Stars in the Margins: James Davison Hunter Quotes from ‘To Change the World’
A couple nights ago I finally finished reading James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.11.I’ve been plugging away at it since August. It was one of those rare books where I could only read a page or two at a time because the content was so rich and schema-altering. I needed to carefully process almost every paragraph. It’s without question the second most personally influential book I’ve read. For as long as I can remember I’ve been asking hard, sincere questions about what it meant to be a Christian in this world–artistically, politically, intellectually, vocationally, institutionally, etc. Nearly all the answers I’ve received have been well-intentioned yet seriously flawed, and seldom had meaningful correspondence with Scripture. I was left spiritually groping in the dark. In some real sense, then, Hunter’s book has finally provided the discipleship I’ve always longed for. I won’t naively act as though I’ve got it all figured out but I can say with confidence that he pointed has me in the right direction, laying out how I can be follower of Christ in our convuluted 21st century, pluralistic, Western context. For those who might be unfamiliar, title is ironical. His whole premise is that we need to stop trying to “change the world” and rethink virtually all of our presuppositions, which he suggests are premised upon an antiquated and dangerous Constantinian paradigm. It’s truly a fascinating read that I’d recommend to all Christians. I’ve found I retain content better when I write in my books, so my method is to put brackets around portions I find insightful or particularly well-written, summary statements next to bracketed portions I’ll want to reference later, and stars in the margins for quotes I want to share. To Change the World easily set the record for most stars in the margins. Most of them are are provided below. So as to be slightly less overwhelming I’ve tried to organize them into helpful categories that provide just a bit of context. Also, I need to offer a fair warning. Without the least bit of hyperbole, if you’re a Christian and carefully read these quotes–intentionally having them take root in the depths of you heart, mind, soul–they may well fundamentally alter your life and faith. Proceed with caution…
Where the identity of the Christian Right is forged largely through 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. Their identity depends on the State and other powers being corrupt and the more unambiguously corrupt they are, the clearer the identity and mission of the church. It is, as my colleague Charles Mathewes has put it, a passive-aggressive ecclesiology.
For conservatives and progressives alike, Christian far too comfortably legitimates the dominant political ideologies and far too often uncritically justifies the prevailing macroeconomic structures and practices of our time. What is wrong with their critique is that it doesn’t go far enough, for the moral and social practices of the church are also far too entwined with prevailing normative assumptions of American culture. Courtship and marriage, the formation and education of children, the mutual relationships and obligations between the individual and community, vocation, leadership, consumption, leisure, “retirement” and the use of time in the final chapters of life–on these and other matters, Christianity has uncritically assimilated to the dominant ways of life in a manner dubious at the least. Even more, these assimilations arguably compromise the fundamental integrity of its witness to the world.
[T]he way in which Christians assimilate to the political culture is just an extension of its assimilation to all of culture and the ways of life it lays down as normal. Its lack of critical distance and reflection about politics is an extension of its failure to critically reflect about the rest of the world they inhabit. In the case of politics and political culture, the Christian community has indeed linked its own future to the success of certain political myths, ideologies, and agendas. Though leaders on the Right and on the Left may plausibly deny that this is a problem for themselves, the realities of this linkage for the movements they leader are sociologically undeniable. To be sure, it would be impossible to completely disentangle the church from any society in which it is found. Christians, like all human beings, are constituted by the particularities of their time and culture, and it is only natural that they should identify with their communities and nation. But on all fronts, the merging of faith and politics/culture is deeply problematic. It is time for disentangling.
Any effort to draw a sharp line between the church and the world cannot help but result in failure. That line is far less distinct than many in the pietistic traditions hope or believe, not least as it bears on matters of power. Simply by virtue of the church’s being constituted by human beings, there are dynamics that the church and the world share.
Civil religion is a diffuse amalgamation of religious values that is synthesized with the civic creeds of the nation; in which the life and mission of the church is conflated with the life and mission of the country. American values are, in substance, biblical, prophetic values; American identity is, thus, a vaguely Christian identity.
