in culture, the need to move beyond individual Christianity and embrace Christian community and cultural networks, the cancerous destruction of Hegelian idealism in modern Christianity, that we need new alternative ways to imagine Christian cultural influence outside of the political venue, and that we must be humble in our participation in what God is accomplishing in His Kingdom.

All of this has been said time and again by everyone from Abraham Kuyper to Albert Wolters to Stanley Hauerwas to Andy Crouch to Gabe Lyons. It’s odd, then, that Hauerwas, Crouch, and Lyons are set directly in Hunter’s sights when he starts naming names of people who do not get what he is saying. And it’s extremely odd that in a book that is supposed to be so all-encompassing that Abraham Kuyper is not mentioned once. Kuyper is arguably the most important Christian theologian on cultural change in the past hundred years, and Hunter doesn’t even attempt to interact with his theology.

Hunter writes,
“When the Word of all flourishing—defined by the love of Christ—becomes flesh in us, in our relations with others, within the tasks we are given, and within our sphere of influence—absence gives way to presence, and the word we speak to each other and to the world becomes authentic and trustworthy. This is the heart of a theology of faithful presence.” (p. 252).
This is absolutely biblical and correct.

In the footnote for this quote, Hunter writes,
“In one sense I am merely restating a classical view of vocation. Given the nature and conditions of the late modern world, the need for a rethinking and restatement of such a theology is of critical importance. Where I seek to build on this is in the institutional implications of this theological tradition” (fn. 22, p 334).
There lies the problem with this book.

Hunter is indeed contributing immensely with To Change the World by looking specifically at the institutional implications of a theology of vocation. He offers plenty of helpful insights into why and how Christians should humbly seek to have “faithful presence” in the culture. There is a lot on offer here in this book.

But what Hunter fails to see is that others (people that he brushes off casually as not getting it, like Gabe Lyons and Andy Crouch) are also building on the same classical theology of vocation.


What Radiohead and Porcupine Tree can Teach Us About Theology

I am a big fan of early Radiohead. “The Bends” (1995), while accessible to the pop music ear, offered enough innovation that made every song was an adventure. With “OK Computer” (1997), the band hit its zenith by progressing pop music into explorations of soundscapes and unexpected turns of mood.

But then came “Kid A” in 2000, on which Thom Yorke began his eleven-year journey away from pop music and into explorations of abstractness with more emphasis on minimalism, textures, and rhythms with less emphasis on guitar and standard musical structure. The recently released “The King Of Limbs” continues the experiment.

I truly appreciate what Radiohead is attempting to do. My inclinations lean heavily into the progressive rock genre, from which Radiohead obviously was heavily influenced in their early career. Progressive Rock is not “Progressive” unless it is “progressing.” And Radiohead should be applauded for attempting to progress. However, the results have been uneven and sometimes downright unlistenable. In spite of this, Radiohead continues to sell a lot of music – “Kid A” debuted at number one, and “The King of Limbs” is currently selling well.

But why? I think it has to do with the trappings of today’s pop music industry: Celebrity, marketing, and publicity. When “Kid A” was released, Radiohead was marketed as the cool band, the innovative band, the band that “you get, but the others out there are not sophisticated enough to get.”

While Radiohead got all the acclaim (Grammy Awards among many other commendations), there have been a number of other bands in the less-known Progressive Rock genre that have have been innovative while maintaining musical structure and storytelling.

For instance, Porcupine Tree took what Radiohead had started and progressed that by adding heavier guitar riffs, changes in time signatures, mood changes, as well as soundscapes and textures that were exceptionally produced.

Often times, the best of music provides emotional experiences because it is in a language that we understand, but then when it shifts and surprises us, we are taken off-guard and we learn new things, both experientially and cognitively. This is basic pedagogy: Start with something recognizable and accessible, but then introduce new things into the mix, expanding the horizons of learning and experience.

This provides clues for us as we engage the world theologically.

We need to initially connect with people in a language that is accessible, with experiences and ideas and emotions that are commonly experienced, understood, and affecting.

But then we don’t stop there: We progress into areas not expected, building on common emotions and thoughts, but expanding horizons. Progressive Rock is known for its storytelling (both musically and lyrically), for its depth of musicianship (intricately written and played), and its ability to touch the heart as well as the head.

Our theological interactions with people need to reflect this as well.

Faux Fame or Worthy Celebrity?

