To Change the World: Part 1, Confused about Culture

Last week I finished James Davison Hunter's book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. It was a great and thought provoking read. Highly recommended. Three extended and interrelated essays make up To Change the World and I thought I devote some posts to each to give you the shape of Hunter's argument.

In the first part of To Change the World Hunter focuses on the impulse within Christianity "to change the world." In surveying contemporary Christian culture Hunter tracks this impulse. My own school gets mentioned in Hunter's survey on page 5 as the motto of my school--Abilene Christian University--is "To Change the World." Much of this world making tends to focus on American or Western culture, the fight against the forces of secularism and modernity. To change the world means to "reclaim our Christian values" or to fight for "a Christian nation" or to win "the culture wars." That is, Christianity often sees itself as pitted against an increasingly godless and valueless culture. "To change the world," then, implies winning this cultural battle over "values."

Given this conflict, Hunter proceeds to analyze the view of culture frequently deployed by Christians in this fight. That is, if the goal is to change the culture then what, exactly, is culture and how might you go about changing a culture? Because if you get this wrong (i.e., you misconstrue what culture is) then you end up picking ineffective and counterproductive strategies "to change the world." In fact, Hunter contends Christians have made this mistake. Christians are fundamentally confused about the nature of culture and the mechanics of cultural change. Consequently, Christian efforts "to change the world" have often been futile (the irony) or destructive to the integrity of the faith (the tragedy).

So how, exactly, are Christians ironically and tragically wrong about culture and cultural change?

First, the Christian view of culture has, by and large, focused on "values." American culture is decadent and in decline because of poor choices, immoral ideas, and a godless worldview.

Second, if this is what culture is--secular and non-biblical values--then the mechanism of cultural change seems clear: Change the values. This strategy is generally captured in the call for Christians to "win the hearts and minds" of the American people. That is, cultural change is believed to occur through a populist values-based revolution, to recruit/convert ("win over") more and more people to the Christian value system. A parallel strategy is to get people who share or espouse Christian values into positions of political power to legislate Christian values to the godless masses.

Summarizing, given the view Christians have of culture--it's about godless ideas and values--the way to change the culture is to 1) create a populist revolution focused on values, or 2) get Christians into positions of political power so that Christian values can become the law of the land.

But all this, according to Hunter, is based upon a flawed view of culture and, as a consequence, these Christian efforts "to change the world" have had both ironic and tragic consequences.

The core of Hunter's criticism is that the Christian view of culture is too Hegelian. For those who don't know Hegel, what this means is that Christians are placing too much emphasis on ideas, ignoring the historical, structural, and institutional forces (among other things) involved in culture. No doubt ideas are important, but the impoverished view of culture most Christians have leave them ill-equipped to see the "values" deeply embedded in the structures and institutions of their lives. Let me give two examples Hunter discusses.

Take capitalism. Capitalism is so deeply embedded in how Americans see the world that many Christians are simply incapable of stepping back to critically evaluate how the "values" of capitalism and consumerism might be affecting the church. In fact, vast stretches of evangelical culture are deeply consumeristic, materially and spiritually. In short, by failing to recognize how "values" and "worldviews" are embedded in our systems of commerce and governance, Christians are only targeting the thinnest slice of the American Worldview, blind to how much they themselves have imbibed the wine of the Enlightenment. And if you're as drunk and the next guy how do you expect to "win the culture wars"?

As a second example, take individualism, an example closely aligned with capitalism. The Enlightenment notions of individual autonomy, independence, rights, freedom and liberty run deep in the American consciousness. These "values" shape how we approach just about every societal issue. And, as with capitalism, Christians have often failed to see how Enlightenment individualism has affected them. The communitarian vision of New Testament Christianity is almost wholly absent from the evangelical world. In fact, by and large, those communitarian values are an anathema.

The point in all this is that, by ignoring the structural and historical aspects of culture, Christians have tended to believe that the "culture war" was about gay marriage, abortion, and teaching evolution to school children. The belief is that, if we "win" on these issues, we will have created a "Christian nation" characterized by "Christian values." According to Hunter, however, these efforts are doomed to failure. It's like chasing a fly when an elephant is standing in your living room. You might hit the fly but nothing, long term, is going to change.

Further, Christians are confused about the power of laws to change culture. Laws don't change culture. So the Christan focus on legislation is also misguided. To illustrate this, Hunter asks us to consider the temperance movement. This was, by and large, the most successful populist revolution in Christian values America has ever seen, then or now. Christians were finally successful in bringing pressure upon the American political system to get values-based laws passed. And the outcome, we all know, was a failure. The lesson? Laws don't change culture. Changing a law might be a moral victory (similar to the victory with prohibition), but if Christians are really wanting to change the culture they will need to do a whole lot more than change laws. Populist movements about values issues will to ebb and flow in this nation, with "victories" and "defeats" on each side. But make no mistake, these are not changes that dramatically alter the course of American culture. If anything, a "victory" on one side produces an energized counter-movement. The political "wins," thus, are often Pyrrhic.

The conclusion? If Christians really want to change the culture they need to get a collective clue about what culture really is and how one might go about changing one. Otherwise, efforts "to change the world" are doomed before they even get started.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

One thought on “To Change the World: Part 1, Confused about Culture”

Leave a Reply