The hope Christian conservatives place in politics is quite astonishing.
Typically, this assumption leads to the dualism in which the culture either declares Jesus as Lord or it doesn’t. Christians are either “winning” the culture or “losing” it, “advancing the kingdom” or “retreating,” which is why all versions of the Constantinian approach to culture tend to lean either toward triumphalism or despair, depending on the relative success or failure of Christians in those spheres. This is why it is always dangerous to aspire to a “Christian culture” or, by extension, a Christian government, a Christian political party, a Christian business, or the like.
The ideal is to shift to a post-Constantinian engagement, which means a way of engaging the world that neither seeks domination nor defines identity and witness over against domination. For most, this will mean coming to terms with the past. Christians must recognize that though it clearly benefited in many fundamental and extraordinary ways from people of faith and the good ideals of the Christian tradition, America was never, in any theologically serious way, a Christian nation, nor the West a Christian civilization. Neither will they ever become so in the future. The goal for Christians, then, is not and never has been to ‘take back to the culture’ or to ‘take over the culture’ or to ‘win the culture wars’ or to ‘save Western civilization.’ Ours is now, emphatically, a post-Christian culture, and the community of Christian believers are now, more than ever–spiritually speaking–exiles in a land of exile. Christians, as with the Israelites in Jeremiah’s account, must come to terms with this exile.
To be Christian is to be obliged to engage the world, pursuing God’s restorative purposes over all of life, individual and corporate, public and private. This is the mandate of creation.
The mandate of creation is a course both of glory and of shame for the Christianity community. It is a source of glory because it is through the creation mandate that believers understand how they are made in the image of God. Even in our fallen state, people reflect divine nature and thus have the potential to manifest love and mercy and innovative and constructive labor in serve to all of God’s creation. It is a source of shame because of the astonishing abuse of that potential in acts of exploitation and destruction. Christians have been, at times, the face of manipulation, cruelty, and hardship.
[T]o be made in the image of God and to be charged with the task of working in and cultivating, preserving, and protecting the creation, is to possess power. The creation mandate, then, is a mandate to use that power in the world in ways that reflect God’s intentions. With the Fall, however, the divine nature and potential of human power was compromised. While Christ’s life, death, and resurrection does fundamentally alter the relationship of believers to the “powers” and to power itself, in the time while believers wait for the eschaton, power is inherently tainted and its use inherently compromising of the standards to which Christ beckons.
[R]edemption through Christ represents a reaffirmation of the creation mandate, not its annulment. When people are saved by God through faith in Christ they are not only being saved from their sins, they are saved in order to resume the tasks mandated at creation, the task of caring for and cultivating a world that honors God and reflects his character and glory.
The idea, suggested by James Dobson, that in “in one generation, you change the whole culture” is nothing short of ludicrous. Change in political systems and economic conditions can occur relatively quickly but the most profound changes in cultural typically take place over the course of multiple generations. The most profound changes in culture can be seen as they penetrate the linguistic and mythic fabric of a social order. In doing so, it penetrates the hierarchy of rewards and privileges and deprivations and punishments that organization social life. It also reorganizes the structures of consciousness and character, reordering the organization of impulse and inhibition. One cannot see change taking place in these ways. It is not perceptible as an event or set of events currently unfolding. Rather, cultural change of this depth can only be seen and described in retrospect, after the transformation has been incorporated into a new configuration of moral controls.
One can never quite predict where things will go. Culture is endlessly complex and difficult, and it is highly resistant to our passion to change it, however well intentioned and heroic our efforts may be.
[C]ulture and culture-making have their own validity before God that is not nullified by the fall. It isn’t just that the social order is preserved because the rule of sin is restrained… but that goodness, beauty, and truth remain in this fallen creation. Even in the context of late modernity, suffused as it is by failed ideologies, false idolatries, and distorted ideas of community, joy, and love, one can still find much good. Life still has significance and worth.
