A Primer on World Change- Part 1

UnknownChristians like to talk—and aspire—to changing the world. This language stems very naturally from our God-given desire to make a difference, to live a life that matters. In a very real sense, making a difference is to change the world. But, usually, when Christians talk about “changing the world” they mean something like “winning the world for Christ” or “helping the gospel to gain a hearing in culture” or “contributing toward shalom.” Recently, there have been a number of very helpful books written by folks who challenge the common view of how to go about the task of world-changing, and call into question the relationship between Christ and culture. One of the most important books to enter this discussion is James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the topic of world-change. In this post I will share his critique of the “common view” of world change. I think his critique is dead on.

Hunter argued that by and large, Christians have gone about the task of world changing in completely the wrong way and the result is that Christianity in our country at least and in the western world in general, represents a weak culture.

He focuses on world-view ministries (primarily from the US such as Chuck Colson’s Wilberforce Forum and Focus on the Families’ Truth Project) and those like them that offer the following view of how to change the world:

Common view of world change: as we change the individual beliefs and values of persons, and change enough persons, then we will ultimately change society. This is a bottom up approach.

On the common view, the implicit view of culture is that “the essence of culture is found in the hearts and minds of individuals” and that culture change will come as enough individual lives are transformed.

Hunter argues that this approach fails to take into account cultural elites and the institutions that yield power within culture.

Instead, cultural change has always been top-down: it is always elites—those who have cultural capital to exert influence and power—who have changed the culture. This is why the university, and the media, and the arts are so important in shaping the culture.

All of this leads to a fascinating conclusion: some ideas have consequences—namely ideas propagated by those within society who possess cultural capital and a supporting network of other individuals and institutions also within the center of cultural influence and production.

If Hunter is correct, and I think he is, this means that Christians should be just as concerned with what is happening “upstream”—in the institutions and centers that shape culture—as they are with what is going on “downstream”—where individual lives are lived and response patterns to the gospel are ingrained.

In my next post, I shall consider Hunter’s positive proposal for world-change.

If you can’t wait, check out my review of Hunter’s book here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6 Responses to A Primer on World Change- Part 1

  1. AP Armstrong says:

    What about Leo Tolstoy’s take? I may be oversimplifying, but he seems to say that anytime the church becomes too involved with institutions, it falls away from faithfully following.

    • paul.gould@facultycommons.org says:

      Hello Art, I’m not really sure what to say about the idea you attribute to Tolstoy. Hunter’s proposal, which I”ll share in my next post is not the the church as an institution becomes involved in other institutions, but that we, followers of Christ, do. His positive proposal, which I think is really good is called “faithful presence within”–Christians are called to be fully present in all spheres of influence, and faithful witnesses and ambassadors for Christ. That sounds right to me! warmly, Paul

  2. Pingback: A Primer on World Change- Part 2 | Paul Gould

  3. AP Armstrong says:

    Paul, Hunter’s proposal is positive when it is faithful. Augustine interpreted Paul as saying that one should be content to follow as one was when saved: bondslave or free, man or woman, Jew or not (commentary on I Cor.7). What call, then, to power or influence (although equally not a call from them)? Beyond that, the critical question seems to be how to be faithful while present: can one work within a system of cultural influence where the normative behavior loves not mercy nor justice and considers God himself irrelevant? I expect many of the “bottom-uppers” Hunter critiques feel this was the choice they had to make and so have worked outside dominant cultural institutions.

    I enjoyed your critique of Hunter and pray that you will continue to sharpen up the issues.

  4. Pingback: A Primer on World Change-Part 3 | Paul Gould

  5. Pingback: Should we be trying to change the world from the bottom up or the top down? | Wintery Knight

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *