Friday, January 27, 2012

to change the world

It is one of the books of the decade for me (NB: pages 273-275 provide an excellent summary of the argument): James Davison Hunter's To Change the World (Oxford University Press, 2010).

In trying to distill its influence, three affirmations come to mind.

1. Our understanding of culture and change can be so wrong
Using words like 'flawed' (18), 'mistaken' (17), 'naive' (47), and 'ludicrous' (45), Hunter gets stuck into the prevailing view of culture and cultural change. It is the view that if we change the ideas, values and worldviews of individuals, the wider culture will be gradually changed. People like Charles Colson ('transformed people transform cultures') and James Dobson are in his sights, for example.

Three factors lie behind this perspective (16): (1) real change must proceed individually; (2) cultural change can be willed into being; (3) change is democratic in that it occurs from the 'bottom up', among ordinary citizens first. And so the anthem goes out, "You too can be a Wilberforce" (16). I've done it myself. But it is more nuanced than this. Hunter writes out of the American context and engages the paradox which has so fascinated me for years. How is it that a culture where 80+% of the population acknowledge a faith commitment to God which they claim impacts their values, ideas and worldviews ... how come the wider culture is increasingly godless, with such believers exerting a 'declining influence, especially in the realm of ideas and imagination' (19)? That is an awful lot of salt and light that it is not making a lot of difference.

Hunter argues that there is far more to cultural change than this and, in passing, he notes how both the Jewish and gay communities have grasped this far better than the Christian community (20). The influence of these minority communities have come by other means than embracing (1), (2), (3) in the preceding paragraph. 'If one is serious about changing the world, the first step is to discard the prevailing view of culture and cultural change and start from scratch' (27). He has a go himself, by offering the Eleven Propositions in his 'alternate view' (32-47). These brilliant pages need to be required reading for numerous courses at theological colleges and the basis for discussion of leadership teams of all churches and mission agencies. 'Culture is as much an infrastructure as it is ideas ... It is better to think of culture as a thing manufactured not by lone individuals but rather by institutions and the elites who lead them.' (34) And so it is more 'top down', than 'bottom up':
The work of world-making and world-changing are, by and large, the work of elites: gatekeepers who provide creative direction and management within spheres of social life. Even where the impetus for change draws from popular agitation, it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites. (41)
and later
Cultural change at its most profound level occurs through dense networks of elites operating in common purpose within institutions at the high-prestige centers of cultural production [... and because this is the case] the Christian community is not remotely close to a position where it could actually change the world in any significant way. (274)
Then Hunter takes the reader on a quick trip through history (48-78), demonstrating that where there is cultural change, there is an 'alternative elite' (70, 71) created, embedded in networks and technologies and institutions. Then he comes into land in the contemporary landscape of American Christianity. He is pretty critical. Donors and foundations are generous, but short-sighted, as statistics show that 'very few resources ... go to supporting leadership in developing cultural capital in the centers of cultural production' (84). 'Christians in America today have institutional strength and vitality exactly in the lower and peripheral areas of cultural production' (89, as he notes, rather ironically, that their centers are in Wheaton and Colorado Springs, rather than New York City and San Francisco).
For all the deep belief, the genuine piety, the heroic faith, and the good intention one finds all across American Christianity today, large swaths have been captured by the spirit of the age ... Christianity in America is not only marginalized as a culture but it is is also a very weak culture (92) - even though it is very numerous.
2. Our pursuit of politics and power is so misguided
The thing that is wrong with this view of culture is that it ignores the institutional aspect to culture and disregards 'the way culture is embedded in structures of power' (27). Then, in seeking change, Christians have pursued the wrong kind of power (political) with the wrong kind of motivation, what Hunter calls ressentiment (from Nietzsche) where a mix of anger, envy, hate, rage and revenge becomes the motive for political action. [NB: on the Left we see this in the Occupy movement, and on the Right we see this in Fox TV]. Hunter's view is that 'contemporary Christian understandings of power and politics are a very large part of what has made contemporary Christianity in America appalling, irrelevant and ineffective' (95).

He takes his time in building this conclusion. A brilliant section on 'the Constantinian Error' at the core of this (152-156) is followed by a discussion, as dispassionately as he can, on the Christian Right (conservative, 112-131), the Christian Left (progressive, 132-149), and the neo-Anapbaptist (150-166) positions. He demonstrates how each has succumbed to 'the turn to politics' in their understanding of power - even the neo-Anabaptist, rather surprisingly for me. This is because their language and framework is still political. 'Even though the nature of politics and political action in the church is an inversion of the prevailing powers of the present age, the language of politics still provides the meaning for the public witness of the church' (163).
Where the identity of the Christian Right is forged largely through their opposition to secularism and secularists, where the identity of the Christian Left derives from their opposition to the Right, the collective identity of the neo-Anabaptists comes through their dissent from the State and the larger political economy and culture of late modernity. (164)   
So for all three, 'politics is always and everywhere the framework' (168), but the point that impacted me is how Hunter shows all three to be so 'relentlessly negative' (164). It is this ressentiment idea, creating 'a narrative of injury ... a discourse of negation towards all those they perceive to be to blame' (168).