Formation into a vision of human flourishing requires and environment that embodies continuity, historical memory, rituals marking seasons of life, intergenerational interdependence, and most important of all, common worship. Absent these things, new Christians will have no idea where to begin their walk of faith no matter how many books they are given… At all levels, formation into a vision of human flourishing requires intentionality and the social, economic, intellectual, and cultural resources of a healthy, mutually dependent, and worshiping community provided for Christians by the church.
Robert Brimlow has written, “Our response to the call of discipleship not only threatens the powers of the world but positively and publicly overthrows them.”
With the conflation of the history and identity of America with the life and mission of the church (for the Right and the Left), there is a fundamental distortion of theological truth and historical reality. Such a distortion is commonplace in the history of the church and when it occurs, it invariably leads to consequences that are ambivalent at best. With the reduction of the public to the political and the subsequent politicization of so much of human experience, there is an accommodation to the spirit of the age that has made politics the dominant witness of the church to the world.
There is a sociological truth, then, to the statement extra ecclesiam nulla salus; that “there is no salvation outside the church.” Strong and coherent beliefs require strong institutions enveloping those who aspire to believe. There are the conditions that turn belief into settled convictions. And when social conditions are unstable or when cohesion of social life is fragmented, then the consistency and intelligibility of belief is undermined.
In a milieu where the church and its people are so quickly and roundly criticized for their shortcomings, it is easy to overlook a central theological truth; that is, that however inadequate or pitiful the church may seem at times (and may, in fact, be), where the scripture is proclaimed, the sacraments administered, and the people of God continue to seek to follow God in word and deed, God is at work; the Holy Spirit is still very much active.
[W]e now live at a time when the power of the state has declined relative to the market and in this context, international capitalism and the technological innovation that drives it have become every bit as oppressive as the state.
How is capitalism oppressive? Beyond the obvious failure to provide adequately for the needs of the poor and disadvantaged, its more significant problems derive from its successes. In short, when it is working well, capitalism deforms and corrupts human desire, turning it into the insatiable appetite for more and more. Augustine was right in his observations that desire and the continual renewal of desire is part of our nature as human beings. The problem is that our desires continue to fall on objects that distract us from our chief desire and longing for which we were made: the desire for God. Absent God, all other desire, by necessity, will fail to fully satisfy us. Under the conditions of modern capitalism, prosperity and consumption become ends in themselves and, thus, the source of idolatry. The net effect, as Eugene McCarraher puts it, is that “American capitalism cheapens life, denatures liberty, and perverts our happiness. Capitalism, I submit to you, is the political economy of the culture of death, and the business corporation is its bogus ecclesial vehicle.” The coercive power of modern capitalism resides in the fact that it has no common ends, only a “coincidence of individual ends,” and in the absence of an objective idea of the common good, all that remains is power in pursuit of profit. This power is manifested most clearly in the manipulation of desire through marketing and the inequitable and often exploitive power exercised by corporate management over workers. The Constantinian error here is that American Christianity has whole-heartedly and uncritically embraced its logic and practices to its own detriment and the detriment of the world it seeks to serve.
The problem today is that the American church is caught up in a dual allegiance to both Christ and the political economy of liberal democracy and consumer capitalism. Loyalty to this political economy is nothing less than idolatry.
This is the problem with electoral politics in our time. Politicians cannot get nominated without the support of the grassroots activists, but they cannot get elected and govern without moving to the political center. It is inevitable that politicians who do get elected betray their most ardent supporters by moderating their positions.
The Enlightenment’s own quest for certainty resulted not in the discovery of new certainties but rather in a pervasive and astringent skepticism that questions all, suspects all, distrusts and disbelieves all.
