To Change the World: Essay 1, Reflections

It’s important to begin by noting that the essay summarized in the preceding post of this series is the first of three essays in To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Hunter. Hunter hasn’t yet really made his point. Rather, this essay is more of what a mathematician would call a lemma, that is, something you prove as a stepping stone toward what you really want to prove.

And yet, this is a hugely important essay. Hunter argues based on principles of sociology that the American church is working diligently to fight a culture war that it’s destined to lose because it’s using the wrong strategy. The argument offered in Essay 1 is that this is not how culture changes. In essay 3, he’ll explain how he believes the scriptures teach we should engage the culture — and, of course, the church must adopt its tactics based on the scriptures and not mere pragmatism.

But it’s obvious that this is a war being lost. The culture is not more Christian today than it was last year, 10 years ago, or 50 years ago. Secularism is winning and winning quickly. Unless the scriptures demand that we fight the war the way we’ve been doing it, it’s time to change tactics!

Now, Hunter is a world-class sociologist. I’m not. But I’d reached the same conclusion some years ago. My approach was different. I figure we should ask how the culture went bad before we start prescribing the cure. As a matter of history, what happened? Did the culture change because people were persuaded by logical argument one at a time? No. Are we losing today because people are being logically persuaded one at a time? No.

Clearly, the current shift to a secular culture in America is a top-down phenomenon. The people of America did not rise up and demand more pornography, normalization of homosexuality, and ever-cruder politics. Rather, two things happened. First, the intellectual elite in this country became highly secularized (how that happened is another story). And then, over time, people became willing to tolerate secularism. Indeed, many found they preferred secularism to the Christian lifestyle. You see, pornography is rampant both because it’s allowed and because people are willing to pay for it. The movies are ever-more vulgar both because Hollywood wants to be vulgar and because people buy tickets to see vulgarity.

The story of the secularization of America is, thus, a combination of an intellectual elite — Hollywood movie makers, artists, writers, scholars — who wish to push a secular agenda and a highly secularized church whose members enjoy and pay for the secular work product.

Now, for years our preachers have had a sense of this, and so we’ve had sermons against R-rated movies and pornography. The idea was to change the culture by refusing to fund it. Not too long ago, the Southern Baptist Convention voted to boycott Disney, and the boycott utterly failed. Our members are unwilling to pay the price — unwilling to do without ESPN and Mickey Mouse — to make a statement.

You see, the tactics of the culture war don’t work. They don’t work because they don’t address the source of the problem — part of which is a secularized Christianity that doesn’t change lives and doesn’t compel sacrifice. Rather, the vision of the culture war is an idealized America where the government and church are in league once again and life is rich with middle class comfort.

Therefore, the American church has built its own, parallel institutions — adopting an escapist strategy, not unlike the monastic movement of the Middle Ages. The same preacher who urges his members to engage in “friendship evangelism” pitches for the church-league softball team — hiding the church’s light under a church-league bushel. The regular softball leagues are too worldly for Christians.

And so we have Christian coffee bars, basketball courts, gyms, book clubs, schools, etc. — all designed to isolate us from the nasty non-Christians we’re supposed be befriending.

The result is the Fortress Church, dug in to play defense, and unwilling to deal with the ugliness of the world. We don’t like the world, aren’t willing to wait for the next one, and so we make our heaven right here by excluding the damned.

Among the results of this attitude is a complex of Christian universities that provide a good education in everything but how to be in the world but not of the world. Show me the Christian university that does cutting edge science, or philosophy, or art, or music, or even movie making? You see, the biology departments in Christian universities are designed to produce doctors and nurses and pharmacists — but not research biologists or chemists. When a Christian colleges decides to become a university by offering graduate programs, they start a law school or MBA program or graduate seminary, but no graduate sociology or journalism or anthropology or English literature department. We’re all about trade schools and not about the study of God’s creation.

Therefore, we’ve unilaterally retreated from culture making. To be honest, we have a fear of the controversy that comes with evolution or Deconstructionism, and so we refuse to join in the conversation at all. When our children do occasionally decide to get graduate degrees in journalism to teach journalism at a university, they get trained by a highly secular journalism faculty, all of whom were trained in secularized graduate schools. And then we complain that these fields have been taken over by secularists and so we urge our children to go into a less threatening area of study.

Now, the cure isn’t just to do a better job with parallel institutions. Rather, part of the cure (not the cure, just part of the cure) is to have enough confidence in our God, our beliefs, and ourselves to send our children to Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to study in the very fields from which Christians have fled. I figure we have plenty of kids smart enough to prove the value of Christianity in any discipline or science known to man.

Why can’t the next great anthropologist be a Christian? Why not the next great sociologist? Why can’t Christians make as many contributions to painting, sculpture, and music as Jews and homosexuals? Does God not give us gifts, too?

