This series of posts won’t be a traditional book review. Rather, I’ll summarize parts of To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, and then I’ll add my own thoughts. I may criticize the book here and there, but I don’t have much to criticize.
The book is in three essays. The first essay is called, “Christianity and World-Changing.” In chapter 1, he declares,
The subject of these essays is the social imaginary that serves as the backdrop for the ways in which the majority of those in America who call themselves Christian engage the world. I contend that the dominant ways of thinking about culture and cultural change are flawed, for they are based on both specious social science and problematic theology. In brief, the model on which various strategies are based not only does not work, but it cannot work.
In other words, the way the major elements of the American church is trying to change culture is destined for failure. Strong words, indeed.
In chapter 2, Hunter points out that most churches (and most people) figure: “The essence of culture is found in the hearts and minds of individuals — in what are typically called values” (all italics in quoted material are emphasized in the original). Others speak in terms of “worldviews,” but worldviews as held by individuals. The idea is simple: persuade enough people and the culture will change.
The same logic applies to politics. Bad law comes from bad decisions by officials with false worldviews. Change enough people, and the politics will follow. And then as surely as night follows day, so will the culture. “[T]he reality is that politics is the tactic of choice for many Christians as they think about changing the world. … It is not an exaggeration to say that the dominant public witness of the Christian churches in America since the early 1980s has been a political witness.” This is true both of the right and the left. Both Charles Colson and Jim Wallis seek to change worldviews and culture via the American political system.
The next section focuses on the desire of Christians to change culture “through social movements of moral reform addressing particular problems within the family, schools, neighborhoods, and civic associations.” Thus, we have the teen-abstinence movement, the marriage movement, and the fatherhood movement. I would add the character development movement, where billboards are posted and classes taught on abstractions such as integrity and character.
Hunter then describes the common theory that a great man can bring dramatic change: a William Wilberforce, a Martin Luther King, a Nelson Mandela. Thus, if we work hard enough, if we’re persistent enough, we can all be the next Mother Teresa. You can change the world!
Hunter concludes, “This account is almost wholly mistaken.” (I love a writer who says what he means!)
Chapter 3 begins with this clarification —
First, for the Christian, evangelism is central to their identity and purpose in the world. To share the Gospel is to share the gift of life; the making of disciples is foundational to the Christian faith. And peoples’ lives do change profoundly when they receive the gift of grace … . In a similar vein, no one would deny that law, public policy, and politics are worthy vocations for Christians to pursue. … Finally, social movements oriented toward moral reform have done enormous good … .
But do they change the world?
The answer is both yes and no; but it is mostly no. Cultures simply do not change in these ways … .
Hunter notes that even today, only 12 to 14% of Americans consider themselves secularists. “And yet our culture — business culture, law and government, the academic world, popular entertainment — is intensely materialistic and secular.”
Moreover, while the most enthusiastic elements of the American church — evangelicals and fundamentalists — give more generously, attend more regularly, and participate more actively in church, their influence is steadily declining — moving to more and more defensive postures as the decline has become evident.
On the other hand, Jews make up no more than 3.5% of the American population, but they have a huge influence in “science, literature, art, music, letters, film, and architecture” — often despite the severest of bigotry. The same is true of the gay community.
The result of ignoring the facts and of beginning from a defensive posture has been to characterize the matter as a “culture war.” The war will be won by converting people one at a time, changing culture through a kind of culture evangelism.
Now, Hunter doesn’t quite say this, but I’d add that this tends to make winning the culture war a near exact parallel to personal evangelism — as though we should convert the lost to Jesus so we’ll have better schools. Or perhaps the idea is to provide better public schools so we’ll more easily convert to the lost to Jesus — so if we’ll first persuade the schools to teach character education, we can more easily teach them about Jesus after we’ve taught them to live as Jesus taught. Do you see the problem?
In sum, idealism [about how culture changes] leads to a naïveté about the nature of culture and its dynamics that is, in the end, fatal. Every strategy and tactic for changing the world that is based on this working theory of culture and cultural change will fail — not most of the strategies, but all.