[I]n the contemporary world we have the capacity to question everything but little ability to affirm anything beyond our own personal whims and possessive interests. In a culture in which the covenant between signified and signifier, word and world is broken, words are emptied of meaning. The forces of dissolution, then, lead us to a place of absence, a place where we can never be confident of what is real, what is true, what is good; a place where we are always left wondering if nothing particular is real or true or good.
Every bit as important have been the pretensions of power in the modern world that have needed demystifying and discrediting. The problem is that skepticism took a dissolutionist turn at the point at which it offered nothing ameliorative, but rather pursued doubt for its own sake; because it could not see anything beyond itself.
In the Eucharist, we not only have a backward-looking remembrance of what God accomplished long ago but we have a celebration of the start of God’s resurrection in life, death, and resurrection in Christ. In the Eucharist, Christians celebrate the in-breaking of the new creation within the framework of the old; the kingdom that is to come within the present.
A theology of faithful presence is a theology of engagement in and with the world around us. It is a theology of commitment, a theology of promise. It is disarmingly simple in concept yet in its implications it provides a challenge, at points, to all of the dominant paradigms of cultural engagement in the church.
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.
So how should Christians engage the world? For one, it should be clear at this point that good intentions are not enough to engage the world well. The potential for stupidity, irrationality, cruelty, and harm is just as high today as it has ever been in the past. God save us from Christians who are well-intentioned, but not wise!
[F]undamentalism is also nihilistic because its identity is established, in the most primordial way, negatively–in reaction to the cultural deprivations of the late modern world. The proof of its nihilism is its failure to offer any creative achievements or constructive proposals for the everyday problems that trouble most people. Is it any wonder that fundamentalists tend to contribute to estrangement and cruelty?
Grace & Love
Clearly, if Christians cannot extend grace and love through faithful presence within the body of believers, they certainly will not be able to extend grace to those outside.
The only problem with perspective is that it is mostly wrong. Against this great-man view of history and culture, I would argue (along with many others) that the key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks. And the more “dense” the network–that is, the more active and interactive the network–the more influential it could be. This is where stuff of culture and cultural change is produced.
The nostalgia is palpable. Neither the social origins of American Christianity nor the historical changes it has undergone are in dispute. These are what they are. What is far more interesting and important is how this story is told, its moral meaning, and its political consequences. Interpretation is key… As a general rule, conservatives are animated by a mythic ideal concerned with the “right-ordering” of society. Politically conservative Christians–Protestant and Catholic–are not unique in this light but draw their political ideals from this logic and philosophical tradition. The question of how society is rightly ordered and the key to the relationship between politically conservative Christians and contemporary political culture is rooted in the particular way they understand the origins of America. The American founding is the point of reference against which the present is measured.
Like politically conservative Christians, politically progressive Christians also are defined by and operate within a reading of myth and history. If conservatives are animated by a mythic ideal of the right ordering of society, and thus see modern history as a decline from order to disorder, progressives have always been animated by the myth of equality and community and therefore see history as an ongoing struggle to realize these ideals.
In fact idealism misconstrues agency, implying the capacity to bring about influence where that capacity may not exist or where it may only be weak. Idealism underplays the importance of history and historical forces and its interaction with culture as it is lived and experienced. Further, idealism ignores the way culture is generated, coordinated, and organized. Thus, it underrates how difficult it is to penetrate culture and influence its direction. Not least, idealism mistakenly imputes a logic and rationality to culture where such linearity and reasonableness does not exist but rather contingency and accident. In all, it communicates the message that if people just pay attention, learn better, be more consistent, they will understand better the challenges in our world today; if they have the right values, believe the right things, embrace the right worldview, they will be better equipped to engage those challenges; if they have the courage to actually jump in the fray and there choose more wisely and act more decisively, they will rise to and overcome those challenges and change the world.
In a very crude formulation, the process begins with theorists who generate ideas and knowledge; moves to researchers who explore, revise, expand, and validate ideas; moves on to teachers and educators who pass those ideas on to others, then passes on to popularizers who simplify ideas and practitioners who apply ideas. All of this, of course, transpires through networks and structures of cultural production.