You see, you don’t transform culture by going to war against the culture. You transform culture by being among the elite — the very best. I have no doubt that there are hundreds of Christians in college right now who could be better directors than James Cameron or George Lucas. But we’re so afraid of our kids being corrupted by the evils of Hollywood and the Ivy League that we flee the centers of culture making.

But people of faith should figure that the secularists have the most to fear. Why can we send our children to darkest Africa as missionaries — but not Hollywood and not the halls of academia? The church used to be the dominant maker of culture — and when things got tough, we quit. Bach was a Lutheran and wrote all of his music in honor of God. Handel composed in honor of God. We really can do it.

Now, this means we have to rethink how we raise our teenagers. Do we raise teens to escape the world through parallel institutions? Or do we raise up a generation of missionaries of all kinds? You see, if our son or daughter decides to go to Angola to preach the gospel, we parents permit it because we know it’s right, even though they are surrendering the great American dream of wealth and prosperity. But when our children ask to become paleontologists, we are afraid they’ll either fail or be corrupted — and that’s too much risk to take because it just might cost them the great American dream of wealth and prosperity.

You know, I think one reason our teen ministries fail, on the whole, is because they aim too low. The goal has been to keep the kids faithful by providing them with Christian friends and activities. I think we’d do better to provide them with a Christian mission. Teens can be very idealistic, and parents can be very cynical. But maybe we can all agree to take a step of faith and ask our teen ministers and parents to encourage their children to see themselves as church planters, missionaries, and even intellectual and artistic missionaries, committed to taking the Christian perspective into the arts and academia at any cost.

And one thing this would do for us is force our teen ministries to teach what it means to be a Christian rather than just a nice kid with lots of friends and fun activities. Christianity might actually mean something if we stopped sucking the sacrifice, risk, and purpose out of it. And it’s just possible that children raised to be missionaries would stop consuming the vile culture that surrounds us and would, instead, see the corruption of our culture as needing a Physician. They might even persuade their parents.

(1Co 5:9-12 ESV)  9 I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people — 10 not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world.  11 But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler–not even to eat with such a one.  12 For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?

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12 Responses

  1. What an interesting essay.
    Thanks for posting it.
    Yes–the modern church appears to be a bit xenophobic. The upside of xenophobia is that it avoids the strain and hassle that always comes with engaging the non-initiated (with all their problems, arguments, resistances, etc). Xenophobia beats a retreat to the comfort of a supportive fraternity, one we fondly call “fellowship.”
    Fellowship is certainly sweet.
    Christian fellowship is to be prized, cultivated and appreciated… but when it becomes an all consuming lifestyle driven by fear of “the others,” it serves the wrong purpose and may become both a cause and an effect of plain and simple neglect.

    Xenophobic Christianity produces Pharisees–and you know them when you see them.
    They are forever debating minutia, lining up behind “celebrity” teachers, constantly rationalizing their own particular brand of judgmentalism,
    and retreating from any discernable Christian engagement with “the world” into the “fellowship” of the like-minded.

    The retreat takes many forms.

    One familiar to many is the “family reunion” type church that exists almost exclusively for the tight relationships among its members. In such a church
    the minister’s job–regardless of the printed job description– is collectively understood to be that of “Chaplain” to the group. The chief sin in that type church community is the displeasing of some specific brother or sister whom “everyone knows” is not to be crossed.

    However…

    The Gospels describe the Jesus who creates a core of disciples, spends private time with them, but who is always looking outside that circle and constantly engages new people who are not already acculturated.
    Remember how the Pharisees criticized Him for that.

    Whether or not His core disciples were jealous of the time He spent with non-disciples, Jesus had His own agenda, one that served His mission.

    Over time, He trained those inside the circle to be both inward AND outward looking–to have a fellowship with HIM first and foremost , then a fellowship with one another, and also a concern for non-disciples. This priority list compelled those men & women (except for Judas who never got it) to step outside the redeemed circle from time to time and step into the great big world that God “so loved.”

    Today that great big loved world is populated by 6 Billion, 300 Million people.

    Jesus can’t afford a xenophobic church.

    Will we follow “in His steps?”

  2. I certainly agree that Christians should seek to be part of the cultural elite. It would be a joy to see Christians giving intelligent essays on PBS.

    But to think that this would fix and plant a society between immovable boundaries is, in my opinion, quite naive. I have see in my life time those who claim to know what has always been right and wrong and how they never change, silently change, as if nothing ever happend.

