To Change the World: Essay 1, Summary

This series of posts won’t be a traditional book review. Rather, I’ll summarize parts of To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, and then I’ll add my own thoughts. I may criticize the book here and there, but I don’t have much to criticize.

The book is in three essays. The first essay is called, “Christianity and World-Changing.” In chapter 1, he declares,

The subject of these essays is the social imaginary that serves as the backdrop for the ways in which the majority of those in America who call themselves Christian engage the world. I contend that the dominant ways of thinking about culture and cultural change are flawed, for they are based on both specious social science and problematic theology. In brief, the model on which various strategies are based not only does not work, but it cannot work.

In other words, the way the major elements of the American church is trying to change culture is destined for failure. Strong words, indeed.

In chapter 2, Hunter points out that most churches (and most people) figure: “The essence of culture is found in the hearts and minds of individuals — in what are typically called values” (all italics in quoted material are emphasized in the original). Others speak in terms of “worldviews,” but worldviews as held by individuals. The idea is simple: persuade enough people and the culture will change.

The same logic applies to politics. Bad law comes from bad decisions by officials with false worldviews. Change enough people, and the politics will follow. And then as surely as night follows day, so will the culture. “[T]he reality is that politics is the tactic of choice for many Christians as they think about changing the world. … It is not an exaggeration to say that the dominant public witness of the Christian churches in America since the early 1980s has been a political witness.” This is true both of the right and the left. Both Charles Colson and Jim Wallis seek to change worldviews and culture via the American political system.

The next section focuses on the desire of Christians to change culture “through social movements of moral reform addressing particular problems within the family, schools, neighborhoods, and civic associations.” Thus, we have the teen-abstinence movement, the marriage movement, and the fatherhood movement. I would add the character development movement, where billboards are posted and classes taught on abstractions such as integrity and character.

Hunter then describes the common theory that a great man can bring dramatic change: a William Wilberforce, a Martin Luther King, a Nelson Mandela. Thus, if we work hard enough, if we’re persistent enough, we can all be the next Mother Teresa. You can change the world!

Hunter concludes, “This account is almost wholly mistaken.” (I love a writer who says what he means!)

Chapter 3 begins with this clarification —

First, for the Christian, evangelism is central to their identity and purpose in the world. To share the Gospel is to share the gift of life; the making of disciples is foundational to the Christian faith. And peoples’ lives do change profoundly when they receive the gift of grace … . In a similar vein, no one would deny that law, public policy, and politics are worthy vocations for Christians to pursue. … Finally, social movements oriented toward moral reform have done enormous good … .

But do they change the world?

The answer is both yes and no; but it is mostly no. Cultures simply do not change in these ways … .

Hunter notes that even today, only 12 to 14% of Americans consider themselves secularists. “And yet our culture — business culture, law and government, the academic world, popular entertainment — is intensely materialistic and secular.”

Moreover, while the most enthusiastic elements of the American church — evangelicals and fundamentalists — give more generously, attend more regularly, and participate more actively in church, their influence is steadily declining — moving to more and more defensive postures as the decline has become evident.

On the other hand, Jews make up no more than 3.5% of the American population, but they have a huge influence in “science, literature, art, music, letters, film, and architecture” — often despite the severest of bigotry. The same is true of the gay community.

The result of ignoring the facts and of beginning from a defensive posture has been to characterize the matter as a “culture war.” The war will be won by converting people one at a time, changing culture through a kind of culture evangelism.

Now, Hunter doesn’t quite say this, but I’d add that this tends to make winning the culture war a near exact parallel to personal evangelism — as though we should convert the lost to Jesus so we’ll have better schools. Or perhaps the idea is to provide better public schools so we’ll more easily convert to the lost to Jesus — so if we’ll first persuade the schools to teach character education, we can more easily teach them about Jesus after we’ve taught them to live as Jesus taught. Do you see the problem?

Hunter explains,

In sum, idealism [about how culture changes] leads to a naïveté about the nature of culture and its dynamics that is, in the end, fatal. Every strategy and tactic for changing the world that is based on this working theory of culture and cultural change will fail — not most of the strategies, but all.

In chapter 4, Hunter than offers a valid theory of culture in 11 propositions. Here are some excerpts —

While individuals are not powerless by any stretch of the imagination, institutions have much greater power.

Culture is a resource and, as such, a form of power. …

[C]ulture can be understood as symbolic capital. … Likewise, whatever else one may think about the New York Times, it has more symbolic capital than the Dallas Morning News … .

[S]ymbolic capital translates into a kind of power and influence. … It starts with credibility … .

This should be obvious on reflection. If I publish a book, having Charles Colson endorse the book on the back means much more than if my brother does (although my brother is smarter and a better judge of books than Colson). Running on the Republican ticket gives a credibility that running on the Libertarian Party ticket does not. The Heisman trophy means more than the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame. An Olympic gold medal means more than even a world record.

Even if you doubt the decisions of the Heisman trophy voters — who’ve only given the trophy to one defensive player and no interior linemen in the history of football or the wisdom of the Republican Party vs. the Libertarian Party, the reality is that some institutions matter more than others — and it’s often not a question of merit.

Cultural production and symbolic capital are stratified in a fairly rigid structure of “center” and “periphery.”

And there’s not much room in the center — and it’s hard to get there, because you have to bump someone out of the way in the process. The Lombardi Award will never be the Heisman. There will never be another Augusta National.

Culture is generated within networks.

Cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up.

Change is typically initiated by elites who are outside the centermost positions of prestige.

It makes sense. The center likes being in the center, and so has little incentive to change. But you have to be among the elite to get a hearing from the center and those others near the center.

Therefore, culture is far more likely to change individuals, than individuals are to change culture. Notice, for example, how the church and countless individuals eventually passed Prohibition, only to have it repealed — and the social elites consider Prohibition a failure, even though it was in fact effective to greatly reduce alcoholism and alcohol related crimes.

Hunter concludes,

The most humane understandings of personhood, relationships, community, time, space, freedom, obligation, material wealth, cannot be established or recovered through a five-year plan or even a generation — certainly not through politics, not through social reform, and not even in and through revival. …

Christians will not engage the culture effectively, much less hope to change it, without attention to the factors mentioned here.

Hunter then demonstrates how Christianity changed culture in Roman times, the conversion of Europe, the Reformation, the Great Awakening, British Abolition, etc. in light of these understandings and a deeper understanding of history than you get in Sunday school.

Hunter’s historical studies may well be the most surprising and informative parts of this essay. Buy the book.

Hunter wraps up the essay noting how modern Christianity has worked a plan that is the very opposite of what social science (his field) has shown to work. Rather than proving the merits and genius of Christianity in the centers of culture, we’ve created parallel institutions — our own publishing houses, our own universities, our own periodicals, and our own music industry.  Rather than contending for the faith at Harvard and Yale, we’ve left the battlefield, attempting to create a culture within a culture — and hoping to beat the surrounding culture by converting people one at a time from outside the culture.

Moreover, the culture we produce is overwhelmingly popular culture. Where’s the great Christian composer of symphonies? Where’s the great Christian novelist? Where’s the great Christian sculptor? Where’s the great Christian architect? There are Christians in these fields, but not many, and those who are there do not effectively network with other Christians to build on each other’s work and influence. Because Christian culture is exclusively popular, it does not appeal to the elites near the center of culture making.

Add to this the fact that the church is severely divided over nearly everything and the capitulation of much of the church to secular culture, we have a problem.

Of course, the church is a populist institution, because of its entirely right and moral teaching regarding the equality of all before God. We naturally cringe at the thought of seeking to be among “the elite.”

Hunter therefore declares —

[T]heology moves in the opposite direction of social theory. A theology of faithful presence means a recognition that the vocation of the church is to bear witness to and to be the embodiment of the coming Kingdom of God. … Whatever its larger influence in the world may be, a culture that is genuinely alternative cannot emerge without faithful presence in all areas of life. This will include networks (and more, communities) of counter-leaders operating within the upper echelons of culture production and social life generally. There are realms of performance and distinction that may be rare and inaccessible to the average person, but they are still critically important to both the renewal of the church and its engagement with the culture.