Most people think that what matters is the ideological directions of one’s politics. Are you conservative? Are you liberal? These differences occupy most of our attention and argument. What is never challenged is the proclivity to think of the Christian faith and its engagement with the culture around it in political terms. This proclivity today has been both ubiquitous and unquestioned for a long time. Precisely because culture is always most powerful when it is most taken for granted, it brings into relief just how powerful a force politicization is in our time.
For the Christian, the incarnation is not only a manifestation of the reality of God and the trust they can put in his word, but also the most breathtaking demonstration in history of the reality of God’s love for the creation and his intention to make all things new.
The reason that leadership is sacrificial and selfless is because its practice is an expression of “power under submission.” The gifts, resources, and influence one stewards are not one’s own to use as one wishes but rather they belong to God: they exist under his authority, and believers are held to account for how they steward them.
The late modern world is deeply confounding, and its spiritual consolations are few. Like everyone else, Christians are hungry for authenticity, coherence, and depth, and yet the ways these are pursued fail to respond fully to those longings. The need for an alternative vision that is at least a little more adequate to the temper of our times is palpable.
Part of what is so powerful about a political myth, according to Sorel, is that “people who are living in this world of ‘myths,’ are secure from all refutation.” What intensifies the power of political myths is the fact that they are often infused with ultimate meaning; and among people of faith, they are often conflated with the ideals of the coming kingdom. This fact makes political myths combustible–as much of a problem as it is a potential good–for the way they invariably provide other-worldly justifications for this-worldly actions.
The infusion of myth with ultimate meaning is problematic on its own terms but it is especially so in a context where there are competing myths. It is a dilemma made all the more difficult by the fact that the three competing myths discussed here, and the political theologies that derive from them, are all held passionately by people of the same faith community. As such they become the basis of some measure of exclusion and division in the church, especially to the degree that they are embraced uncritically.
[M]odern pluralism not only represents a multiplicity of ways of perceiving and comprehending the world but also a multiplicity of plausibility structures that make those perceptions credible in the first place. Put another way, fragmentation not only occurs among worldviews, but in the social structures that support those worldviews. The number and variety of cultural systems mean that the social conditions supporting any particular belief system are necessarily weaker. Belief is certainly possible, but it is necessarily different. The confidence borne from beliefs that are taken for granted typically gives way to belief plagued by ambivalence and uncertainty. The uncertainty is not a matter of insufficient will or deficient commitment but a natural social psychological reaction to weakened plausibility structures. In such circumstances, one is no longer enveloped by a unified and integrated normative universe but confronted by multiple and fragmented perspectives, any or all of which may seem, on their own terms, eminently credible. This social situation obligates one to choose, but once the choice is made–given the ubiquitous presence of alternatives in a market culture oriented toward consumer choice–one must reaffirm that choice again and again. These are social conditions that make faithfulness difficult and faithlessness almost natural.
Another way to describe the dilemma for religious faith is that pluralism creates social conditions in which God is no longer an inevitability. While it is possible to believe in God, one has to work much harder at it because the framework of belief is no longer present to sustain it. The presumption of God and of his active presence in the world cannot be easily sustained because the most important symbols of social, economic, political, and aesthetic life no longer point to him. God simply is less obvious than he once was, and for most no longer obvious at all–quite the opposite.
Even for ordinary people, belief requires a conscious awareness and deliberateness that is unfamiliar to past generations. As the structures of belief have weakened, so has the self-assurance of belief. There is little if anything one can take for granted about the faith any longer.
While Christian activists (conservative and progressive) have been fairly influential in the political sphere at different times in recent decades, they have embraced a means to power that seethes with resentment, anger, and bitterness for the injury they believe they have suffered. The public and political culture of contemporary Christianity have become defined by negation… The problem resides with the political culture they not only embrace but have helped to create. The tragic irony is that in the name of resisting the dark nihilisms of the modern age, Christians–in their will to power the ressentiment that fuels it–perpetuate that nihilism. In doing so, Christians undermine the message of the very gospel they cherish and desire to advance.
