When Natalie and I were undergraduates (before we were even dating), we regularly discussed how to change the world.
We were both idealistic youngsters with more or less well-formed inclinations towards socialism as well as being evangelical Christians who wanted to take Jesus and the Bible seriously.
And so our conversations developed what we would come to see as a fairly predictable pattern:
- Start with an observable cultural problem — racism, social exclusion, war, or crime and punishment.
- Pull it apart — was it primarily a structural evil or something that was more a matter of personal agency? (I can’t quite remember, but my guess is that we always found every problem to be an inextricable mix of both.)
- Then mull over solutions — oscillating between full-blown political solutions (get the right people into positions of power and influence) and something more pious (‘We just need to preach the gospel and when enough people believe it, things will change’).
As it turns out, this predictable pattern wasn’t even unique to our conversations!
According to James Davison Hunter, this kind of response to questions of cultural engagement and changing the world is fairly typical — especially of Christianity in the USA over the last 5 decades.
Worse, it rests on a massive oversimplification about what culture is and an equally massive misunderstanding of how it’s changed.
Hunter rams his conclusion home in To Change The World (page 45):
[A]gainst Christian pietism, which biases us to see the individual’s “heart and mind” as the primary source and repository of culture, we now see … that it is not so much individual hearts and minds that move cultures but cultures that ultimately shape the hearts and minds and, thus, direct the lives of individuals.
I’m loving this book. It’s manages to be a bracing and compelling read while maintaining the dense texture of the best in social-historical and sociological analysis.
So expect more to come! (Especially as I grapple with the positive alternative Hunter articulates.)