James Davison Hunter on Christians and culture

Thinking about church and state I’ve been reading James Davison Hunter‘s new and important book [Tim Keller glowingly endorses him, so he must be good :)] called To Change the World:The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World

I’m not going to blog through the whole book, but want to pick out some interesting stuff for discussion. Namely:

1. This post – his argument that many Christians have a naive, simplistic and wildly optimistic view of their capacity to change the culture.

2. Post after that: his critique of the American Christian right.

3. Post after that: his critique of the American Christian left.

4. Post after that: his critique of who he calls the neo-Anabaptists.

So, to the first of these today. Hunter has a pop at people like James Dobson of Focus on the Family and Chuck Colson, arguing that Dobson’s hopes (and serious plans) that Christians can change a whole culture in a generation are ‘ludrious’.

The ‘common view’ of many Christians that all the needs to happen to see significant cultural change is to win the public battle of ideas. In other words,  bad ideas lead to bad choices which leads to a declining and increasingly immoral culture. The key to turning the culture around is to have increasing numbers of people believing the right ideas. Evangelism and mission can not only see people come to Christ, but can also renew the culture. The world can be changed one life at a time.

Such an approach assumes that it is possible deliberately to change a culture; that such change can be achieved democratically ‘from the bottom up’, and change happens individually, person by person.

The problem with this view, says Hunter, is that it almost ‘wholly mistaken.’

In reality, cultural change  involves far more than just an idealistic view that all that is needed is to win people round to your point of view. It can’t be deliberately steered in one direction. It is a highly complex process that involves ideas that are embedded in institutions, power, economics, networks, symbols and so on. Profound changes in culture usually happen gradually.

I think this is quite obviously right. Take a national identity for example. What it means to ‘be Irish’ has changed significantly over the last 20 years or so. But there is still a deep continuity that is ’embedded’ in history, in ideas, in language, in music and in people’s self-understanding.

This means that while Christians can engage in mission and see people come to faith in Jesus and lives turned around – they should not thereby fall for the temptation to think that they can control things. They can’t. And to try to do so is to put their trust in politics and power rather than the servant king …. but I anticipate the chapter on the American Right.


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