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The cultural conflict scholar James Davison Hunter has a new book out that I’m definitely going to get, criticizes Christian political engagement of both the right and left. From a Hunter quote on Andrew Sullivan’s site:
The tragedy is that in the name of resisting the internal deterioration of faith and the corruption of the world around them, many Christians–and Christian conservatives most significantly–unwittingly embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry. By nurturing its resentments, sustaining them through a discourse of negation toward outsiders, and in cases, pursuing their will to power, they become functional Nietzscheans, participating in the very cultural breakdown they so ardently strive to resist.
More from an interview with JDH on his Amazon page:
Q: Why did you write To Change the World?
Hunter: I wrote this book because I saw a disjunction between how Christians talk about changing the world, how they try to change the world, and how worlds –that is culture–actually change. These disparities needed to be clarified.
Q: How does this build on your previous work?
Hunter: One way it builds on my earlier work is that it provides a bigger picture of the nature of cultural conflict, why Christians seem to be neck deep in it, and why the approaches that they take in cultural conflict are so counterproductive. This is a response to some of the earlier work that I have done on the nature of culture wars and alternatives to them.
Q: Who do you hope reads this book?
Hunter: The audience I had in mind was the diverse communities that make up American Christians and their institutional leaders–those who think about the world we live in today and how best to engage it. Those who think about these matters will find here a useful guide.
Q: What three things do you want readers to take away from reading this book?
Hunter: The primary ways of thinking about the world and how it changes in our society are mainly incorrect. There is an answer to the question of how to change the world, but how it actually changes is different from how most people think.
Most people believe that politics is a large part of the answer to the problems that we face in the world, and so a second insight would be the limitations of politics. Political strategies are not only counter-productive to the ends that faith communities have in mind, but are antithetical to the ends that they seek to achieve.
A third thing that I would like for readers to take away is that there are alternative ways of thinking about the world we live in, and engaging it, that are constructive and draw upon resources within the Christian tradition. In the end, these strategies are not first and foremost about changing the world, but living toward the flourishing of others.
Along those lines, check out this lengthy recent interview with Barbara Nicolosi-Harrington, an orthodox Catholic who teaches screenwriting in LA. Excerpt:
How do you perceive your vocation and what God might accomplish through it?
My vocation is to be a storyteller to the people of my time — and if I create a good enough story, stories have a way of transcending time. I’m very preoccupied with creating a story and characters that will haunt people in a way that sends them on a journey of introspection.
I am a political animal in many ways. It’s a big hobby for me. But I have, with the rest of my generation, almost completely lost confidence that real good in society can be achieved through politics. I don’t think that’s the pathway to lasting good. I think that politics can clear the field for good to be done, but I don’t think it actually achieves anything. I think culture is what creates good in the world. That’s the realm of the artist: the storyteller, the musician, the poet. And I see myself as a storyteller.
More (and please read it! I’m putting it below the jump because it’s so long … but so important):
You have a quotation standing above your blog, from a 1930s film critic, that says: “Theaters are the new Church of the Masses — where people sit huddled in the dark listening to people in the light tell them what it is to be human.” What does that quotation mean to you?
It means that the Church has lost its distinctive voice of authority in the contemporary moment. That quotation was written in the 1930s, but it’s even more true today. The Church, which had been the primary teaching voice in human history, has lost its voice of authority. It’s just another competing voice out there now — and to tell you the truth, because the Church has shunned using the modern media, it’s not even a very compelling voice.
So if you’re not going into a Church, you’re not hearing the Church’s voice. But the Church used to be an authority that would stand up in the culture and say to you, “This is what virtue is. This is what meaning is. This is what the point of your life is. This is good and this is bad.”Where do people find those things now? They listen to television and the movies. They go to the media, and the media will tell them what the point of their life is. I don’t know that that’s a good thing. It’s not a bad thing in every case. There are some people writing who seek very responsibly and seriously to help people discern what matters in life. I know a lot of them in Hollywood. But for many other people, their whole preoccupation in making movies and television is to keep people distracted for 22 minutes, 47 minutes, or 2 hours. For those people, there’s no interest at all in doing good, or no concern with doing harm.
Dostoevsky said that man, in the end, will be saved by beauty — or nothing. In other words, the last voice of authority will be the Beautiful. The Beautiful is the last voice that will be compelling for people. So the question is, if we have become a society that no longer produces the Beautiful, and we’re no longer in an agrarian society so people no longer have regular access to natural beauty, then there will in fact be no compelling voice of authority. When there is no ultimate voice of authority in the world, then everyone is his own authority. Then you have moral and cultural anarchy.
How ought the Church to respond?
The Church needs to get back into the work of the Beautiful. It needs to get back into the work of subsidizing and training and mentoring artists and guilds. It needs to feed people who can sing and write music, and commission their works. In a previous day, we would have commissioned statues and paintings. Today’s Church should commission novels and movies and screenplays.
The fact that there is not a single Christian university in the top twenty film programs in the world is a sign that the Church has lost its way in modernity. We are not seeing ourselves as people of this moment.
The saddest realities to look at are not Hustler magazine and Big Love. Much more tragic is what you find on EWTN and CBN, because these things are devoid of creativity and devoid of respect for the audience. They are banal. They may be produced with the best of intentions, but they have no sense of the appropriateness of the art form, of using the medium to its full potential.
Sad though it is, you would never call the Church the patron of the arts today. Never. You would be laughed down. I know that to be true. I used the phrase with a class of undergrads. A young woman raised her hand and said, “Who is the ‘patron of the arts’?” I asked the students who they thought the patron of the arts is. They looked at me for a while, and finally one kid raised his hand and said, “The Bravo Channel?”
“Patron of the arts” used to be the moniker of the Christian Church. But this generation has no experience of the Church being a patron of the arts. We are so far behind in being a compelling voice in the culture. We have allowed our voice in culture to disappear.
John Paul II said that this generation of Christians will have to atone for its failure to use the media to spread the gospel of life. This generation of Christians will be called to account for its failure to use these powerful gifts we have in our hands to create global community and to move people to tears. Others will be asked why they did not recognize Jesus. We will be asked why we did not make television shows.
One more powerful BNH statement — a painful truth that needs saying!:
Many perceive a tension between “heartland” and “Hollywood” values. Is that a legitimate perception?
Again, not to get myself burned in effigy, but Christians feel as alienated from Hollywood as Hollywood people feel watching EWTN or CBN. Hollywood has a value of excellent production value, of talent, and the pagan world absolutely believes in talent, this mysterious gift that comes from they-know-not-where. We know where it comes from; they don’t know where it comes from, but they believe in it.
The Church does not believe in talent anymore. We think the most important thing is that everyone feels welcome. So we sit at church and suffer through Doris and Stan, who can’t sing, because we don’t want to be mean. They would never get a job in Hollywood, because Hollywood has integrity about the beautiful. Or if it’s not “the Beautiful” in the classical sense, at least, they value the non-lame.
So when you speak of a tension of values, well, there is the value of the Beautiful, which Hollywood understands and the Church does not, and then there are the values specifically of what is good for human beings. What is it that leads them to their fulfillment, their ultimate destiny, fulfilling their nature? Those things are missing, content-wise, in what you’re seeing in a lot of the media.
But in the end, which is more harmful: true words cast in an ugly frame, or untrue words cast in a beautiful frame? I think Hollywood will get people into heaven faster. Even if they have the message wrong, people in the end will turn off some of that. What will really impact them will be the harmony, the wholeness, the completeness of a work.