Sunday, November 28, 2010

James Hunter's Vision for Cultural Flourishing


I just finished Hunter's book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. I quite liked it. But I think an equally epic and quite possibly more accurate title could have been, To Change the World: Why It Involves More Parts To Generate A Flourishing Culture Than Christians Usually Assume and Why Christians Should Be Involved In All These Parts and At All Levels Rather Than Only Their Favorite Parts and Levels. Or something like that.

This entry will not attempt anything near a review. I don't have the time. Final papers bears down upon me once again. I do, though, want to mention a few things. One, I strongly recommend the book, because I think it's an important book. What Hunter has accomplished in nearly 300 pages of compact writing and small type is impressive. He has connected biblical, theological, political, sociological and historical lines of inquiry in a way that brings about a coherent picture of cultural life. That can only be done well by someone who has spent the better part of life studying the way societies tick. Artists will do well to read it. Those who care about the arts would too.

Two other things stood out. One, I liked the way he rendered the idea of "elites" and the role they place in the shaping of society. I've long felt that the ragged and uneven role that believer artists play in society owes in large part to a) our ideas about art ("our" = conservative Protestants), b) our dim view of the vocation of the artist and c) our unwillingness to invest in our young people to help them enter the best art schools and to pursue excellence at the highest levels of the profession. But, well, nothing original there. I found Hunter's exposition to be persuasive and would only fear the ways that readers might run with it in directions that Hunter repeatedly warns us against.

Two, I found the following bit at the end of his chapter, "Toward a Theology of Faithful Presence," to be worth pasting on my office bulletin board:

"As to our spheres of influence, a theology of faithful presence obligates us to do what we are able, under the sovereignty of God, to shape the patterns of life and work and relationship--that is, the institutions of which our lives are constituted--toward a shalom that seeks the welfare not only of those of the household of God but of all. That power will be wielded is inevitable. But the means of influence and the ends of influence must conform to the exercise of power modeled by Christ.

"Thus, when the Word of life is enacted within the whole body of Christ in all of its members through an engagement that is individual, corporate, and institutional, not only does the word become flesh, but an entire lexicon and grammar becomes flesh in a living narrative that unfolds in the body of Christ; a narrative that points to God's redemptive purposes. It is authentic because it is enacted and finally persuasive because it reflects and reveals the shalom of God."

Curiously enough, the language of that last sentence resembles the language Barth uses to describe beauty.

I confess that I don't feel ready to say (at length) what I think the book got right and wrong. I'd like to chew on its contents a little longer. In fact, starting tomorrow, Monday, I'll have a chance to spend a bit of focused time with the author. That will surely help the understanding process. I've been invited along with other Anglican leaders (mostly pastors, I think) to engage the ideas in Hunter's book over the course of three days. We'll gather in Charlottesville, Virginia, and
Greg Thompson, pastor at Trinity Presbyterian Church, will function as our gracious host. I'm grateful for the invitation and I'll be curious to see what kinds of comments are made about the arts.

Speaking of the arts, there's one little thing that Hunter did that chaffed ever so slightly. He's not alone in this, but every time it popped up I wanted to grind my teeth. You'll probably groan or sigh when you read this, but maybe not. When the arts came up as a topic, either on their own or in connection with other industries of culture, he would often write "arts and music" or "arts and literature." What's wrong here, you ask? Not the end of the world, of course, but it's one of the subtle ways that the arts get misrepresented (misconstrued?) and that plenty of artists become relegated to the margins--yet again.

Binary phrases like this lead you to believe that the arts at the end of the day involve music, literature and the arts. Which arts? Typically the visual arts. This perpetuates, I'm afraid, a bias for arts which are perceived as privileged--again, music, literature and some visual art--and against arts which usually don't make the list of coveted media. Such as what? Such as theater, film, dance (modern, ballet, contemporary), the graphic arts, the electronic media arts or the performance arts, for starters. I give Hunter the benefit of the doubt on this, and happily so, but for the record here is my plea. Either write "arts" and refer by this to all media or spell them out or tell your reader why you've chosen to highlight only a few. Please don't assume that it's obvious why you've chosen only a few. If you do, you'll be perpetuating unhelpful and, in the case of actual artists, hurtful ways of perceiving--yes you guessed it--the arts.

One last thing. If I were to venture a critique of Hunter's narrative of cultural behavior, it would be this: that his primary error was one of omission, not of commission. It was not so much what he said and how he argued his case that I found troubling. I found these positively stimulating, inspiring, challenging and illuminating. Where he failed, if I can use this language, is in a lack of charity for his interlocutors. His rhetoric lacked a certain grace, especially in Sections I and II. By Section III he seems to have recovered an irenic, invitatory rhetoric. But prior to that it felt like reading a polemic inspired by Hell's Kitchen, where Hunter sliced and diced the "common view." He judged a "failure" the views of folks like Colson, Pearcey, Guiness, Wallis, McLaren, Yoder, Hauerwas and Crouch (et al).