In the context of the fallen world, the ends of government become distorted and its authority is corrupted. The result is an institution that has become an end to itself and thus an idol that both seduces and enslaves through its power. In its claim to freedom, peace and justice, it promulgates a false theology of redemption to the world. It is false not only because it offers itself and its best ideals as a substitute for God but also because its ideals can only be realized through force and the appeal to force. And yet God still permits human government to exist and, in existing, it functions to restrain evil.
Politicization is most visibly manifested in the role that ideology has come to play in public life; the well-established predispositions to interpret all of public life through the filter of partisan beliefs, values, ideals, and attachments. How does this come about? My contention is that in response to a thinning consensus of substantive beliefs and dispositions in the larger culture, there has been a turn toward politics as a foundation and structure for social solidarity. But politicization provides a framework of expectations and action and very little substantive content. In a diverse society, ideological polarization is a natural expression of the contest to provide that content.
The politicization of everything is an indirect measure of the loss of a common culture and, in turn, the competitition among factions to dominate others on their own terms. Our times amply demonstrate that it is far easier to force one’s will on others through legal and political means or to threaten to do so than it is to persuade them or negotiate compromise with them.
Slowly, often imperceptively, there has been a turn toward law and politics as the primary way of understanding all aspects of collective life. Nothing catalyzed this tendency more than the Depression-era New Deal. The tendency now effects conservatives every bit as much as it does liberals; those who favor small government as it does those who want larger government. It has affected everyone’s language, imagination, and expectations, not least conservatives who, like others, look to law, policy, and political process as the structure and resolution to their concerns and grievances; who look to politics as the framework of self-validation and self-understanding and ideology as the framework for understanding others.
It is not an exaggeration to conclude that the public witness of the church today has become a political witness; the public identity of the church is its political identity.
Whether we like it or not, merely engaging the culture implies the issue and exercise of power. The matter of power is unavoidable. One cannot transcend it or avoid it or pretend it isn’t there. The only questions are, how will Christians think about power? What kind of power will Christians exercise? How will Christians, individually and institutionally, relate to the range of powers that operate in the world?
Speaking as a Christian myself, contemporary Christian understands of power and politics are a very large part of what has made contemporary Christianity in America appalling, irrelevant, and ineffective–part and parcel of the worst elements of our late-modern culture today, rather than a healthy alternative to it.
Values cannot be achieved politically because politics is invariably about power–not only power, but finally about power.
Power… is inherently relational, interactive, dynamically shared, contentious, and it plays out at every level of society–not just among individuals but among social groups, institutions, and local and national communities.
The question for the church, then, is not about choosing between power and powerlessness but rather, to the extent that it has space to do so, how will the church and its people use the power that they have?
[B]elievers must press ahead to find or, perhaps better put, rediscover a better relationship to power and the powers. It also means, from the outset, that Christians must operate with as much grace and forgiveness as possible because failure to use power rightly is… unavoidable.
It isn’t just the Constantinian temptation the church must repudiate but, more significantly, the orientation toward power that underwrites it. The proclivity toward domination and toward politicization of everything leads Christianity today to bizarre turns; turns that, in my view, transform much of the Christian public witness into the very opposite of the witness Christianity is supposed to offer.
It is often said that, although many vestiges remain, American culture has become post-Christian culture. This is certainly true, but a statement like this is almost trite, for it fundamentally understates the changes that have taken place in late modernity. It May be more accurate to say that we are witnesses to and participants in a cultural transformation that radically challenges and deconstructs, if not inverts, the ontological and moral substructure of inherited social institutions, inherited conventions of everyday social life, and the inherited frameworks of understanding and experience. How this transformation will turn out is anyone’s guess, but it essential to come to terms with both the enormity and complexity of the change and to face its implications squarely, for it means that the context in which faithfulness is pursued today is quite different from anything seen before.
