Scott Kistler’s Review – “To Change the World” (Chp. 3)

Posted: June 22, 2010 by Scott Kistler in Book Reviews, Christ & Culture
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Hunter describes why the usual view of culture, described in Chapter 2, is an ineffective foundation of efforts to change culture.  The paradox of that animates this chapter is that America is largely religious (with only 12-14 percent of people being “secular” [page 19]  — I wish that he had been clearer about this definition, but this goes with the statistics you usually hear that a huge majority of Americans believe in some kind of God).  But given this reality,

“Yet our culture — business culture, law and government, the academic world, popular entertainment — is intensely materialistic and secular.  Only occasionally do we hear references to religious transcendence in these realms, and even those are vague, generic, and void of particularity.” (19)

He also notes that traditional Catholics and evangelicals give more of their resources and are very active in their churches, but do little to really structure the cultural agenda.  On the other hand, Jews and homosexuals have tended to have a greater impact on the culture than their small numbers would dictate if a “hearts and minds” model were adequate to explain culture.  Both of these groups have become influential despite disapproval from the larger population that eventually changed.  He doesn’t really get into explanations for why these things happened, although he provides some footnotes that point to some interesting sources.  In discussing Jewish Americans’ contributions, he writes that they have been able to leave a great imprint on “high culture,” and that “the debt America owes to this small community is immeasurable” (20).  Regarding homosexuals, he writes that we have seen the presence of gay people in popular culture as well as the cultural discussion of the once-remote possibility of gay marriage in this decade.  He also notes “in at least mainstream American media” the shrinking “space” for “questions of moral or social concerns about this movement… the only legitimate question is how we are to learn to live with it” (21).

As he explained in Chapter 2, the usual Christian formula of cultural change is to get people to adopt the correct worldview and then live it out.  The downfall of this approach, says Hunter, is that it rests on dualistic idealism, which portrays the intellectual world as more important than the physical world.  Thus culture change is a battle of ideas.  Hunter really does well in enumerating the weaknesses of this point of view:

In fact, idealism misconstrues agency, implying the capacity to bring about influence where that capacity may not exist or where it may only be weak.  Idealism underplays the importance of history and historical forces and its interaction with culture as it is lived and experienced.  Further, idealism ignores the way culture is generated, coordinated, and organized.  Thus, it underrates how difficult it is to penetrate culture and influence its direction.  Not least, idealism mistakenly imputes a logic and rationality to culture where such linearity and reasonableness does not exist but rather contingency and accident. (26-27)

Also, he notes an irony: “Idealism reinforces that dualism [against which worldview Christians say they are contending] by ignoring the institutional nature of culture and disregarding the way culture is embedded in structures of power” (27, emphasis in original).

I think that this critique is really well done.  Worldview thinking can seem to treat history as just the history of philosophy.  Hunter quotes Colson’s contention that “history is little more than the recording of the rise and fall of the great ideas — the worldviews — that form our values and move us to act” (25).  Some kinds of history do that, and the rise and fall of great ideas is important, but there are so many more dimensions to history and culture than big ideas.  Since the 1960s, there has been a major focus on social and cultural history, which asks how ordinary people lived.  It focuses less on great men and ideas, the stuff of Hegelian history (and which are important), that on the broader society.  There are problems that go with social and cultural history, to be sure.  But it’s also really enlarged our picture of the past.  And it can help us to understand how complex cultures are.

Another thing that he brings out is the linearity that idealism assumes.  As Christians, we know that God is bring the universe through a story line from creation through final redemption from sin (here’s Doug Wilson’s nice explanation of a postmillenial take on this).  The problem that he often have is that we think that we know exactly how God is going to do it.  But things don’t always proceed as they predict, and looking back it really reveals that what looks like “contingency and accident” (Hunter’s words) were part of God’s providential design.

This approach to history reminds of one of the problems I have with Colson’s method.  I really like Colson: he’s faithful, really intelligent, and genuinely concerned about applying the whole Bible to life.  I’ve thought before though that he so emphasizes the great ideas that he sometimes traces cultural problems to individual thinkers.  There’s an example of this on page 25 of Hunter’s book, where he traces Colson’s thought on sexual morality from Rousseau to Freud to Sanger to Kinsey to Wilhem Reich and Robert Rimmer and then to modern sex education.  From reading Hunter’s Christianity Today interview, I know that Hunter believes that influential people are influential because they are part of larger networks.  This is the machinery of culture that Hunter would say that worldview thinking ignores.

Peter Leithart does really well in describing the shortcomings of worldview thinking, showing how it collapses complex things into simple definitions of how people look at the world.  The problem is that worldview thinking can take general cultural trends (which we need to think about in order to understand different cultures) and makes them hard and fast worldviews extracted from real life.  It doesn’t leave a lot of room for individuality within a culture, either.  Here’s an excerpt from Leithart’s critique, which Joel linked to in his review:

For starters, there are all the practical questions. Is this concept of “worldview” adequate to deal with something as richly chaotic as, say, medieval thought and culture. Whose worldview, after all, are we talking about? Thomas Aquinas used Aristotelian categories to attempt to penetrate the nature of things, but did a Parisian merchant selling English woolens down the street from Thomas’s rooms at the University share his worldview? Would he have understood the first thing Thomas was saying?

Where, moreover, is the medieval worldview to be sought? Does the “medieval worldview” refer to a set of categories or a map of the universe in the heads of medieval people (and, again, which people?)? Or, is it found in texts, and if so what kinds of texts — philosophical, poetic, epistolary? Or, is it located in the assumptions made by writers of texts, in things everyone takes so much for granted he never needs to say them out loud? Or, is it embodied in practices, institutions, and artifacts, in the traceries of Gothic rose windows, in the pageantry of a feudal ceremony of vassalage, or in the theatrical celebrations that accompanied the Corpus Christi festival? In the latter case, is there any significant difference between the “worldview” and “culture.” On what basis, further, do we conclude that there is a single “worldview” shared by people in a particular historical epoch? Is this an assumption or a metaphysical or moral necessity? Or is there empirical evidence that this is the case?

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