James Davison Hunter and I agree about much more than we disagree about, which is one reason my review in Books & Culture is so enthusiastic. To Change the World is a valuable and important book. However, CT's editors have asked me specifically to respond to Hunter's critique of my work, and I must say I find it quite perplexing, though one central criticism is surely fair.
Hunter devotes four pages to my book Culture Making, in a "coda" to his second chapter. He sums up his critique in three sentences (p. 31—I have placed them in italics in the following paragraphs).
"[Crouch's] perspective is individualistic—cultures are constituted by and changed through the actions of aggregated individuals." An entire chapter of my book deals with the need for networks (or to use the richer word I prefer, communities) to sustain and disseminate cultural change. The subtitle of my book is "Recovering Our Creative Calling," and I have often thought that I could have doubled its sales by adding a single letter—turning "our" into "your" and thus pandering to American self-help individualism. But this would have been incompatible with a central message of the book, sounded almost literally from the first page to the last: no one creates culture alone. Readers of Hunter's summary would never know how essential that idea is to Culture Making.
"Though an impersonal market finally determines the outcome, cultural change can be willed into being—through the investment and creation of cultural goods." I explicitly disavow the idea that we can will any sort of cultural change into being—in fact, I have an entire chapter called, "Why We Can't Change the World." That chapter includes a series of challenges to the idea that anyone, including cultural elites, can reliably strategize their way to cultural change—challenges which Hunter never addresses even though I think they pose real problems for implementing any culture-change strategy that might be based on his first essay.
"And cultural change is democratic—it occurs through the actions of ordinary people, from the bottom up." The last third of my book returns frequently to, and deals at some length with, the reality that some of us have access to more cultural power than others. At the same time I maintain that God seems to show a surprising tendency to bring about cultural change through coalitions of the "powerful" and "powerless"—an explicitly argued alternative to both populist grassroots accounts and to Hunter-esque "grasstops" accounts.
The strangest and most blatant misreading of my book comes when Hunter says that I argue "that the best strategy for Christians is to invest in creative cultural production: 'Investing is basically a way of placing bets on which cultural goods will grow in world-changing importance.'" Yet my point in the passage Hunter quotes from is that even professional investors, who attempt to anticipate cultural change in the relatively controlled conditions and measurable terms of equity markets, consistently fail to do so—that we cannot strategize our way into cultural change.
I can only conclude that Hunter has fundamentally misunderstood the intent of my book (although his misunderstandings may well be the result of my failure to think and write clearly). My hope is to move the conversation entirely away from "strategies" of cultural change. The reason to be culture makers is not "to change the world" or "to transform the culture." It is to be who we were created to be: stewards of a good world, bearing the image of a creative God who always intended us to cultivate and create in that world. Can God use our local, embodied efforts at culture making to "change the world"? Surely he can, if he wishes to do so. Should we preoccupy ourselves with strategies for transformation? I think such preoccupation is neither wise nor helpful. Rather, I simply hope we will become creators of culture at every scale and in every sphere (including the places that twentieth-century evangelicals often shunned), neither grasping nor shirking whatever power God may grant us at any moment in history.
Hunter and I do have very different instincts on the role of cultural elites. Of course, by definition, elites have disproportionate influence on culture. That is how we know they are elites. Yet history is full of surprises, not least the cultural reverberations from an apparently failed Messiah who spent most of his short career on the fringes of a colonial outpost where washed-up elites like Pontius Pilate were put out to pasture. And as I argue in the book, there are significant forms of culture making that can only happen at local scales, and they are out of reach of "cultural elites" precisely because of their local scale. The president of the Swarthmore-Rutledge Home & School Association shapes the culture of our children's elementary school in a way that Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, cannot. Indeed, a major function that elites like Duncan play in our society is to search the margins for creative models that they can implement more widely. During the health-care debate, a model of excellence invoked by all sides in Washington was the Cleveland Clinic. No disrespect intended, but: Cleveland! Does this not suggest that the language of "center" and "periphery" is too neat to be useful, at least in a complex society like the United States?
The truly odd thing is that by the end of his book Hunter gives every appearance of agreeing with me. As he says in his interview with CT, his title is ironic: we are not supposed to seek to change the world. Hunter's analysis of how cultures change in his first essay (which is, let me emphasize, valuable and full of insight) is rendered largely moot by his third essay, which, far from being an action plan for elite-driven cultural change, lauds such non-elite actors as grocery store cashiers and spotlights admirable efforts in such non-elite locations as central Michigan and Anacostia, Maryland.
One aspect of Hunter's critique strikes me as right on target, and it is not a small one: I did not spend enough time in Culture Making addressing the role of institutions in culture. If I had read Hugh Heclo's boringly-titled but brilliantly-written short book On Thinking Institutionally before writing Culture Making (both were published in the summer of 2008), my book would have been better. Hunter does an excellent job of correcting my (and others') lack of institutional vision, something that seems to be a besetting problem for my age cohort, so-called Generation X. Hunter's emphasis on institutions, along with so many other aspects of To Change the World (most of all its marvelous reframing of power), is an important contribution to the ongoing conversation about our cultural calling.
Hunter's treatment of my book is just four pages out of more than three hundred. I hope many readers of Culture Making will read To Change the World. But I also hope that readers of To Change the World will not assume they have grasped the heart of Culture Making from Hunter's summary dismissal. Consider the following three topics from the index to Culture Making, none of which is mentioned in the index of To Change the World: gardens, houses, and food. More specifically, shrubs, flowers, vegetables, and fruit trees; gas stoves, wooden floors, and fireplaces; bulgogi, chili, and omelets. These, too, are culture, worthy of our sustained attention and cultivated excellence. They will never change the world. (Or will they?) Then again, our grateful witness as Christians is that thanks to a crucifixion, a resurrection, and a judgment and renewal yet to come, the world has already changed.
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See also Charles Colson's response to Hunter's critique of him in To Change the World.
Crouch also reviewed To Change the World for Books & Culture.