Let me be personal here. I didn't like the way he served up and summarily dismissed my friend Andy Crouch's book Culture Making. (See here for Andy's own take.) While Andy does not develop ideas about power and networks at the same comprehensive length that Hunter did, Andy places these ideas centrally in his own third section, entitled "Calling." I've found myself frequently referring in public to Andy's 3s, 12s and 120s, and intuitively perhaps I have always thought of the 120s as a network of sorts.

From reading Hunter's re-telling of Culture Making you'd never know Andy had constructive things to say about networks and power. Andy covers similar territory as Hunter but--and this really mystifies me--Hunter fails to show points of continuity between his ideas on human flourishing and those of his colleagues in this business of observing, analyzing and prescribing ways to live well in our North American culture.  It made me sad, actually. I also found it to be a weakness of the book. In a way, it undermined his presumed goal, which at the very least included a resounding affirmation of the role that the church and all its motley members play in contributing to the well-being of a culture. Had Hunter unpacked his ideas while bringing along his fellow travelers, such as Andy, he would have modeled a communal way of doing scholarly work. Telling and showing together would have produced a powerful witness to the beauty of the ecclesia Christi. As it is, you get the feeling that Hunter has arrived at these conclusions on his own (which I can't imagine he would ever feel the need to claim).


Let me end by saying what I know only in part. Writing a book is hard work. Writing a good book is like running and winning an Ironman race, which, last I checked, is a thoroughgoingly wearying endeavor. Writing a great book is like winning that Ironman, then immediately appearing on Jeopardy and winning that too. It's doable, but pretty difficult. I know this mainly by watching friends write good books. Hunter's book is a good book. He has written a book that I will revisit repeatedly, as I have Andy's book and Niebuhr's too.

If you have the wherewithal, read To Change the World with a small group of friends. It's ripe for long discussions late into the night, and should be accompanied by only the best adult beverages. Hunter's vision of a New City Commons is beautiful and, by the end of his last chapter, welled up in me an ache to see it come into being. I hope I can do my part to serve the art sector of this vision of common flourishing. I'll certainly give it a try. The arts are well worth lovingly stewarding under Christ's tutelage, and the artists who make all this art, the good and the bad and even, pray God, the great, deserve our best prayers and our most generous patronage as they too seek to discern what faithful presence looks like in their respective spheres of life.

12 comments:

Michael Gormley said...

The Amputated Member...

Attention all non-Catholics who "claim" to follow the teaching of Holy Scripture!

Have you ever read 1Corinthians 12:1-31 before?

Have you understood the message written therein?

1. There is but one Body of Christ (vs 12).

2. The Body of Christ is the Church which He founded, Ephesians 1:22-23

3. Therefore the Church which Jesus Christ founded IS Christ.

4. Therefore those who reject His Church, reject Him. Matthew 12:30

5. Since there is but one Christ with one Body, so there must be but one Church. Psalms 127:1, Matthew 16:18

6. The Body (Church) consists of not one member, but many (vs 14).

7. The many members of the one (Church) Body are all part of the same Body but each with his own function (vs's 15-20).

8. The Body of Christ cannot be separated from His Head.

9. Since the Body consists of members, individual members of the Body can be separated from the Head.

10. GOD has said that there must be no discord within the Body (vs 25).

11. However, there was great discord within the one Body, and it was a clear violation of verse 25.

12. It is called the Protestant Revolt .

13. Leaders and members of the Protest ant Revolt Amputated themselves from the one Body(Church) (vs 21).

14. Each member of the Body has his own function, by analogy, an eye, ear, hand, foot (vs's 15-18).

15. Can a hand live by itself, disconnected (Amputated) from the Body, or can an eye, an ear, or a foot?

16. What happens to a member which is Amputated from the Body?

17. The soul does not go with the Amputated member, and thus the member dies.

w. david o. taylor said...

Well, Michael, I have to hand it to you, you've got spirit. I'm not sure what exactly your note has to do with what I've written about Hunter's book but I'm going to leave it here for now. As someone who cares deeply about Holy Scripture, I appreciate your encouragement to pay careful attention to its shape and how in fact it shapes our lives, individually and communally.

But again, since your comment seems to bear no direct connection on my post, I'm going to stop here. If you have any thoughts about Hunter's ideas, I welcome them. In the meantime, a shout-out to the Aussies!

Mark Chambers said...

What I found interesting about Hunter's book was the analysis about the lack of Christian influence in the higher echelon's of societal structure. I think this is indicative of where Evangelicals are because of the populist roots of the movement. As an artist, I find that the predominant sentiment among folks within the church, and this certainly includes many pastors as well a musicians (whom I spend most of my time with), is that the arts should be in the language of everyday life. "People in the church want to hear music that speaks to them," or "Our art should be representational art and none of that weird abstract stuff." "The kind of elite, high culture art that some may be interested in really has no place in the church and therefore if you are an artist interested in such things then you have no place in the church." this last fictional quote has been indicative of many conversations I have had with some.