For all the diversity one can find among progressives, one of the central catalysts of solidarity over the years has been their hostility to the leaders, organizations, ideology, and agenda of the Christian Right. The intensity of this hostility has tended to wax and wane with the expansion and contraction of influence exercised by the Christian Right. As the visibility and influence of the Christian Right has increased, so has the antipathy of the Christian Left intensified and the negative solidarity they derive from it. The reverse is true as well. The aversion to Christian conservatism, however, is fairly constant.
In public discourse, the challenge is not to stifle robust debate, but rather to make sure that it is real debate. The first obligation for Christians is to listen carefully to opponents and if they are not willing to do so, then Christians should simply be silent. To engage in a war of words is to engage in a symbolic violence that is fundamentally at odds with the gospel. And too often, on such hot button issues as poverty, abortion, race relations, and homosexuality, the poor, children, minorities, and gays are used as weapons in ideological warfare.
[T]he call to this generation of Americans to repent and pray for revival to renew the values of the national culture may be welcome, but no one should be under any illusion about its capacity to fundamentally transform the present cultural order at its most rudimentary level. Invitations by Christian leaders to fast and pray are most worthy, but their man effect will be to renew the church rather than keep America from “losing its soul.” All such engagements may be worthy, but if the end is to “save civilization,” it most certainly is naive. By themselves or even together, evangelism, politics, and social reform, then, will fail to bring about the ends hoped for and intended.
[T]he implicit social theory that guides so much of their efforts is deeply flawed. Christians from many different traditions tend to believe that cultures are shaped from cumulative values and beliefs that reside in the hearts and minds of ordinary people. The means and ends of world-changing, they argue, are to change the hearts and minds of enough people that the social order will finally come to reflect the values and beliefs that they hold. This is why Christians often pursue social change through evangelism (and conversion), civic renewal through populist social movements, and democratic political action (where every vote reflects values). The evidence of history and sociology demonstrates this this theory of culture and cultural change is simply wrong and for this reason, every initiative based on this perspective will fail to achieve the goals it hopes to meet. This is not to say that the hearts and minds of ordinary people are unimportant. To the contrary. Rather, the hearts and minds of ordinary people are only relatively insignificant if the goal is to change cultures at their deepest levels.
Subversion is not nihilistic but creative and constructive. Thus, the church–as a community, within individual vocations, and through both existing and alternative social institutions–stands antithetical to modernity and its dominant institutions in order to offer an alternative vision and direction for them. Antithesis, then, does not require a stance that is antimodern or premodern but rather a commitment to the modern world in that it envisions it differently.
As a natural expression of its passion to honor God in all things and to love our neighbor as ourselves, the church and its people will challenge all structures that dishonor God, dehumanize people, and neglect or do harm to the creation.
[C]ulture is not neutral in relation to power but a form of power. In other words, like money, accumulated symbolic capital translates into a kind of power and influence. But influence of what kind? It starts as credibility, an authority one possesses which puts one in a position to be listened to and taken seriously. It ends as the power to define reality itself.
Faithful Christian witness is fated to exist in the tension between the historical and the transcendent; between the social realities that press on human existence and the spiritual and ethical requirements of the gospel; between the morality of the society in which Christian believers live and the will of God. These opposition are a fact of existence for the church and each Christian believer and they pull in conflicting directions–one toward the necessities of survival and the other toward the perfect will of God. There is no place of equilibrium between these oppositions and no satisfying resolutions. In this world, the church can never be in repose. The tension is not lessened by the fact that there are unavoidable ambiguities that inhere in the application of biblical promises, values, and ideals to everyday life. Nor is it lessened by the fact that the love required of the Christian is unlivable, except in flaws approximation.
