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, 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:
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.
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.
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).