    Conservative Christians today watch movies and listen to music that their grandparents would label vulgar and obscene. There are church leaders who once taught that a divorced individual could never be in the pulpit, only to fall silent when they go through a divorce. And a good example is one which some may call petty or trite, but at the time it was a “big problem”. In the mid 1960s preachers were quoting 1Cor.11:14 and practically screaming at teenage boys that the way they wore their hair WAS A SIN; not just unacceptable, but a sin. Once you call something a sin, you have put yourself out there. Of course, it wasn’t but a few years later that these same preachers were wearing their hair longer than the hair they called sin.
    I am not attacking anything here. I watch movies and I am divorced. My point is to show how easy it is at a point in time to draw a line, claiming to know what never changes…then to quietly step across when we find ourselves at odds with our own standard.
    I believe that love understands how much change takes place over time; even better, it frees you to admit that you have changed, that you do not have all the answers, and that you are accepting of your brothers and sisters who are coming and going, to and fro…nothing sits still.

  3. Great post Jay and I’ll certainly look forward to the next. Here’s an example of how even a local church can influence culture by influencing the elite. I’m sure you’re aware of the caste system in India which is one of the problematic areas of their culture. Even the churches in India accept it and actually promote it in their denominations. It’s responsible for a great deal of persecution.

    Our preacher, Steve Murray, met and befriended Sunil Sadar who is president of Truth Seekers International, a ministry in the most persecuted parts of India. Sunil has tremendous influence in India with many millions of followers. Steve suggested several months ago that Sunil contact other influential people in India to fly here to Seattle and meet with The Pacific Institute, a global think tank.

    Sunil recruited one of India’s leading scientists that also works in Asia and Africa to reduce global hunger, a nationally known poet, the leading religion expert and sociologist, a film maker, US Senior Foreign Service veteran, and a number of other leaders. All came together last month to learn new ways of thinking in efforts to strategize the removing of the caste system of India. Truth Seekers currently uses foot washing to reconcile the caste divisions and it’s working on a massive scale throughout India.

    To the point, Sunil indicated that while they were here to go through the Pacific Institute’s education, their time in our homes, at our church and in fellowship with our team was of major significance for them. One chose to follow Christ on this trip and the only other 2 who haven’t been baptized explored Jesus deeply and are moving towards baptism. Every meeting either had prayer or discussion about the Kingdom being revealed to all people in India. One said his time at our church was so impacting for him he is going to write a story about it in a national newspaper he writes for. He said most churches focus on getting ready for the afterlife but he encountered people experiencing Jesus in this life in a real way. Another comment was about how they loved watching the way husbands and wife’s treat each other here. They loved staying in the homes of our families.

    Kancha, who has tremendous influence, is to be baptized with over 20 million watching and a minimum of 2 million will follow his lead. He is a nationally respected figure head. Please pray for him as it is believed that his public baptism will result in his death. Discussions that centered on the gospel being spread throughout India were numerous and the projections were easy in the 10’s of millions over the next 5 years.

    This is just an example of what God will do if we simply reach out to leaders. The same thing can happen in our communities on a smaller scale.

  4. There may be a lot of truth is the ideals of this post. I need to think more about it.

    Data observed in my life would indicate the proposal may actually accelerate the secularization of America.

    From my youth group (small, early seventies):
    The four out of five who attended one of our Christian colleges still attend church on a regular basis.
    Only one out the five who didn’t attend one of our Christian colleges can be seen associated with any church.

    I am the one exception who didn’t attend a Christian college.

    I observed the above about five years out of high school. It still holds true among those I have kept in touch. It has greatly shaped my perceived value of our Christian universities.

  5. A robust theology would open up a path for us to be active players in culture. But we do not have a robust theology. Insofar as we acquiesce to secular thought and values and take our cues from broader culture, then we will always be forced to strike this awkward balance: of abstaining from obvious extremes and being blind to our unChrist-like stance towards the world around us. Again, a robust theology would perhaps have us stand against culture in surprising ways and affirm and take part in it in equally surprising ways. (John 14:12-14)

  6. Very thought provoking post, Jay. I find it interesting that “Christianity” is condemned without nuance or qualification. Granted we may not have Handels or Bachs today, but some of the most cutting edge music can be found in “Alternative” Christian bands, some of whom have gone mainstream. However, groups like U2 are never thought of as a “Christian” band even though they are deeply informed by Christianity. Has U2 capitulated to the culture or invaded it? Not sure if this is even a useful question.

    John Grisham, while a popular author rather than high-brow laureate, is unabashedly Christian, but his books are never sold at the Lifeway store. Is he a good example or a bad example of what you are suggesting?

    The reason you don’t see Christians featured prominently in science is because in the field of science, it isn’t the Christianity that figures prominently. Instead, it is the results. John Polkinghorne and Francis Collins gain their notoriety from their science, not their devotion to God, in the peer-reviewed journals.

    As long as science/the arts and religion perpetuate an us vs. them posture, you will see this continuing. In the meantime, the most of us just go about our business doing our work to the best of our abilities and the best of us politely ignore the posturing from bombastic alarmists on both sides of this debate. I ignore Dennett, Dawkins, and Hitchins in precisely the same way I ignoree Falwell, Dobson, and Kennedy.