The trend seems to be that everything in the church, whether that be art, sermons, discussions, studies, etc. should lean towards popular styles with high forms being relegated to the dustbin of history. This is why we see in Hunter's Culture Matrix that Christians do not influence the culture at the highest levels. We are fixated on keeping things where the common man can relate to them that anything beyond the popular language of culture is at best left aside or worst treated as anathema.

This also does not mean popular culture needs to be sidelined for so called higher forms of culture. To echo you David, why can't we live in community together and learn to live with and benefit from each others differences rather than shun them?I must confess that I find the current quite sad and disheartening but do take encouragement with folks like Mako Fujimura finding receptivity among many in the church. May God's people embrace and encourage all of God's children in the all the diversity of their vocational callings.

David Howard said...

In regards to Michael's comment - What constitutes the body of Christ, or how do become a member of the Kingdom of God is the real issue.

John 3 clearly states that a man must become born again to enter the Kingdom of God. It is by grace and not by works, nor by any particular group, hierarchy, system, or church organisation that one becomes a saint - i.e. a born again christian.

It is this freedom, that defines true Christians and separates us from the worlds belief systems.

This freedom can also inform and liberate our creative and artistic aspirations. The challenge for Christians who are artists, is to make good, original and intelligent art.

vhj said...

First of all you are probably one of the more gracious people I know... I have learned much from ho you show grace to those who you don't see eye to eye with...

Secondly I am excited to read this book. I too get annoyed (and even catch myself sometimes) when people talk about the arts and music. Being an Arts Pastor I am usually more annoyed with the term "Worship Pastor" more than anything. I understand the intent but the assumption is great. All pastors are worship pastors as far as I am concerned. Harold Best has some good things to say about that.

Thanks again,

Craig

w. david o. taylor said...

David: appreciate your response to Michael.

Craig: certainly sympathetic to your concerns. By the way, what does VHJ stand for?

Just returned from the 2.5-day event where we discussed Hunter's book at length. Greg Thompson did a fabulous job facilitating our discussion. What a good man. What good men and women all throughout.

Folks, I feel hopeful. There isn't a magical pill to be had, but there is some clear-headed thinking that can help us live well as Christians in "the late modern world," and there are many good men and women helping us move towards these things.

Lastly, I do sincerely recommend the reading of Hunter's book. Take the time to do it right. But more than that, find at least one other person who will read it with you. It'll be a better experience all around.

craigandrewharris said...

I have no idea what VHC stands for (I tried to think of something witty but alas I failed). I created a blogspot account that will hopefully change the display name.

Thanks for being sympathetic to my concerns I will sleep better! (insert dry northwestern humor)

Thanks

w. david o. taylor said...

Got it, CraigAndrewHarris. I've always been a fan of northwest humor, so bring it. :)

w. david o. taylor said...

Mark: I totally skipped over your comment. Sorry about that. I agree with you and I know that Hunter does too (not just from the contents of his book but from speaking with him over the past couple of days). The constitutionally or impulsively negative attitudes about "elites" or folks at the highest levels of their profession is simply un-biblical, let alone un-charitable.

In practice, of course, it's tricky to maintain a healtyh attitude about it. The temptation to pride, snobbery, exclusivism and such is always a strong one. The tendency for some churches to stratify themselves according to meritocratic rank is common enough to cause concern, as it has all down through history. But I don't believe that the solution is to vilify or to become afraid of "elite" power--whether I possess or another does. The way forward instead is to keep thinking clearly about it, in constant conversation with all the kinds of things that Scripture is socially interested in (including questions surrounding status), and to cultivate the kinds of virtues, such as humility and generosity and compassion, that could preserve a community in health.

Alan said...

Thanks for sharing this, saw your refs to it on FB. The book pops up on my recommends on Amazon, but I had dismissed it after reading Andy Crouch's review a few months back. Crouch's book has been a huge inspiration and help, how does this book take that conversation in a new direction, deeper level, more nuanced discussion? Does it? Trying to put together a new reading list for next year, so why read this one is what I guess I am asking.

Adam said...

I've been wanting to read this, because of your recommendation, but keep getting quite unsavory reports of it from others whose opinions I trust. It seems he sets up misconstrued straw men of especially Crouch and Yoder to subsequently (and quite uncharitably) tear down. And then he tries to pretend his own perspective is original. That doesn't settle well for me...

w. david o. taylor said...

Adam, as you already know, your best bet is to read it yourself. You'll see things others didn't. There is *much* good in Hunter's book. The parts that you may perceive to be less strong do not, I wouldn't say, diminish the significant contribution that he makes to the conversation around ideas of culture.