Should We Try to Change the World?

I flipped open a magazine today and noticed an advertisement for a Christian university here in Canada. The ad, set against the backdrop of an artist’s hand, asks if you think a brush stroke can change the world. This particular university thinks it can (or at least their publicity department does) and wants to be at your elbow as you do. Given the criticism of this sort of modern ambition in recent theological work, I was surprised to see it from a university.

I’ve recently read James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World. Part of the case he tries to make is that this ‘let’s change the world’ ambition is characteristic of Christian engagement with the broader culture in North America. Before seeing this ad I didn’t think his analysis applied in Canada. According to Hunter, contemporary Christians have the impression that if they can just latch onto the levers of power they can fix things. JDHunterOne of the results has been a politicization of the Christian life and the conclusion by many that the best way to express their hopes and values in public is to do so through the mechanisms of state power. Hunter, a Christian and professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia, thinks this is a pretty serious problem. I have a few hesitations about Hunter’s analysis but here are a few of his insights worth mulling over:  

  • The way most American Christians think about culture and cultural change is wrong. Cultural change is not mostly about ideas or about great individuals. It is not mostly about creating enough cultural artifacts (films, books or whatever) or winning hearts and minds.
  • Cultures change through networks of ‘elite’ gatekeepers and creators in a context where quality matters more than quantity. Contemporary Christians may well have developed a host of media and a network of higher-ed institutions, but Hunter shows that most of these are culturally peripheral and lack influence outside explicitly Christian circles.
  • Cultural change rarely happens in neatly intended ways. The Enlightenment has brought us nuclear weapons, the Reformation has brought us individualism, and so on. Even if a group could pull the levers of power and change things, what they actually get may be vastly different from what they had hoped for.
  • Hunter shows that American Christianity has relatively little cultural capital. It is too fragmented and acculturated to have much influence on the larger culture. Though the same thing is largely true north of the boarder, there are important exceptions (e.g. Rudy Wiebe’s contribution to Canadian literature).
  • Hunter faults the neo-Anabaptists with having too few affirmative things to say about creation and culture. Hunter writes, “In effect theirs is a world-hating theology. It is not impossible but it is rare, all the same, to find among any of its most prominent theologians or its popularizers, any affirmation of good in the social world and any acknowledgement of beatify in creation or truth shared in common with those outside the church. Rare too are expressions of their public discourse of delight, joy, or pleasure with anything in creation” (174).
  • Finally, there is no getting around the reality of power in cultural influence or in institutions generally. However, it is unlikely that Christian attempts to develop and hold political power are effective or desirable.

Instead of trying to change the world, Hunter believes Christians should strive for a faithful presence in all corners of the broader culture.

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