Detweiler - matrix of meaningsIn a chapter on celebrity in the excellent book, A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture by Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor, the authors focused both on the human need for heroes and the contemporary problem of faux fame.
"Celebrities perform a valuable social and theological function. Celebrities sharpen our ideals, bear our disappointments, and promote our hopes of immortality. The problem does not reside in celebrity itself but in the shifting sands of our criteria for fame. Rather than labeling stars as idols to be resisted, I consider some stars secular saints that deserve to be celebrated, maybe even venerated." (p. 90)
The problem is that we’ve forgotten the original definition of “fame,” which comes from a Latin root roughly translated as “manifest deeds.” (p. 95) Fame was reserved for those who “deserved it.” But most celebrities today are the product of the mass media and publicists. Several years ago, David Boorstin poignantly wrote,
“Shakespeare divided great men into three classes: those born great, those who achieved greatness, those who had greatness thrust upon them. It never occurred to him to mention those who hired public relations experts and press secretaries to make themselves look great.” (The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America, 1961, quoted on p. 95)
Craig Detweiler, a screenwriter and Hollywood insider, talks about his encounter with Paris Hilton.
“I first encountered Paris and her younger sister at the 2000 Sundance Film Festival. At virtually every party I waited to enter, the Hiltons arrived with an entourage and immediately were whisked inside, past security, beyond the velvet rope… Was she an actress appearing in one of the films? A jury member handing our awards? No, just a hotel heiress with sufficient funds to retain an effective PR firm.” (p. 105)
But there are indeed celebrities that are worthy of the title.
The authors cite Oprah Winfrey and Bono.
“Bono turned his position as spokesman for U2 into a campaign highlighting third world debt relief… He has met with politicians as diverse as Vladimir Putin, Bill Clinton, Jesse Helms, and Kofi Annan… Yet on The Charlie Rose Show, Bono shunned the label ‘role model,’ believing that his indulgences in alcohol, cigarettes, and profanity disqualify him. But like King David, Bono’s failings are central to his music and his mission. Whether discussing his doubts (‘I Still Haven't Found What I’m Looking For’), shaking his fist at God (‘Wake Up Dead Man’), or taking on the self-important trappings of celebrity (‘God Part 2’), Bono’s imperfections make him much more lovable and human… During an era in which everyone wants to be famous, he’s proven that hard work, generosity, faith, and sincerity can still be celebrated, even in the midst of doubt.” (pp. 121-2)
I interact with young adults just about every day in my college ministry. It seems to me that these young people are more astute to giving fame to those that are worthy of respect. For them, movie stars and musicians are given more status based more on the quality of their art and the integrity of their lives than on how physically attractive they are. However, I’m sure that today’s publicists do a large amount of work to massage the public perception of today’s celebrities.

I think of James Franco, star of 127 Hours, who has been travelling the talk show circuit and has been featured on the cable news channels a lot lately. The main line has been to call him “a modern-day Renaissance Man,” since for the past few years, while pursuing a very successful acting career, he's been attending graduate school at Columbia University, New York University, Brooklyn College and Warren Wilson College and is currently takes classes at Yale University and the Rhode Island School of Design.

The handsome star with a one-sided smile seems to have a lot going for him: looks, a genuine talent for acting, and a eclectic list of outside interests. But is he worthy of all the media attention, or is it all public relations smoke?

Detweiler and Taylor end the chapter by saying,
“May we recover fame—rooted in deeds, tested over time—and imagine a future in which everyone is famous for all the right reasons.” (p. 123)


Rush on the Colbert Report

My favorite question from Stephen Colbert to Rush:
“You’re known for some long songs. Have you ever written a song so epic that by the end of the song you were actually being influenced by yourself from the beginning of the song since it happened so much earlier in your career?”

At the end of the show, as Rush was performing, Colbert put on a sleeping cap, placed a pillow on his desk and said “Good Night!” to the audience. The credits roll as Rush continues to play.

But this clip doesn’t show the punch line:

As The Colbert Report started the next night, there was Rush still playing the same song, and Colbert awakening from his sleep still wearing the same sleeping cap. He rubs his eyes and says, “Hello, and welcome to the Report!”

Love it!


Finding God in Advertising

In a profound chapter in A Matrix of Meanings: Finding God in Pop Culture, Craig Detweiler and Barry Taylor look at how advertising has shaped contemporary society. The authors offer “Ten Commandments of Advertising,” all of which point to an overarching question that people in this (and every) culture ask: “What is it to be fully human?”
“This is the question that advertising seeks to answer, a question that was one the pursuit of philosophers and theologians. Advertising is an incredibly powerful form of pop culture that influences us on levels far deeper than getting us to choose certain products. Life choices are part of today’s world of advertising and consumption. ‘The glory of God,’ Irenaeus wrote, ‘is human being fully alive.’ In contemporary society, to be fully human is to shop. Advertising offers us ways to be alive, ways to be human.” (p. 84)
Certainly, there are ads that are manipulative and appeal to the baser aspects of human depravity in order to sell products. But advertising, at its best, appeals to our desire to know who we are, to celebrate life, to find meaning in being human.

