To Change the World, 3

Hunter’s third chapter is called “The Failure of the Common View.” He begins by affirming that evangelism, public policy making and pursuing justice are not bad things, indeed, they are central to being Christian. His contention is that while these things are good, they do not change the world in the way that we are often told that they will.

Hunter’s problem is with what he identifies as the working theory behind the strategies he has critiqued. He points out that America self-identifies strongly as a nation of faith, with only 12-14% of the population identifying as secularists. Hunter writes:

And yet our culture-business culture, law and government, the academic world, popular entertainment-is intensely materialistic and secular.

How is that these two truths can co-exist? [I can hear many saying that these folks aren’t really believers, but that is another argument.] Hunter then points out that conservative Protestants and Catholics are very active in giving money, Bible study and prayer and yet their influence is waning: “…these faith traditions have moved from a position of offense to one of defense.” The values of this large bloc of our citizens is largely NOT reflected in the larger culture despite our energy and numbers.  Hunter contrasts this lack of vitality with the over-sized influence of Jews (3.5% of the population) and gays (perhaps 3% of the population). Gays [with a willing culture] have moved gay marriage to the center stage of American life despite being vastly outnumbered in our nation. If culture simply equals the ideas of the largest party triumphing, this should not be so. Hunter says that, “…culture is in fact a much more complicated phenomenon than we normally imagine. Indeed, it often seems eerily independent of majority opinion.”

He shows how many Christian leaders emphasize harder work, greater dedication to thinking or acting correctly, studying the Bible more or something along those lines as the solution to the drift seen in the culture. Hunter says:

The apparent problem, in brief, is twofold: First, Christians just aren’t Christian enough. Christians don’t think with an adequate enough Christian worldview, Christians are fuzzy-minded, Christians don’t pray hard enough, and Christians are generally lazy toward their duty as believers.”

Boy have I been guilty of thinking this way! I would say that Jeremiads in this direction have been what I have heard my entire life in some measure bought into. And I do think there is a grain of truth in this approach. Many Christians aren’t critical thinkers and don’t exhibit strong prayer lives, etc. But isn’t this ever the case? As I grow older I tend to think that Christians who just scrape by and have a dim conception of God are common now and always have been, and that they make up the majority of the Church and that it is OK. It isn’t ideal, but we each have our own spheres to worry about, our own small circles. If we can simply be faithful in those spheres rather than wanting the whole world to wake up to a crusade of some sort or another, then we will have done well.

Hunter proceeds to describe what he believes to be the real problem which he identifies as idealism. To put it crudely, in idealism “physical objects are just pale imitations of the ideas and ideals that represent them.” In ancient thought this might mean that there is a perfect idea of horse in the unchanging realm above and that our earthly horses are crude imitations of this perfect ideal. In short, again, Christians often think that ideas are what really matter. Hunter uses the example of Christians thinking that sexual mores are not the battleground, but the worldview behind those mores. It is not clear to me what he is implying at this point. Sin is sin and someone engaging in sex outside of marriage has problems with their heart, ideas and actions. I feel like he lost the plot a bit at this point.

He goes on to talk about how idealism can give us the false idea that we can influence things when in fact “Idealism underplays the importance of history and historical forces and its interaction with culture as it is lived and experienced.” He says (correctly in my view) that culture is not some linear set of things that flows from logical propositions, it “is embedded in structures of power.” OK, we agree. Culture is a jumble of notions, responses, attitudes and so on.

He then mentions a very intriguing development that I knew nothing about from someone named Andy Crouch. Crouch believes that culture is tangible things such as paintings, wood work and other things – not just ethereal ideas. Crouch says “The only way to change culture is to create more of it.” This approach carries a certain joy with it in contrast to the endless tomes, magazines and yes, blogs, that we tend to gravitate towards. Hunter again has a critique for this approach, in that there are powerful forces at work that are almost above understanding in shaping culture. He mentions branding – why do you like Nike and I like Adidas? Who knows? How do you define “cool”? Hunter believes that this view too is somewhat naive and “share many of the basic problematic assumptions of the dominant view.”

I look forward to the next chapter which proposes an alternative view of culture. We seem to be getting to the meat of the argument there.

Etc.

I see references to this book everywhere now [which makes me like it less]. Today’s example is this article at Touchstone.

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