Hunter then proceeds to speak of the illusion, the irony, and the tragedy of all this. The illusion? That mechanism of political power, the state, 'is not nearly as influential as the expectations most people have of it' (171). The irony? There is not a group in all of America that has done more to politicize values then Christians ... even when their own tradition contains so much that can be elevated above politics. The tragedy? 'Rather than being defined by its cultural achievements, its intellectual and artistic vitality, its service to the needs of others, Christianity is defined to the outside world by the rhetoric of resentment and the ambitions of a will in opposition to others' (174).Where are the 'expressions in their public discourse of delight, joy, or pleasure with anything in creation'? (174). All this creates
a dense fog through which it is difficult to recognize each other as fellow human beings and impossible to recognize the good that still is in the world. The tragedy is that in the name of resisting the internal deterioration and the corruption of the world around them, many Christians - and Christian conservatives, most significantly - unwittingly embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry. By nurturing its resentments, sustaining them through a discourse of negation toward outsiders, pursuing their will to power, they become functional Nietzscheans, participating in the very cultural breakdown they so ardently strive to resist. (175)
A chapter on 'Rethinking Power: Theological Reflections' (176-193) follows - on his way to building an alternative view of power. Again he is tough on the neo-Anabaptist desire to 'accept powerlessness' - because it assumes a political view of power only, rather than thinking more positively about power - as expressed, for example, in the creation mandate. Hunter is in search of 'a postpolitical witness in the world' identified by (1) the life and identity of the church being 'disentangled' from the life and identity of American society; and (2) Christian believers 'decoupling' the public from the political (185). Maybe even keep politics at 'arm's length' for a season, he suggests, so that 'new ways of thinking and speaking and acting in the public that are not merely political' (186) can emerge.

3. The way forward is so refreshingly familiar, but difficult.
[This is my blog so I guess I can express this. In all my preaching in the NZ context over the past 30 years, no part of the Gospels has received as much attention as Salt and Light (people still talk to me about the little graph I devised on this) and no Epistle has been revisited more often than 1 Peter. I rejoiced as I reached his conclusions as these same notes were struck with such strength, both directly and indirectly. No wonder I like the book so much :)].

Hunter describes the three prevailing approaches to cultural engagement. (1) 'defensive against' (the response of conservatives, often the Right), causing the construction of 'a complex empire of institutions that function as a parallel universe to the secular world' (214). I would argue that it is too much light, at the expense of salt; (2) 'relevance to' (the response of progressives, often the Left), and expressed in seeker-sensitive, mega-church, and emerging church approaches. Hunter's response? 'This is cause for great alarm ... in the end, these initiatives, while well-intended and rooted in a deep longing, take their cue from the culture around them, and offer little clarity for the confusion of the times' (217). I would argue that it is too much salt, at the expense of light. (3) 'purity from' (I think he places the neo-Anabaptist here, but not fully convinced myself) - and again, too much light at the expense of salt.  Actually I am not always convinced that (3) is different enough from (1) to warrant its own mention.

For Hunter there is a fourth way, a 'quietly radical' (272) alternative: a 'faithful presence within' (salt and light in balance and in tension!). Here it is incarnation that is the crucial strategy. But it also gains its direction from God's faithful presence among his people as he pursues us, identifies with us, and offers life to us through sacrificial love. In return we must be 'faithfully present to him in return' (243) - in similar ways. Our faithful presence is played out in three directions: (1) ' each other' within the community and to the stranger, 'attending to the people and places that we experience directly, (giving priority) to what is in front of us' (253); (2) ' our tasks' marked by a 'fidelity to the highest practices of vocation before God (which) is consecrated and itself transformational in its effects' (254); (3) '...within our spheres of influence', as we are 'obligated to do what we are able to shape the patterns of life and work and relationship ... toward a shalom that seeks the welfare not only of those in the household of God but of all' (254).

This all gets back to the 'burden of leadership' from which the 'brush and debris' (255) needs to be cleared away. All Christians bear this burden to some degree. It must be carried without the arrogance of superiority or the emptiness of celebrity, for such leadership is 'artificial, unbiblical, organizationally unhealthy, inherently corrupting, and all too common in the Christian world' (261).
The practice of faithful presence generates relationships and institutions that are fundamentally covenantal in character, the ends of which are the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth, beauty, belonging, and fairness - not just for Christians but for everyone. (263)
A few specific stories, or 'vignettes', follow on (266-269), movingly expressed... It is about 'Christians using the space they live in toward the flourishing of others. They are less a blueprint to be applied than a catalyst for thinking about other imaginative possibilities for the transformation of culture in business, the arts, medicine, housing etc ... (it is about) living and working toward the well-being of others' (269). A final flourish comes with a discussion of Jeremiah 29 and how in exile, God neither asked for 'defensive against', 'relevance to', nor 'purity from' - but 'faithful presence within' (so impacted am I that I plan to preach on the passage for the first time next Sunday!).

Two concluding comments. (1) One of the careful areas of conversation will be about discerning where the argument is specific to the American context and where it has a more generic relevance. While there may be less for the rest of us to 'disentangle' and 'decouple' in our own lands, there is still much of it to be done because so much flows to our lands from the US. Quite apart from that issue of context, there is so much here (on power, leadership, culture, salt/light etc) that is of universal significance. (2) Hunter decries the way so few Christian leaders understand these dynamics. I concur. Here in NZ 'relevance to' has pretty much won the hearts and minds of Christian leaders. And yet it is deeply flawed. And so a book like this must infiltrate the places where leaders are shaped, particularly theological colleges, in order to thicken and deepen the discussion about 'changing the world'. If it were up to me, I can see curriculum, learning outcomes, and assessment all changing to some degree in light of the thesis which Hunter advances here.

nice chatting - and congrats indeed for getting to the end :)



Bronwyn said...

Hi Paul

Just read your blog then Philip Yancey's - you may be interested in his too.
Bronwyn W

Paul said...

Thanks, Bronwyn. I valued that link to Yancey's comments. I note that he refers also to the UnChristian material which is most troubling - and important.