End of essay.

I’ll try to reflect on what this means a bit in the next post of this series.


16 Responses

  1. I’m sure I have not fully explored all the implications of your summary or of Hunter’s essays. I need to read the book, as you suggest.

    But I also hear in your post about Hunter, the seeds of the contrast which the Text draws between a spiritual and worldly point of view. Seeing the institutional church as an organization intended to influence culture tantamount to taking a worldly point-of-view. Because that is what the world expects of organizations.

    I see the ekklesia as a community that encourages one another to act individually to model the kind of life Jesus led while he was on the earth.

    I find the growth of institutions labeled as “the church”, more often than not, an indication of people seeking power or control or influence over others, rather than seeking to love them as Jesus loved us.

  2. I admit the ideal appeals to me – I’d love to be a great Christian artist myself. However, I’m concerned that this idea seems to contradict 1 Corinthians 1.

  3. David, I agree. I have often thought that evangelical Christianity too simply looked at the process as “Be born again and recognize yourself as part of a body that is going to change the world”, when the church should be pointing to Jesus and saying “that life you see there, that one life, the one who knew who he was, changed the world each time he changed one life”.

  4. Perhaps a bit premature to comment, but it seems that Hunter would be in full support of the Christian influence in American politics over the last few decades. It’s an example of influencing an existing presence rather than creating a parallel institution.

    True or too premature to know?

  5. I was thinking along the same lines as Chris. It seems that the early Christians were outside the circle of elites for the most part, but Paul did not seem very concerned about it. I appreciate the Christians who are among the elites, but barring something I cannot imagine at this time, it doesn’t look like I will be among them. Does this book have anything to say to someone in my situation?

  6. Rich,

    He actually takes exactly the opposite view – not because it’s wrong to be involved in politics, but because we’ve done it in ways that are very wrong.

  7. Terry,

    There are three essays. This isn’t the whole argument. But notice this —

    1. Paul was an elite intellectual — a rabbi who studied at the feet of the great rabbi Gamaliel. That was a very big deal indeed among the Jews.

    2. Paul’s first recorded convert was Sergius Paulus, a proconsul — essentially a member of Caesar’s cabinet. It was at this time that Saul become “Paul” — evidently adopting the proconsul’s name. And Luke doesn’t mention most converts’ names.

    3. Luke 8:3 mentions that Jesus was supported by “Joanna, the wife of Chuza, Herod’s household manager” — her position seems to have mattered to Luke.

    4. Paul preached on Mars Hill, to persuade the intellectual elite of Greece.

    Those are my examples. Hunter argues the case very persuasively from history.

    But his point isn’t that we must all be part of the culturally elite. Rather, his point is that we shouldn’t retreat from the world into parallel institutions, isolating the world from our influence — and we shouldn’t be afraid to stand toe to toe with the great intellects and talents in any field.

    And I agree that the church has developed something of an inferiority complex, afraid to do serious scientific research, unwilling to do the work of Jesus at the most prestigious universities in other fields. Indeed, outside of theology, we tend to be very suspicious of graduate schools that aren’t also trade schools — such a law schools, medical schools, and business schools.

    The result has been a retreat from the intellectual playing field — as though a committed Christian couldn’t have anything to offer in these areas — whereas in the early church and every major flowering of the church, Christians were at the forefront of culture.

    But Hunter’s book is much, much broader than Essay 1 might lead you to believe.

  8. Chris,

    I don’t think so. I think I see where you’re coming from (it’s either of two passages), and so let me explain my understanding.

    (1Co 1:1 ESV) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize but to preach the gospel, and not with words of eloquent wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power. 18 For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 19 For it is written, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.” 20 Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? 21 For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. 22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

    Paul challenges earthly wisdom and discernment, but he does so in contrast to the message of the cross. It isn’t that calculus and the chemistry of photosynthesis and the learnings of sociology are necessarily false, but that they aren’t Jesus. The wisdom of the world doesn’t save and doesn’t tell us how to live. The world does not understand the cross because the cross presents a form of wisdom foreign the world.

