How to Change the World, 3/4

In a previous post, I asked the question, “Precisely how do we define culture?”

This question is important for Scripture gives the Church a clear cultural mandate to bring all of creation under the rule and dominion of God.

Obviously ours is a paradise lost. Therefore, in order to redeem, or transform, that which is lost we must first be clear about what culture is. Or, in order to defeat your opponent you must first know your opponent.

I appreciate the insights of James Hunter in his book To Change the World.[1] He shatters the common definitions of culture, and proposes a more refined understanding that I believe better reflects reality. He defines culture as:

  • a complex web of societal norms which define the “shoulds” and the “should nots” of our life experience, including good and evil, right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate. So entrenched are these norms that it becomes difficult to articulate the unspoken, unwritten nuances of the culture.
  • the result of historical forces that exceed the lifespan of individuals. Culture is like a cargo ship. It is neither agile nor nimble and cannot change directions quickly.
  • a dialectical “catch-22” of the interdependent relationship between individuals and institutions (i.e. the market place, state, education, media, and family). These cultural components have their own logic, ideologies, place, histories, and agendas that influence the individuals that comprise them. Thus, there is an inseparable, unbalanced relationship between the two. While the parts (individuals) have a measure of power, the greater influence on culture is the whole (institutions).
  • an immaterial resource with its own form of symbolic capital, or power. Such capital, unlike material resources such as lumber for a house, it is not easily transferred. Instead it can only be accumulated over a period of time. For instance, a Lexus has greater symbolic capital than a Honda. The cumulative effect of symbolic capital leverages greater power by means of enhancing one’s credibility. It is that credibility and the power associated with it (whether right or not) that enables those with it to define “reality”.
  • shaped by those institutions with the greatest symbolic capital, which translates into more influence. It is those institutions closest to the centers of influence that have more pull than those with less influence. Essentially, Hunter is saying that in terms of culture production, one has to operate within the centers of influence “where prestige is highest, not in the periphery, where status is low.”
  • rooted in highly active and interactive networks of individuals. It is often the case that within those networks, prominent individuals will arise, giving voice to the body they represent. Nevertheless, it is not the individual with the most pull.
  • is neither autonomous nor fully coherent. It is impossible for any one person or institution to self-direct culture; it is too interwoven and interrelated to other facets of society. Consider the spider and his web. Every string of his web is connected such that when a single flea gets caught in one string, all other strings are affected. Yet, amazingly, a spider can distinguish between prey and a gust of wind! How a spider can discern the difference is not fully coherent to us. In the same way, culture is comprised of a myriad of institutions and increasingly diverse individuals all with varying degrees of symbolic capital, values, preferences, and so on.

Mind-bending, is it not? Disagree if you like, but I think Hunter’s analysis brings us much closer to an accurate understanding of culture. I find it far superior to the definition offered by most Evangelicals.


[1] The following is a summary of James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Last Modern World (New York: Oxford, 2010), Ch. 4.

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About Brian

committed to living life thoughtfully, joyfully, and Christianly
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