To Change the World: There Are Better Reasons for Engaging Culture
When I attended the undergraduate institution informally known as “the Harvard of the Christian schools,” during the first chapel of each fall semester, we would sing together the college hymn, prominently featuring the college motto, “For Christ and His Kingdom.” The hymn also contained the infelicitous lyrics “New calls to challenge all our pow’rs / Of heart and hand and brain,” causing rows of English majors to cringe at the awkward word—and on at least one occasion inspiring a chapel prank in which all the lyrics of said hymn were changed to the single word “brain,” repeated over and over.
According to James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, American Christianity’s relationship to culture, high and low, in the past fifty years has been almost exclusively cerebral (without necessarily being intellectual). In essence, American evangelicals have been repeating the word “brain” over and over, without attention to how culture—and how spiritual formation of the human person—happens. Hunter argues that Christians have almost uniformly adopted the view that “the essence of culture is found in the hearts and minds of individuals”—or the “values” or the “worldviews.” Whatever the vocabulary used, the basic assumption has been that, if you want to change the culture, you must change each individual’s mind until a majority comes to adopt more Christlike ideas.
As Hunter boldly argues, “This account is almost wholly mistaken.”
First, the “hearts and minds” approach relies too much on an Enlightenment notion of disembodied ideas as the forces shaping culture. (Hunter is not alone in this argument, as it also forms the backbone of James K. A. Smith’s 2009 book Desiring the Kingdom. Again, neither Hunter nor Smith is advocating anti-intellectualism: in fact, they’re drawing on the best of postmodern theory to critique Enlightenment idealism and the church’s complicity with it.) Second, culture does not operate by the rule of the majority: it is, in fact, “eerily independent of majority opinions.” Instead, Hunter insists, cultures change from the top down, and those initiating change are elites with significant cultural capital. Any attempt to change culture through popular opinion is woefully naïve.
So, if Christians want to change culture, that means that we should simply work to get people into the highest positions of power, right? Stop focusing our attempts on subculture-centric efforts and instead work to dominate Capitol Hill, the Ivy Leagues, and Hollywood.
Not so fast. As those influenced by the Anabaptist tradition (or, as Hunter calls it, the “Neo-Anabaptist” tradition of John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas), cultural dominance isn’t what Jesus enjoined his followers to seek. In fact, Jesus was strangely unconcerned about cultural dominance, as were early Christians until Constantine accomplished the unholy marriage of Christianity and empire.
At Wheaton, through no fault of the college itself (I love Wheaton and remain extremely grateful for my education there), I had absorbed deep into my being the belief that I had to achieve excellence in, well, everything, in order to be a good witness for Jesus. As a young graduate student, I read Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus for the first time. That was when it hit me: I didn’t have to win everything for Jesus (and, in fact, thinking that I could do so was a bit prideful). Voluntary relinquishment of power and prestige could honor him, too. For a high-achieving perfectionist, this idea was liberating. Given the influence of the Neo-Anabaptists in my own faith, I was particularly curious to see what Hunter would have to say about them.
In Hunter’s view, the Neo-Anabaptists do provide some valuable correctives to both conservative and liberal Christians who seek to dominate culture through political means (Hunter takes to task equally James Dobson and Jim Wallis). However, the Neo-Anabaptists have an insufficient theology of culture, particularly as regards work or vocation. Furthermore, the Neo-Anabaptist allergy to power shares with the Christian Right and the Christian Left the false emphasis on politics as the only significant public realm.
Power is inevitable; even in seeking to avoid it, we re-acknowledge its importance. Hunter seems to suggest that Christians should neither especially seek cultural power nor seek to reject it: instead, we should participate in culture in response to God’s creation mandate, regardless of the influence of our work. At all levels of culture, from the popular to the elite, Christians should be living out “faithful presence,” which entails “a recognition that the vocation of the church is to bear witness to and to be the embodiment of the coming Kingdom of God.”
An appropriate subtitle for To Change the World would probably be “Never Mind. You Have Better Reasons for Participating in Culture.” The actual subtitle, “The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World,” is partially explained in passages like this one:
“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 Nietzcheans, participating in the very cultural breakdown they so ardently strive to resist.”
