I’ve just finished the first major section in James Davidson Hunter’s To Change the World and it bristles with criticism not only for Christian public life in the United States, but also even more for the ways in which that public life has been viewed, discussed, and theorized by Christians. Hunter not only goes after the founders of the idea of cultural change (Chuck Colson and members of the “Religious Right”), but even dispatches new theorists like Andy Crouch. In the words of a friend, “it says most of the things we’ve been thinking about for the past few years, but in a cohesive and integrated way.” The internal coherence of what Hunter puts forth is the real value of the book, or at least Essay 1, “Christianity and World-Changing.” Before that dampens your desire to read the book, remember that I’m not through with the book yet. And having read just that section, I find that Hunter’s careful construction and integration of various concerns is as important as some of those concerns individually. My hope as I continue through the book is that the emerging whole will be beneficial.My own interest in the topic of Christianity and culture was cultivated by RUF, and like many young adults there was/is a feeling of novelty and contribution when considering the ways in which twentysomething Christians might contribute to the larger church. But like so many other twentysomething revelations, the feeling of novelty was more more of a “new to me” thing. Indeed, the “cultural engagement” gig had been running since the 1960s and had been manifested especially in politics. Interestingly, I had gone through the Christian-political-fervor as a teen, and was less concerned about that in college. But the movement Hunter diagrams is political in nature and I agree with him. As I considered the subject of Christianity and culture I became less interested in politics and more interested in two other directions: academics and local action. Hence my short temper with Christians more concerned with the nation’s foreign policy than the city’s food pantry.
Hunter correctly emphasizes that all the talk about cultural engagement does one thing, and only thing only: it keeps us from noticing that meaningful change isn’t happening. Using Colson as a source, Hunter identifies this mode of cultural interaction as a fight for the “hearts and minds” of the population. The premises being that good societies are made up of good individuals, Colson’s enterprise was bound to develop a kind of schizophrenia. By most statistics, observations, and even the nightmares of freedom-seeking New Atheists, the U.S. is still a patently Christian nation, with many people classifying themselves as such. But governance is no good. So if people are good but the larger society remains with corrupting laws, political action is the solution. But political action hasn’t produced any notably positive results for Christians, and it’s made Christianity sound shrill to the outside world.
The keyword for considering whether someone is good or not, for Colson, was “worldview.” A person’s worldview was at total system through which all entering information was processed. Philosophically, we’d say this was an internalist perspective, in which beliefs are always internally validated. This model for “worldview” has been passed down through recent decades, even becoming a part of RUF’s four-vectored growth model. But Hunter critiques it for its idealism. By idealism he doesn’t mean romantic and woozy feelings about changing the world. No, he means big bad capital-I Idealism. You know, the German stuff. Manifested in the context of religious debates, idealism makes any kind of common ground impossible since disagreeing observers have two fundamentally different perspectives of the same issue. A compromise would not be seen a a product of debate, but as a breach of worldview and a loss of faith. And we’re seeing the results of politicized idealism all over the place, as parties make platforms by adopting increasingly extreme positions. And the cultural change, at least as it was imagined, is yet to be seen.
Hunter instead promotes a different model of cultural change. It only happens when three factors converge: intellectuals and leaders, institutions, and resources. Hunter provides a brief history of Christian effectiveness in a culture and it is, primarily, a top-down approach. Instead of converting the hell out of everyone, figures like Alcuin influenced institutional leaders like Charlemagne to dramatically changed the Carolingian empire. What followed was an eighth and ninth century renaissance in all areas of culture. Cultural benefits trickled down. He follows the example with others like the politics of the Reformation and ethical reform movements in the modern era. Following the emphasis that cultural change happens from the top down, he shows how present Christians have very little to do with our culture’s most elite areas like top-tier academies (including their funding), outstanding liberal and fine arts, and philosophies of ethics and law. In the higher levels of society, Christians are notably absent.
If Hunter sounds like an elitist, it’s because he’s concerned about a prevailing egalitarianism in Christian communities, especially in Baptist circles. Christian egalitarianism, in combination with a separatist worldview, has left us with Christian bookstores, Christian television and movies, and, worst of all, contemporary Christian music. In pursuing a parallel culture, Christians have actually replicated some of the worst parts of the culture at large, thereby losing opportunities to faithfully witness and prophetically denounce consumerist lifestyles. As Hunter writes:
“Speaking as a Christian myself, contemporary Christian understandings of power and politics are a very large part of what has made contemporary Christianity in America appalling, irrelevant, and ineffective—part and parcel of the worst elements in late-modern culture today, rather than a healthy alternative to it.” p. 95
Hunter instead proposes a method of faithful presence that permits a true engagement with the culture at all levels, which will presumably be the subject of the second essay.