In chapter 4, Hunter than offers a valid theory of culture in 11 propositions. Here are some excerpts —
While individuals are not powerless by any stretch of the imagination, institutions have much greater power.
Culture is a resource and, as such, a form of power. …
[C]ulture can be understood as symbolic capital. … Likewise, whatever else one may think about the New York Times, it has more symbolic capital than the Dallas Morning News … .
[S]ymbolic capital translates into a kind of power and influence. … It starts with credibility … .
This should be obvious on reflection. If I publish a book, having Charles Colson endorse the book on the back means much more than if my brother does (although my brother is smarter and a better judge of books than Colson). Running on the Republican ticket gives a credibility that running on the Libertarian Party ticket does not. The Heisman trophy means more than the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. An Olympic gold medal means more than even a world record.
Even if you doubt the decisions of the Heisman trophy voters — who’ve only given the trophy to one defensive player and no interior linemen in the history of football or the wisdom of the Republican Party vs. the Libertarian Party, the reality is that some institutions matter more than others — and it’s often not a question of merit.
Cultural production and symbolic capital are stratified in a fairly rigid structure of “center” and “periphery.”
And there’s not much room in the center — and it’s hard to get there, because you have to bump someone out of the way in the process. The Lombardi Award will never be the Heisman. There will never be another Augusta National.
Culture is generated within networks.
Cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up.
Change is typically initiated by elites who are outside the centermost positions of prestige.
It makes sense. The center likes being in the center, and so has little incentive to change. But you have to be among the elite to get a hearing from the center and those others near the center.
Therefore, culture is far more likely to change individuals, than individuals are to change culture. Notice, for example, how the church and countless individuals eventually passed Prohibition, only to have it repealed — and the social elites consider Prohibition a failure, even though it was in fact effective to greatly reduce alcoholism and alcohol related crimes.
The most humane understandings of personhood, relationships, community, time, space, freedom, obligation, material wealth, cannot be established or recovered through a five-year plan or even a generation — certainly not through politics, not through social reform, and not even in and through revival. …
Christians will not engage the culture effectively, much less hope to change it, without attention to the factors mentioned here.
Hunter then demonstrates how Christianity changed culture in Roman times, the conversion of Europe, the Reformation, the Great Awakening, British Abolition, etc. in light of these understandings and a deeper understanding of history than you get in Sunday school.
Hunter’s historical studies may well be the most surprising and informative parts of this essay. Buy the book.
Hunter wraps up the essay noting how modern Christianity has worked a plan that is the very opposite of what social science (his field) has shown to work. Rather than proving the merits and genius of Christianity in the centers of culture, we’ve created parallel institutions — our own publishing houses, our own universities, our own periodicals, and our own music industry. Rather than contending for the faith at Harvard and Yale, we’ve left the battlefield, attempting to create a culture within a culture — and hoping to beat the surrounding culture by converting people one at a time from outside the culture.
Moreover, the culture we produce is overwhelmingly popular culture. Where’s the great Christian composer of symphonies? Where’s the great Christian novelist? Where’s the great Christian sculptor? Where’s the great Christian architect? There are Christians in these fields, but not many, and those who are there do not effectively network with other Christians to build on each other’s work and influence. Because Christian culture is exclusively popular, it does not appeal to the elites near the center of culture making.
Add to this the fact that the church is severely divided over nearly everything and the capitulation of much of the church to secular culture, we have a problem.
Of course, the church is a populist institution, because of its entirely right and moral teaching regarding the equality of all before God. We naturally cringe at the thought of seeking to be among “the elite.”
Hunter therefore declares —
[T]heology moves in the opposite direction of social theory. A theology of faithful presence means a recognition that the vocation of the church is to bear witness to and to be the embodiment of the coming Kingdom of God. … Whatever its larger influence in the world may be, a culture that is genuinely alternative cannot emerge without faithful presence in all areas of life. This will include networks (and more, communities) of counter-leaders operating within the upper echelons of culture production and social life generally. There are realms of performance and distinction that may be rare and inaccessible to the average person, but they are still critically important to both the renewal of the church and its engagement with the culture.
End of essay.
I’ll try to reflect on what this means a bit in the next post of this series.