A Rich Guy Walks into a Room…. (Cultural Capital)

I have spent all week studying the book of James – getting ready for a new series at Soma. As I have been reading James 2 I have been struck by the gravity of his injunction against favoritism.

Essentially James says, if you are believers in Jesus Christ don’t show favoritism. Period. He gives us some examples of how favoritism plays out in the church. Basically, a rich guy wearing gold rings and flowing robes comes in and everybody pays him close attention, people flock to greet him.

Liberace – aka The Glitter Man aka the man from James 2.

A poor guy comes in and people make him sit on the floor, or stand in the back of the room. The problem with this (there are a few problems that James mentions) is that in doing this believers have become “judges.” Essentially they are saying – X is what makes you a valuable person, X justifies your existence & you have X. The thing is though that their “X” is not God’s X. It’s a radically different X.

According to James, and he thinks they should already know this, God has choosen the poor (the not X’s) to inherit the kingdom. They have things backwards. They have bought into the world’s way of seeing things.

Roman culture says you are a “have” if you “have” money, land, prestige, fancy clothes, etc. King Jesus though says you are a “have” once you recognize that you are a “have not.” To say otherwise is to deny the fact that the gospel is for those who are poor in spirit.

Anyway… I’m really interested in what makes you valuable today, because the truth is, if somebody walked in wearing a gold ring and flowing robes into our services aka if somebody came in looking like Liberace most people are going to stay away from that dude.  I guess what I’m really thinking about is….

What do we consider “cultural capital?”

According to sociologists “cultural capital” is very similar to “economic capital” – it consists of things we posses that are exchanged for goods, resources, and/or power. If you have “economic capital,” i.e. money, you exchange that for food, education, electricity, etc. If you have cultural capital, you “exchange” or “reveal” those things and get some sort of cultural good i.e. favor, prestige, status, friends, followers, gifts.

When talking about “cultural capital” sociologists will tend to classify it into three categories:

  1. Embodied – that is properties one possesses. This would include your language (formal or slang), your physical looks, race or even gender. All these things are used/revealed/exchanged for cultural goods.
  2. Objectified – the physical objects one owns. This includes the type of car you drive, the type of clothes you wear (or don’t wear), the gadgets you own, etc. Just like all other cultural capital, possession of these things (and the public display of them) give you cultural goods. Those might include special treatment at the store, by the opposite sex, or even in the marketplace.
  3. Institutionalized – these are markers accorded to a person according to one’s position in some sort of institutional system. For example, within the education system degrees count as cultural capital. Within the workforce, one’s position (intern vs. ceo) count as cultural capital.

In all honesty, most young adults and college students could care less about “institutionalized cultural capital,” but embodied and objectified cultural capital matter a lot. And that is just as true among Christians and non-Christians.

Christians will certainly value some things non-Christians wont. For instance knowing the Bible will give you cultural capital, experience on mission trips will give you capital, speaking Christianese, or not-cursing will probably give you capital. There are certain identity markers that we Christians (sadly) have that are used to assign cultural value to some and not to others. However things aren’t that straightforward. Although we would repudiate certain things – like looks giving one cultural capital, fashion giving one cultural capital, etc. – the truth is that things just aren’t that simple. Most of the things that non-Christians consider valuable are the same things non-Christians consider valuable. At times these things are at odds with the gospel but they are too subtle for us to notice.

The Church is always at risk of embracing anti-kingdom cultural values. Some are obvious, but most are subtle.

So what contributes to what counts as cultural capital within any one particular culture? How do people come to learn what is worth something and what isn’t? Is it simply because somebody told us once that some thing is valuable and some other thing is not? I don’t think so. To believe that we are shaped to value some things and not value others simply by means of propositional knowledge is to deny the fact that we are embodied beings. More on that, and how we are shaped to value some things as “cultural capital,” next time.

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