There’s the tragedy and the irony. What about the possibility? My husband, who also read the book, got a little frustrated with the fact that a good three-quarters of it focus on showing why current Christian models of culture are all wrong. As an academic and a person by nature overly fond of analysis and critique, I didn’t mind this emphasis. However, if you’re looking for a practical how-to guide for enacting faithful presence, To Change the World probably isn’t the book for you.
While Hunter does offer a few practical examples of faithful presence lived out, my imagination was more captured by his use of Jeremiah 29:4-7—you know, the passage that would actually give some context for that oft-quoted Jeremiah 29:11. Hunter implies that this passage has relevance for how Christians should live in the pluralistic, late modern world:
“The premise of Jeremiah’s message was that the exiles would be in Babylon for several generations . . . The Israelites would simply need to come to terms with this fact. It was toward this end that Jeremiah counseled his community not to be nostalgic for the past, for the past could not be recovered. Nor did he advise them to plan for insurrection, for there was no promise of their restoration to Jerusalem, at least not any time soon. Nor yet was the community’s survival tied to the remnant that remained in Jerusalem (Jer. 24:5-10). For Jeremiah, exile did not mean that God had abandoned Israel. Rather, exile was the place where God was at work.”
“Jeremiah’s guidance was even more counterintuitive than it might first seem. If God’s purposes really were being realized through these circumstances, then the welfare of the Babylonian conquerors was linked to their own welfare. To this end, Jeremiah instructs the Jews in exile to ‘seek the welfare’ of their captors, to pray for the very people who destroyed their homeland, for the welfare of the exiles and the captors were bound together. As they pursued the shalom of Babylon, God would provide shalom for his people.”
In other words, instead of bemoaning the mythical past of a supposedly Christian nation, we should buck up, realize that we’re in exile, and get on with honoring God by working toward the common good.
I would love to see other writers take this idea of culture-making in exile and run with it. As it is, To Change the World offers just enough of a hint of the possibility of Christianity in the late modern world that readers won’t be left mired in the tragedy and irony.
This sounds exactly like what Ross Douthat said in his earlier written column “A tough season for Believers”. He emphasized the idea that “Christians need to find a way to thrive in a society that looks less and less like any sort of Christendom — and more and more like the diverse and complicated Roman Empire where their religion had its beginning, 2,000 years ago”.
Carissa has put To Change the World on my soon-to-read list. I am currently reading The Next Christians by Gabe Lyons. In his chapter, “Countercultural, Not ‘Relevant’” Lyons argues against countercultural approaches that are Separatist (Anabaptist), Antagonistic (critical, condemning, and combative), and Relevant (trying to blend into current culture to gain acceptability). Instead, he argues for Christians being “Countercultural for the Common Good,” much like James Davison Hunter’s Jewish exiles in Babylon, using the unique perspectives, values, and disciplines of our faith to create things that are good for the whole culture, producing the most good for all people. In an earlier chapter entitled, “Creators, Not Critics,” Lyons argues for creating culture that celebrates beauty, affirms goodness, tells the truth, and serves human and social needs.
Let me also note Wheaton Bible scholar Karen Jobes, who in her commentary on 1 Peter, argues that Peter was writing from Rome to Christian Jews in what is now northern Turkey whom Claudius had banished from Rome to get their controversies out of the capital city and had relocated to provinces where their administrative skills could be used. This placed these Christians under resentment from locals who did not appreciate their countercultural lifestyles. Peter is writing to them to encourage them to use their hard circumstances for positive purposes, living attractive godly lives that benefit their new societies and win respect for the Christian faith. Jobes calls it “lifestyle evangelism.”
I neither understand nor agree with all this Christian emphasis about changing culture – our role is to witness and pray that people get saved – period. Culture will only change when people meet Jesus and are transformed by the Word of God. Changing culture is and never was a mandate from God. There is FAR too much emphasis on legalism and not enough emphasis on grace and the person of Jesus. Anything else is man’s works.
Hey Deborah. I just have a few questions for the purposes of clarification.
What, exactly, is your comment referencing? The above article and the book it is concerned with? Something else?
And what’s the connection you’re making between cultural transformation and legalism? And what does that have to do with the article above?
And you’re not saying that our *only* goal should be prayer and evangelism, right? And is evangelism mutually exclusive from what we as Christians are cultivating among our neighbors that we’re called to love?
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