To Change the World 3

James Hunter contents the approach taken to cultural change by Christians of every stripe is ultimately ineffective because it is based on a faulty view of culture. In his book To Change the World, he argues that the common view of culture is that culture is created as humans live out their ideas and values. Culture is “found in the hearts and minds of individuals” (6). “Culture is made up of the accumulation of values held by a majority of people and the choices made on the basis of those values” (6). According to this view, then, cultures change when the majority of people share a similar set of ideas and values and enact them in the world. If you change the heart and minds of the more and more people you will see culture change. He offers several key examples of this approach from Chuck Colson, to Focus on the Family’s Truth project, to a speech by the late Pope John Paul II. He shows that this is the prevailing approach of Christians today. Hunter comments that this “hearts and minds” view of culture is a product of the Enlightenment and was shared by the likes of Thomas Jefferson particularly in his fight for public education (9).

Hunter sketches the prevailing practices, or tactics, used by Christian communities that share the “hearts and minds” view of culture. These primary tactics are evangelism, political action, and social reform. As an Evangelical growing up in the shadow of the Moral Majority this is the kind of thing I’ve heard, “If we can elect a majority of Bible-believing, Christ-following, spirit-filled people into all levels of political office, we will steer our communities, states and country back in the right direction”. Or another one I’ve heard around Chicago, “If we can convince more Bible-believing, Christ-following, spirit-filled people to move into urban areas, we will see the city changed”.

According to Hunter, the core elements of this view of cultural change are:

  1. cultural change results from transformed individuals,
  2. cultural change can be willed into being, and
  3. cultural change is democratic.

Hunter asks: does this approach work? Does this view change the world? He says, “yes and no; but it is mostly no” (18). Because “cultures simply do not change in these ways”. Hunter is not saying that the practices of evangelism, political action and social reform don’t matter or aren’t significant or don’t change lives. Rather his point is that as a tactic for sweeping cultural change these tactics simply don’t deliver, they don’t because they are based on a flawed theory of culture.

Hunter has at hand many examples of the ineffectiveness of approach. Adherents of the common view also clearly see the ineffectiveness of their efforts and have sought to turn up the heat on individual Christians. In a rather ironic passage, Hunter provides a commentary on what might best be referred to as the recent “Evangelical Surge” in the cultural war:

Here too the lesson is that because Christians are befuddled, Christians must be more diligent in learning and embrace more of God’s worldview. Only then will tings turn around . . . the burden of responsibility and action resides with the individual Christian and it is up to them to be better and do more to change the world. The apparent problem, in brief is twofold: First, Christians just aren’t Christian enough. Christians don’t think with an adequate enough Christian worldview, Christians are fuzzy-minded, Christians don’t pray hard enough, and Christians are generally lazy toward their duties as believers By the same token, there are not enough people who do fully embrace God’s call on their lives, praying, understanding, and working to change the world (23-24).

In the ironic tone of the passage, he’s essentially asking, “Is the problem wholly the result of lukewarm Christians and a small number of devoted disciples of Jesus or is something else also to blame, something that is even more fundamental?” This is a good question. It is true that individual Christians can do better. I can do better. But if Hunter’s right pulling up our boot straps and working harder will not accomplish the intended goal. A completely different view with a set of different practices is necessary.

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  • John

    Never mind that there are now more Christians on the planet than ever before, both in numerical terms and as a percentage of the population.
    There is also more Bibles, and Christian literature of all kinds, including tracts and comic books.
    More “theology” being written and studied.
    Is there really anything more to say about The Living Divine Reality?
    There are more Christian schools and universities than ever before.
    More Christian radio and TV stations.
    More Christian DVD’s, CD’s, websites, blogs etc etc.

    And yet the entire world is coming more insane every day. And some of the most powerful leading edge vectors of this now universal insanity are right-wing Christians.
    Proof of this is in the fact that Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are considered to be serious prospects to become the President of the world’s most powerful country.

  • John

    Never mind that there are now more Christians on the planet than ever before, both in numerical terms and as a percentage of the population.
    There is also more Bibles, and Christian literature of all kinds, including tracts and comic books.
    More “theology” being written and studied.
    Is there really anything more to say about The Living Divine Reality?
    There are more Christian schools and universities than ever before.
    More Christian radio and TV stations.
    More Christian DVD’s, CD’s, websites, blogs etc etc.

    And yet the entire world is coming more insane every day. And some of the most powerful leading edge vectors of this now universal insanity are right-wing Christians.
    Proof of this is in the fact that Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann are considered to be serious prospects to become the President of the world’s most powerful country.

  • John Seel

    Your analysis of Hunter does not quite get it right. Culture is a thing in itself, not the aggregate consequence of individual choices. If this is so, then even if everyone in a town or local area adopted a consistent biblical worldview, it would not fundamentally change the culture in that town or area. The reason? Because this is not how its culture was created. Culture is the product of elite gatekeepers in reality-defining center institutions (advertising, media, and entertainment) who shape the taken for granted reality for most people.

    As Hunter demonstrates, a small number of strategically located Jews and gays have had a far wider impact on culture and cultural attitudes that mass majorities mounted by conservative political movements. To play the culture game based on changing the hearts and minds of large numbers of individuals is to play the game on the wrong field and to inevitably lose. Evangelicalism’s individualism, idealism, majoritarianism, and populism are its Achilles heel to cultural influence. Even if Perry or Bachmann win the upcoming election, it will have little substantive impact on the current cultural realities. One must remember that the cultural acceptance of the gays in public life occurred during the Reagan administration.

  • John Seel

    Your analysis of Hunter does not quite get it right. Culture is a thing in itself, not the aggregate consequence of individual choices. If this is so, then even if everyone in a town or local area adopted a consistent biblical worldview, it would not fundamentally change the culture in that town or area. The reason? Because this is not how its culture was created. Culture is the product of elite gatekeepers in reality-defining center institutions (advertising, media, and entertainment) who shape the taken for granted reality for most people.

    As Hunter demonstrates, a small number of strategically located Jews and gays have had a far wider impact on culture and cultural attitudes that mass majorities mounted by conservative political movements. To play the culture game based on changing the hearts and minds of large numbers of individuals is to play the game on the wrong field and to inevitably lose. Evangelicalism’s individualism, idealism, majoritarianism, and populism are its Achilles heel to cultural influence. Even if Perry or Bachmann win the upcoming election, it will have little substantive impact on the current cultural realities. One must remember that the cultural acceptance of the gays in public life occurred during the Reagan administration.

  • Anonymous

    John Seel: Perhaps you misread my post. Hunter in discussion the “common view” of culture describes it as the consequence of individual choices based on “hearts and minds”. And it is this view that the book critiques. You’re right. But I didn’t say that the common view was Hunter’s.

  • Anonymous

    John Seel: Perhaps you misread my post. Hunter in discussion the “common view” of culture describes it as the consequence of individual choices based on “hearts and minds”. And it is this view that the book critiques. You’re right. But I didn’t say that the common view was Hunter’s.


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