Both of these instructions are present in the text: accommodation to existing social realities and calling them into question by being different. But rather than confusion, the contradiction is instructive. The purpose of Christian existence as a whole is to “proclaim the might acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (I Pet. 2:9). To this end, Christians should conduct themselves “honorably among the Gentiles… so that they may see your honorable deeds and glorify God when he comes to judge” (I Pet. 2:12). In short, as Volf puts it, “Christian difference is… not an insertion of something new into the old from the outside, but a bursting out of the new precisely within the proper space of the old.”
The concern to be “relevant to” the world, “defensive against” the world, and “pure from” the world all, in certain ways, speaks to authentic biblical concerns. Yet the desire to be “relevant to” the world has come at the cost of abandoning 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.”
[T]here is a world that God created that is shared in common by believers and nonbelievers alike. In the classical Christian view, the goodness of creation is fundamentally and ubiquitously marred by sin but it is not negated by sin. It may be fractured, incomplete, and corrupted, but his goodness remains in it.
Words such as covenant, grace, gift, sin, mercy, forgiveness, love, hope, blessing, the flesh, glory, creation, resurrection, sacrament, and the like must be learned anew in part by understanding the significance of the language and narrative of faith within the context of the social, political, and cultural realities of one’s own time. As Walter Brueggemann has put it, Christians must renounce the dominant scripture of the world and embrace the alternative script that is rooted in the Bible and enacted through the tradition of the church.
It is essential, in my view, to abandon altogether talk of “redeeming the culture,” “advancing the kingdom,” “building the kingdom,” “transforming the world,” “reclaiming the culture,” “reforming the culture,” and “changing the world.” Christians need to leave such language behind them because it carries too much weight. It implies conquest, take-over, or domination, which in my view is precisely what God does not call us to pursue–at least not in any conventional, twentieth- or twenty-first-century way of understanding the terms.
[F]aithfulness works itself out in the context of complex social, political, economic, and cultural forces that prevail at a particular time and place. The circumstances and character of any particular historical movement vary considerably, of course, and thus the challenges that Christian believers face will vary. To face up to the challenge of integrity and faithfulness in our generation, then, requires that Christians understand the unique and evolving character of our times.
Even if our tasks in this world do not have “ultimate significance,” that does not mean that the tasks we perform have no spiritual significance. To be sure, sin pervades work and, in our own day, capitalism transforms the nature of work in ways that can be profoundly dehumanizing. But this does not negate the dignity that comes from tasks well done or the good done for neighbor and stranger alike. Indeed, when our various tasks are done in ways that acknowledge God, God is present and he is glorified. Such tasks may not be redeeming, but they can provide a foretaste of the coming kingdom.
Jesus calls his followers to “go into all the world” (Mark 16:15). This, of course, has long been interpreted geographically–the call of missionaries to go to faraway places to proclaim the good news and to make disciples. But the great commission also can be interpreted in terms of social structure. The church is go to into all realms of social life: in volunteer and paid labor–skilled and unskilled, the crafts, engineering, commerce, art, law, architecture, teaching, health care, and service. Indeed, the church should be sending people out into these realms–not only discipling those in these fields by providing theological resources to form them well, but in fact mentoring and providing financial support for young adults who are gifted and called into these vocations.
Word & World
As it bears on faith, the weakening significance of presence and place brought about by the broken trust between word and world cuts to the very core of what it means to believe–the reality of what you believe and the implications of our belief for how we engage the world we live in.
We are present to God as a worshiping community; fully present through participation in the sacraments, collective adoration, repentance, contemplation, intercession, devotion, and service. In that context, we are present to him through the disciplines of individual devotion–prayer, meditation, fasting, study, simplicity, and solitude, among others. In this, Christians acknowledge that there is no other God before us; that our wills are his, and that in all of life, his kingdom has indeed come.
In case you’re wondering, no, I’ve not given away the entire book with all these quotes. I feel as though I’ve barely stretched the surface. Go read the book!