Sadly, Christianity has for far too long been more interested in appealing to a base desire to be saved from being human, a desire to transcend our humanness and live forever in another place called “heaven” when we die. While that is always a latent desire in us (a need for transcendence, for eternity), what we really desire in a postmodern world is meaning for the life we live right here and now – we need to know what it means to be more human, to be “fully alive.”

So, while pastors preach from pulpits the need to know where you’ll end up when you die and attempting to create meaning in life in trying to get people into heaven in their future, advertising is dealing with knowing where you are in the world around you and what it means to be human right now.

A new Budweiser advertisement shows a split screen storyline of a young man coming home from his military enrollment. The left side shows him packing up, traveling across the world on a plane and then across the country on a bus, and arriving in his hometown. The right side shows the joy of his family and friends preparing a surprise party for his arrival in the barn of his family farm. When the two finally come together, the emotional payoff is tremendous. This is a celebration of life at its finest. Budweiser beer is there to be a part of the celebration. Christianity needs to “re-message” itself as a religion that embraces the joy of God restoring humanity and encourages celebration.

“They will come and shout for joy on the heights of Zion; they will rejoice in the bounty of the LORD—the grain, the new wine and the oil, the young of the flocks and herds. They will be like a well-watered garden, and they will sorrow no more.” (Jeremiah 31:12)


Review: CULTURE MAKING by Andy Crouch

Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling by Andy Crouch  InterVarsity Press, 2008, 288 pages

crouch-culture_makingAndy Crouch, in his landmark book, Culture Making: Recovering our Creative Calling, makes the case that the essence of humanity is that we are “creative cultivators.” This is rooted in his correct interpretation of the opening chapters of the Bible, where humans are created in the image of God, placed in the garden and given the task to “cultivate” (עָבַד) it (see Genesis 1:26-18 and 2:15)

But Crouch states that culture is not merely “a set of ideas” but rather “primarily a set of tangible goods” (p. 10). “Culture is what we make of the world” (p. 23). Therefore, “the only way to change the culture is to create more of it” (p. 67).

In a book about making culture, Crouch surprises the reader by actually providing a needed corrective to the human quest to change the culture (especially recent Christian articulations to “change the world”) by insisting that while we are indeed “culture makers,” “when we thoughtlessly grasp for the heedless rhetoric of ‘changing the world,’ we expose ourselves to temptation. We find ourselves in a situation similar to Adam and Eve’s in the Garden. ‘You will be like God, knowing good and evil…’ Is there a way to change the world without falling into one of the many traps laid for would-be world changers? If so, it will require us to learn the one thing the language of ‘changing the world’ usually lacks: humility” (p. 201).

“Culture Making,” according to Crouch, must not be about grand strategies to transform the world, for that is too large of a scale for finite and depraved humans to attempt. “The record of human efforts to change the world is mixed, to say the least…And the larger the scale of change we seek, the more mixed the record becomes” (p. 198). Therefore, Crouch advocates that we attempt to create cultural goods that offer positive contributions in smaller scales of time and place. The success of such culture making should be measured not by how influential they are in the larger cultural milieu, but in how they exhibit “integrity”: “We can speak of progress when a certain arena of culture is more whole, more faithful to the world of which it is making something” (p. 54).

Culture makers, therefore, should concentrate on smaller scales of influence, what Crouch calls the “3:12:120” – a close and dedicated small circle of three, a group of people (12) to make the cultural good come into existence, and a network of people (120) that will bring the cultural artifact into use. He states that every cultural innovation “is based on personal relationships and personal commitment. Culture making is hard. It simply doesn’t happen without deep investment of absolutely and relatively small groups of people. In culture making, size matters—in reverse… The almost uncanny thing about culture making is that a small group is enough” (p. 243, italics in original).

Crouch states that culture can be primarily understood as cultural goods or artifacts created by humans made in God’s image. If this is correct, then the question for culture makers is not the haughty one of “Can I change the world?” Rather, the question should be much more humble: “Does this thing that we have created meet the criteria of God’s intentions for his Creation and New Creation?” And, “Can I imagine this cultural artifact making it into the New Jerusalem?”

If God, in his sovereignty, decides to allow our cultural contribution to have an influence across the larger culture, then we thank him for that and pray for his will to be done with it.