    But if that’s true (and it is), then surely the truths of Christianity will make for better sociology, better anthropology, and even better biology and physics. We deny the world the full blessings of the gospel when we don’t show how the gospel brings truth and light into all learning.

    (1Co 1:1 ESV) 10 I appeal to you, brothers, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment.

    This hardly argues that we can’t excel in fields other than theology. Patrick Mead, a fabulous preacher, is also one of the most educated in his sub-speciality field within (I think) neurobiology. And I have no doubt that the field is greatly blessed by his being a part of it.

    And then there’s J. S. Bach — a good Lutheran and perhaps the greatest composer of all time. All of his manuscripts are dedicated to God. And his work still brings glory to God.

  9. I suppose I should clarify a bit – this is the passage I feel like this “elite” thing contradicts:

    26Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things—and the things that are not—to nullify the things that are, 29so that no one may boast before him. 30It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31Therefore, as it is written: “Let him who boasts boast in the Lord.”[d]

    I have no trouble with Christians going toe to toe with the greatest and most elite of our institutions – but I feel like seeking to be “elites” in society is a really bad idea. Seeking the praise of men is extremely poisonous.

    Now I don’t know that that’s what this author is actually saying – I think Christians need to do art, do science, and do it like they’re doing it for the Lord. And do it the best. But they should NOT, I believe, seek the approval of peer reviewed publications, elite societies, etc etc. Such things are hugely corrupting. In a world driven by butt-kissing and “networking”, I’m not sure how to reconcile these two thoughts, however.

  10. Jay,

    i noticed your comment about being afraid of certain academic fields of study. i’ve wondered why our schools seem to shy away from having a robust philosophy program. Plenty of other religious schools emphasize their philosophy programs. Here in town, Oklahoma Christian doesn’t really have one, yet Southern Nazarene keeps sending guys to OU to get Ph.D’s and then hires them back at SNU. Why the difference? What are we afraid of?


  11. Chris,

    I think you’ve got it. Hunter’s first essay isn’t written to make that point that we should seek to change the world via the elites. Indeed, he asserts in Essay 3,

    Will engaging the world in the way discussed here change the world?

    This, I believe, is the wrong question. the question is wrong in part because it is based on the dubious assumption that the world, and thus history, can be controlled and managed.

    The goal, you see, isn’t to change the culture. It’s to be faithful in whatever we do.

    But we need to “go into all the world,” and “all the world” includes academia, journalism, movie making, the arts, etc. — even at the highest levels. But we go as faithful Christians, helping to share God’s common grace, to be a blessing to all while being true to our commitment to Jesus to be holy and to live for his glory. We leave the results to God — and measure our success by whether we’ve been faithful, not whether we’ve baptized thousands.

    We don’t hide our commitment to Jesus, but we don’t go to defeat the enemy. We go to be Jesus, to bless those we come into contact with, and we thereby defeat the enemy.

  12. Guy,

    In the early 20th Century, the Church sought to escape liberalism by forming its own schools and avoiding those topics where the liberals held sway. That may have been wise at the time, because the Church had very few people prepared to go toe to toe with liberal teachings. The times have changed, and yet old habits die hard.

    Now, thanks to the work of such men as Plantinga, Christian philosophy is extremely robust and among the most active areas of philosophy.

  13. Thank you for your reply, Jay. Actually, you answered my question in a great way in your second response to Chris. Whether I am among the elite or a blue collar laborer, I can be a blessing to those around me and point them toward Jesus.

  14. Jay,

    it’s true there’s Plantinga, and Peter Van Inwagen, and even OU’s own Linda Zagzebski that i’ll be working with.

    But why aren’t there strong philosophy programs headed by ‘rock-star-philosophers’ at OC or Lipscomb or Freed-Hardeman or SCU, etc.?


  15. Remind me what it is that Jesus wants us to do. Is His commission for us to seek to change the culture or the individuals, one at a time?

  16. Ray,

    Who says it has to be one or the other? Might there be other possibilities?

    As I’ve said before, Hunter isn’t arguing for us to aim at changing the culture, and he’s entirely supportive of one-to-one evangelism. It’s just that we are called to much more. We’ll get there in Essay 3.

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