Rick Hogaboam’s Review – “To Change the World” (Chp. 3)

Posted: June 21, 2010 by Rick Hogaboam in Book Reviews, Christ & Culture
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“To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World” by James Davison Hunter

Chapter 3: “The Failure of the Common View”

Hunter opens the 3rd chapter by clarifying his abrupt criticism of Spiritual, Political, and Social reform at the end of chapter 2. Hunter actually affirms all 3 approaches and insinuates that he expects the respective adherents to continue therein. What Hunter questions whether these 3 strategies are robust enough to change the world. Hunter (2010:18) says, “All of these things are good and great good can come from them. But do they change the world? The answer is both yes and no’ but it is mostly no.”

Hunter proceeds to pointing out the “Fatal Flaw” in the “common view” strategies. The Spiritual strategy is essentially bankrupt as Hunter shows that the Church has had a strong presence, but an ever declining influence on culture.  I think that Hunter essentially points out what is the greatest strength and weakness of the Evangelical church: diversity. Sadly, it is not just diversity that makes Evangelical presence a smorgasbord of sorts, but an increasing ambiguity that is frankly suicidal to the movement. Hunter notes that Christians have generally been “vague, generic, and void of particularity” (2010:19). While Christians are “idealists”, as Hunter will point out later, and therefore depend upon the mind as central to cultural change, it is sadly ironic that Christians are Biblically illiterate and theologically devoid. Some Christians are better versed in Glenn Beck than the Apostle Paul.

The Church has had a supermajority of adherents in America, but have sadly not even matched the cultural transformation affected by a couple minority groups that Hunter notes: Jews and Gays. The Jewish community has never exceeded 3.5% and have been a despised people, and yet have made major contributions in “science, literature, art, music, letters, film, and architecture” (2010:20). The gay community also constitutes a small minority but has been quite effective in gaining a cultural presence within sitcoms, film, and American media that have made homosexuality an inevitable segment within American culture.

All of these examples are cited to assail the notion that culture was “simply a matter of hearts and minds” (2010:21). If gays are such a small minority, why such a consequential presence? If a supermajority of Americans consider themselves Christian, then why such a meager presence? Hunter continues to marshal his arguments, targeting the respected commentator Chuck Colson. Colson decries the presence of Darwinism in public schools, and yet Hunter points out that the majority of people assert a Divine presence in varying theories of creation. The “mind and heart” of the majority believe in some deity and yet teaching in schools does not reflect this, again a proof that simply gaining a stronghold in thinking doesn’t guarantee change. Hunter also points out that public thinking on abortion is fairly nuanced, but the majority of people support varying restrictions on when abortion is acceptable. It would follow that moderates win the day, but such is not the case.

Christians are mindful of these failures and have suggested, according to Hunter, that the problem is Christians not being Christian enough. The rationale is that if Christians would pray more, read more, etc, then change would follow. Hunter seems unconvinced that this alone is the problem. He proceeds with offering what he thinks the “real problem” is. Before moving on, I would simply like to say that I do believe that there would be greater cultural transformation if the Church was being the Church. If the Church truly embraced a doxological, transformational, and missional identity, she would affect the world in a more “positive” fashion, namely by expanding the Kingdom of God. More on this in later posts.

Hunter cites the real problem as being that of idealism , and related to it, that of individualism and pietism. In a nutshell, idealism places the cognitive faculties at the center of cultural warfare.  If people would just think rightly, then they all act rightly, or so goes the rationale. While there is much value to the transformation of the mind, this can’t be done in isolation from others. Hunter also notes how pietism breeds an unhealthy environment where we essentially believe that people, on their own, transform their mind as they seek to please God. This transformation is isolated from community, devoid of institutions, etc. I guess the ideal cultural transformation would entail a bunch of monastics who live in some stoic adherence to what they think is right and feeling good about themselves. This is obviously deficient. Hunter (2010:27) states:

…The idealism expressed in the worldview approach is, in fact, one manifestation of the very dualism its proponents are trying to challenge. Idealism reinforces that dualism by ignoring the institutional nature of culture and disregarding the way culture is embedded in structures of power.

One Christian, Andy Crouch, has suggested that culture is “constituted by things” (2010:27). Hunter (2010:28) notes that Crouch is not proposing raw materialism:

Crouch is not merely a materialist, though. He clearly recognizes that culture also entails beliefs, values, and ideas—indeed, it requires them for it is only through them that material goods are understood and interpreted.

Crouch speaks of cultural goods as tangible artifacts. Books, buildings, and other tangible things represent in a large degree what the people value and how they think. We create culture by making things in this view.  Hunter notes that Christians have in fact produced their own books, magazines, music, radio, schools, among other things, and that they are still marginalized in greater society.

I agree with Hunter as he closes out the chapter in noting that the failure of the “common view” is its detachment from culture itself. A heavily individualistic approach to change actually doesn’t take into account the culture as a whole. While we should wish to reach  people one person at a time, we must also take into account the “sitz im leben” of our people.  The individualistic approach undermines the church as a powerful institution for change. Hunter (2010:30-31) states:

For individual Christians there is much to do, but for the church—as an institution, a set of inherited practices, a source of discernment, and a guide for wisdom, or as a locus of vision, innovation, formation, and mobilization—there is little if any place or role.

For more reading on how the church is God-ordained means for blessing in the world, check out “Why We Love the Church: In Praise of Institutions and Organized Religion” by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck.


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