three common mistakes in engaging with culture

After a brief hiatus, I’m back on James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World.

If you were starting to worry about my heady rush of unalloyed enthusiasm for this book, then worry no longer — I have some serious misgivings about how Hunter constructs his positive proposal for an alternative to the kinds of engagement characteristic of the Christian Right, Christian Left, and Neo-Anabaptist movement in the US.

But you’ll have to wait a touch longer for these. Because on his way to his constructive proposal, Hunter outlines the three common mistakes in engaging with culture that lurk behind each of the more or less organised ‘versions’ of public Christianity in the US right now:

  1. Adopting a strategy of ‘defensiveness against’ the culture. On this view, the culture is seen to be full of threatening and corrosive influences. But while the world may be going to hell in a handbasket, God is rescuing people and cramming them onto the ark of his church. Hence: (i) we’ve got to get people onto the ark, and (ii) we’ve got to stop it springing leaks so it remains distinct from the culture around it.
  2. Pursuing ‘relevance to’ the culture above all else. In a mirror image of the first view, this view sees the culture (although maybe not the whole culture) as the very thing we need to get in tune with. The imperative is to show people that the church and its message is relevant, up to the moment, and addresses people’s felt needs. This is not just the province of older-style theological liberalism. It’s also the strategy of many ‘seeker sensitive’ approaches to church.
  3. Turning away from the culture in a quest for ‘separation from’ it. The common refrain of this view is that the church serves the culture best by being the church — not by fighting the culture or pursuing some benign chaplaincy to it. And they’re on to something. They want to reject the undertow of violence, resentment and negativity that increasingly characterises US politics, and that bleeds over into many Christian attempts to engage in public.

For Hunter, these approaches are mistaken because each of them fails to pursue ‘faithful presence within’ the culture (page 223):

[T]he desire to be “relevant to” the world has come at the cost of abandoning distinctiveness. The desire to be “defensive against” the world is rooted in a desire to retain distinctiveness, but this has been manifested in ways that are, on the one hand, aggressive and confrontational and, on the other, culturally trivial and inconsequential. Finally, the desire to be “pure from” the world has entailed a disengagement and withdrawal from active presence in huge areas of social life. All want to engage the world faithfully, yet all pursue that end in ways that minimize the inherent tension that comes with being ones who are called to be “in the world but not of it.”

What does this mean in practice? Stay tuned!


  1. Can I throw in a hand grenade?
    Is ‘culture’ even the right term to use anymore.
    ‘Culture’ used to refer to specific and different patterns of living and patterns of being.
    With the decimation of family and all institutions, except the marketplace, I don’t know that there is a whole lot of ‘culture’ left. That is, other than consumerism, there are precious few pockets of genuinely different patterns of living and social organization. Is there ‘culture’ or just market niche.
    Still, good comments about posture.

    1. Interesting thought, Mike. My initial reaction would be that I’m not so pessimistic about the market — or market dynamics — infecting everything. But, then again, I’m struggling to come up with any ‘specific and different patterns of living and patterns of being’ that are immune/exempt.

  2. I’m also not sure that I’d be so pessimistic. From where I sit in Sydney, culture appears alive and well. The patterns of living and behaviour that shape the lives of the Asian-Australian students in my Uni group differs from that of the Turkish cafe owners in Auburn where I drink coffee, which differs from the white journalists who write the newspaper, which differs from the Aboriginal community on Palm Island I’m reading about, which differs from the Torres Straight Islander community who’s art I viewed last week in a gallery. Of course, I don’t have any culture of my own…
    Market dynamics actually bind these disparate cultures together, sometimes helpfully, sometimes destructively. My question for Hunter (based on Chris’ outline), is whether his taxonomy of responses assumes an overly monolithic view of culture. Can we find ourselves making all three of these responses at the same time due to the cultural complexity of the communities in which we dwell?

    1. Hi Dan!

      I’m not sure I’m totally qualified to speak for Hunter. And I think you’re right that elements of each of these types of response may well have a part in any engagement with culture — and rightly so.

      I’m not 100% sure that Hunter assumes a monolithic view of culture. (If it did, that’d be a pretty big departure from the subtle and nuanced view he developed earlier in the book.) Rather, I think he’s talking about the primary ‘stance’ characteristic of Christian Right, Left and Neo-Anabaptist cultural engagement. But I suppose it’s quite possible that part of their underlying problem is assuming a monolithic view of culture.

    2. Thanks Chris,
      I’m keen to read the book, need to do some more thinking on christian political engagement before the end of the year.

    3. … the only place I want to take Australian politics is out beyond the continental shelf in a heavily weighted garbage bag.

      I have to put together an elective for NTE. I ran one at MYC that went well (basically ’cause I reproduced Andrew Cameron), but I’d like to sharpen it up. Any thoughts or tips for reading appreciated.

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