Wednesday, May 19, 2010

How To Change the World, or not

What are we supposed to be doing as Christians? What is the point of our engagement with Culture? Often, we think or have been encouraged to think that we should be "changing" it for the better, to make it more Christian. We should be influencing the world's way of life so that it becomes more Christian. Our Christian leaders exhort us to "change the world in our generation". We are saddened to find out -often by the words of those same leaders - that our generation is having little or no impact on our culture. They then say we need to try harder or repent of our cultural accommodations so that we can affect the world more significantly. We think that that is the purpose of the Church in Culture. Recently, at least in the last 30 years, we have been taught to think of our impact mostly in political terms. We can change the world by voting in the right people. The right people with the right ideas can make a difference, a Christian difference. Usually that Christian difference has been red colored, Republican. This has been the political party of choice for conservative, evangelical Christians. But, lately, and especially in the past election, Christians of more liberal, evangelical persuasion have argued that the Democratic party has the best chance to change the world for the better or more Christianly. Of course, there has always been an Anabaptist alternative that says the best way to influence culture is to opt out it altogether. Any cultural engagement is ultimately corrupting so our best choice is to stay pure by staying out of it. Politics included.

James Davison Hunter takes on these issues in a new book entitled To Change The World which is an odd title for a book that says we can't do it. A sociologist at the University of Virginia he eloquently and forcefully demonstrates that Christians who talk about changing the world don't have a clue what they are talking about. He challenges the idea that ideas shape culture so that if you change the way people think you can change the way they act. Not so, Hunter says. Christians who talk like ideas coupled with individualistic, pietistic behavior are going to change much are simplistic and naive. Culture is too complex to penetrate and change by ideas. Changes in culture if they do occur take many generations and are the work of complicated networks of influential people and institutions. Cultures are highly resistant to change. That's why America even with so many Christians is becoming more and more secular. It is not because we are not trying hard enough but more likely that it is too hard to do. And it is because the Christian contribution to culture has been weak. Much of the Christian engagement with culture is negative. We tend to see engagement with culture as contaminating (even though we consume culture just as avidly as non-Christians do). So, we have created a parallel Christian culture with Christian music, films, books, schools, and trinkets. Usually, it is seen as lower in quality than the culture it imitates. The "social capital" of the culture at large is much greater than this parallel Christian culture (for ex., the NY Times front page is more influential than that of Christianity Today, or a degree from Harvard carries more weight than one from Wheaton, etc). Then, there is the Christian anti-culture bias. Christians, especially, conservative ones just do not place much value in the arts. We do not produce much good and beautiful art, music or literature. If we are going to "change the world" it is going to be through evangelism not creating works of art.

Hunter is not saying Christians cannot make a difference but he is saying we do not - for the most part- because we are so anti culture and we are so politicized. He says the hope conservative Christians place in politics is quite amazing. Politics is the art of getting things done; it will not produce any solutions to the problems we face. The political process is so angry today. Witness the tea party movement. It is a politics of resentment. People feel victimized and they are going to get revenge on those who have "hurt" or "misunderstood" them through the political process. Christians, Hunter asserts, waste a lot of time and energy on trying to witness to their values and ideas through the political process. Plus, they create a lot of ill will against them and reinforce the idea in non-Christians that Christians want to impose their values on others.

I think Hunter's analysis is convincing. If he is right, then where are we at? What is the answer to the questions this blog post began with? What is our purpose? What is the Church supposed to be doing? Well, not to change the world, that's for sure. That is an arrogant and grandiose goal anyway. How are we supposed to know how or what to change the world into? God has made a new creation in Christ that is coming to be but we don't know now what it will look like. We are new creations in Christ being formed as we follow Him. As we follow him together in the body of Christ, we are salt and light in the communities we live in. We need to think less of changing the world and more about what Christ is doing in our churches and communities. Less about changing the political system and more about changing a diaper if it will help out a stressed family or changing a tire if it will help out a single mom, or changing an afternoon for a kid who has nothing to do but several unhealthy options, or changing the way a non-Christian sees us by coming alongside of him or her as a friend instead of seeing them as an enemy. We can change lots of things in our little worlds even if we give up the idea of changing the world.