  7. John,

    I entirely agree that it’s extremely difficult to be in the world and not of the world. The corrupting influence of the world is very real and very hard to avoid. The temptation to retreat and seek purity among the pure is great — but will not honor God’s mission. Moreover, I think the “pure” struggle just as much to remain pure when they are isolated, because then we turn to infighting.

    We are saved to pursue God’s mission in the world, and so we most easily get in trouble when we are either not pursuing God’s mission or not in the world. If we escape the worldly temptations by leaving the world, then we grow lazy, arrogant, and quite insufferable. Of course, if we’re in the world but not on mission, the world becomes very attractive.

    The cure is to get busy pursing God’s mission and to be in a community that supports and encourages our missional lives and holds us accountable. But we Americans are too cussedly independent to let anyone hold us accountable, and we’ve been so lax in God’s mission for so long that we’ve about forgotten how to be about it.

  8. Tom,

    Thanks for that story. I’m particularly touched by the use of footwashing to overcome caste divisions. That’s much as it was in the early church, as the Roman Empire had a very stratified social order that the church overcame in the much the same way. And so that’s some real First Century Christianity.

  9. Rich,

    Your point is well taken. Flavil Yeakley’s studies show that attendance at a Christian college leads to much greater likelihood of remaining faithful. What’s not clear is whether the committed Christians choose church schools or the church schools help Christians become committed.

    When comes to the culturally elite, the real centers are the graduate schools. Maybe our Christian colleges need to be preparing some students for academia — not just academically but by coaching them on how to bless the fields they are entering for the sake of Jesus.

  10. konastephen,

    I entirely agree. Our theology is not robust at all. I think Hunter’s book gives us a good start in the right direction, and it is theologically excellent. But there’s much work yet to be done.

  11. Rick,

    There are, of course, Christians in all fields and many are doing excellent work. But we Christians are woefully under-represented.

    There’s a great post at Jesus Creed giving some statistical back up in the scientific fields: http://blog.beliefnet.com/jesuscreed/imgs/Childhood%20ds.jpg

    The weak presence of committed Christians in the sciences is particularly alarming given our faith that the Creation reveals the glory of God.

  12. Jay,

    Thanks for the link. I’m familiar with Scot’s blog and have been a longtime subscriber.

    I have been thinking about your post, your concerns, and your comments for some time now, actually long before you posted this. The reason Christians do not have a good showing in the various humanities and sciences that you describe is because of a fundamental Evangelical mindset that has no tolerance or appreciation for bohemians.

    Ironically, nor can there be without any sacrificing of those things that make Evangelicals who they are. Evangelicals are by nature, disposition, and teaching culturally conservative, i.e. they believe in some form of idyllic past that they work very hard to pursue and maintain by conserving tradition rather than adapting or (horrors!) innovating. This is why you find most theological debates (which are more accurately described by sociological and cultural phenomena, i.e. music, dress, hair style, entertainment choices, worship style, etc.) center around getting “back to the Bible” or “maintaining our values” and various other conservative pursuits. Never will you hear an Evangelical expostulating on the virtues of innovation.

    A curious offshoot of Evangelicalism is Christian bohemians who are uncomfortable in such a stifling milieu who have emerged and formed the “Emergent” movement. Ironically, they seek to innovate by resurrecting ancient traditions in “culturally relevant” ways. Their Evangelical conservative core is seen in their stated mission of recapturing or resurrecting or rediscovering or re-whatever the current buzz word is the essence of First Century Christianity (as if it were some idyll that needs to be ascertained and assimilated). In other words, they are far less bohemian than they would have us or even themselves believe.

    Bohemians, by definition are countercultural and out of the mainstream. This is true in both science and the arts. It just takes on different forms. They are revolutionaries, innovators, inventors, creatives. They are not welcome in Evangelical churches and there is no place for them. However, they are essential to keep Christianity from stagnating. Every generation has a Keith Green that shapes music for decades who is despised in his lifetime but sanctified by temporal distance and long-term exposure. However, by definition, they cannot be cultivated. They must rise up on their own, filled with the Spirit of God, and innovate where they are planted. They will be seen as rebels (but that is not to say every rebel is a bohemian, some are just contrarians) and disruptive to the status quo.

    What can we do to encourage such? Curiously, we can remain staunchly conservative so they have something against which to rebel constructively. The Emergent church movement has collapsed of its own weight because it didn’t know how to function when it became the status quo. It began setting boundaries on what was and was not Emergent. As soon as it did that, it closed off its innovative and creative character and became just one more of a long line of Christian experiments. Meanwhile many mainline Evangelical churches adopted some Emergent trappings making them institutional fixtures and absorbed them into part of their conservative framework. This is how change happens. So the best tool we have to effect change is to outwardly resist it at first and then adapt to it when it happens.

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