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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!