It’s important to begin by noting that the essay summarized in the preceding post of this series is the first of three essays in To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Hunter. Hunter hasn’t yet really made his point. Rather, this essay is more of what a mathematician would call a lemma, that is, something you prove as a stepping stone toward what you really want to prove.
And yet, this is a hugely important essay. Hunter argues based on principles of sociology that the American church is working diligently to fight a culture war that it’s destined to lose because it’s using the wrong strategy. The argument offered in Essay 1 is that this is not how culture changes. In essay 3, he’ll explain how he believes the scriptures teach we should engage the culture — and, of course, the church must adopt its tactics based on the scriptures and not mere pragmatism.
But it’s obvious that this is a war being lost. The culture is not more Christian today than it was last year, 10 years ago, or 50 years ago. Secularism is winning and winning quickly. Unless the scriptures demand that we fight the war the way we’ve been doing it, it’s time to change tactics!
Now, Hunter is a world-class sociologist. I’m not. But I’d reached the same conclusion some years ago. My approach was different. I figure we should ask how the culture went bad before we start prescribing the cure. As a matter of history, what happened? Did the culture change because people were persuaded by logical argument one at a time? No. Are we losing today because people are being logically persuaded one at a time? No.
Clearly, the current shift to a secular culture in America is a top-down phenomenon. The people of America did not rise up and demand more pornography, normalization of homosexuality, and ever-cruder politics. Rather, two things happened. First, the intellectual elite in this country became highly secularized (how that happened is another story). And then, over time, people became willing to tolerate secularism. Indeed, many found they preferred secularism to the Christian lifestyle. You see, pornography is rampant both because it’s allowed and because people are willing to pay for it. The movies are ever-more vulgar both because Hollywood wants to be vulgar and because people buy tickets to see vulgarity.
The story of the secularization of America is, thus, a combination of an intellectual elite — Hollywood movie makers, artists, writers, scholars — who wish to push a secular agenda and a highly secularized church whose members enjoy and pay for the secular work product.
Now, for years our preachers have had a sense of this, and so we’ve had sermons against R-rated movies and pornography. The idea was to change the culture by refusing to fund it. Not too long ago, the Southern Baptist Convention voted to boycott Disney, and the boycott utterly failed. Our members are unwilling to pay the price — unwilling to do without ESPN and Mickey Mouse — to make a statement.
You see, the tactics of the culture war don’t work. They don’t work because they don’t address the source of the problem — part of which is a secularized Christianity that doesn’t change lives and doesn’t compel sacrifice. Rather, the vision of the culture war is an idealized America where the government and church are in league once again and life is rich with middle class comfort.
Therefore, the American church has built its own, parallel institutions — adopting an escapist strategy, not unlike the monastic movement of the Middle Ages. The same preacher who urges his members to engage in “friendship evangelism” pitches for the church-league softball team — hiding the church’s light under a church-league bushel. The regular softball leagues are too worldly for Christians.
And so we have Christian coffee bars, basketball courts, gyms, book clubs, schools, etc. — all designed to isolate us from the nasty non-Christians we’re supposed be befriending.
The result is the Fortress Church, dug in to play defense, and unwilling to deal with the ugliness of the world. We don’t like the world, aren’t willing to wait for the next one, and so we make our heaven right here by excluding the damned.
Among the results of this attitude is a complex of Christian universities that provide a good education in everything but how to be in the world but not of the world. Show me the Christian university that does cutting edge science, or philosophy, or art, or music, or even movie making? You see, the biology departments in Christian universities are designed to produce doctors and nurses and pharmacists — but not research biologists or chemists. When a Christian colleges decides to become a university by offering graduate programs, they start a law school or MBA program or graduate seminary, but no graduate sociology or journalism or anthropology or English literature department. We’re all about trade schools and not about the study of God’s creation.
Therefore, we’ve unilaterally retreated from culture making. To be honest, we have a fear of the controversy that comes with evolution or Deconstructionism, and so we refuse to join in the conversation at all. When our children do occasionally decide to get graduate degrees in journalism to teach journalism at a university, they get trained by a highly secular journalism faculty, all of whom were trained in secularized graduate schools. And then we complain that these fields have been taken over by secularists and so we urge our children to go into a less threatening area of study.
Now, the cure isn’t just to do a better job with parallel institutions. Rather, part of the cure (not the cure, just part of the cure) is to have enough confidence in our God, our beliefs, and ourselves to send our children to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to study in the very fields from which Christians have fled. I figure we have plenty of kids smart enough to prove the value of Christianity in any discipline or science known to man.
Why can’t the next great anthropologist be a Christian? Why not the next great sociologist? Why can’t Christians make as many contributions to painting, sculpture, and music as Jews and homosexuals? Does God not give us gifts, too?
You see, you don’t transform culture by going to war against the culture. You transform culture by being among the elite — the very best. I have no doubt that there are hundreds of Christians in college right now who could be better directors than James Cameron or George Lucas. But we’re so afraid of our kids being corrupted by the evils of Hollywood and the Ivy League that we flee the centers of culture making.
But people of faith should figure that the secularists have the most to fear. Why can we send our children to darkest Africa as missionaries — but not Hollywood and not the halls of academia? The church used to be the dominant maker of culture — and when things got tough, we quit. Bach was a Lutheran and wrote all of his music in honor of God. Handel composed in honor of God. We really can do it.
Now, this means we have to rethink how we raise our teenagers. Do we raise teens to escape the world through parallel institutions? Or do we raise up a generation of missionaries of all kinds? You see, if our son or daughter decides to go to Angola to preach the gospel, we parents permit it because we know it’s right, even though they are surrendering the great American dream of wealth and prosperity. But when our children ask to become paleontologists, we are afraid they’ll either fail or be corrupted — and that’s too much risk to take because it just might cost them the great American dream of wealth and prosperity.
You know, I think one reason our teen ministries fail, on the whole, is because they aim too low. The goal has been to keep the kids faithful by providing them with Christian friends and activities. I think we’d do better to provide them with a Christian mission. Teens can be very idealistic, and parents can be very cynical. But maybe we can all agree to take a step of faith and ask our teen ministers and parents to encourage their children to see themselves as church planters, missionaries, and even intellectual and artistic missionaries, committed to taking the Christian perspective into the arts and academia at any cost.
And one thing this would do for us is force our teen ministries to teach what it means to be a Christian rather than just a nice kid with lots of friends and fun activities. Christianity might actually mean something if we stopped sucking the sacrifice, risk, and purpose out of it. And it’s just possible that children raised to be missionaries would stop consuming the vile culture that surrounds us and would, instead, see the corruption of our culture as needing a Physician. They might even persuade their parents.
(1Co 5:9-12 ESV) 9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. 11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler–not even to eat with such a one. 12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?