Thursday, July 15, 2010

To Change the World (1)

I have just finished reading To Change the World by James Davison Hunter. The subtitle of the book is The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the late Modern world. This is a really important book. I would urge anyone who is interested in making a difference in the world to read it.

Hunter challenges the common view among Christians that if we change the way people think then the world will be transformed. He explains why culture is difficult change and suggests that most Christian efforts to change the world will fail, because Christians do not understand the way that culture changes.

The first problem is that the implicit social theory that guides so much of their efforts is deeply flawed. Christians from many different traditions tend to believer that cultures are shaped from the cumulative values and beliefs that they hold. This is why Christians often pursue social change through evangelism, civic renewal through populist social moments, and democratic political action (where every vote reflects values.

The evidence of history and sociology demonstrates that 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.

Cultural change at its most profound level occurs through dense networks of elites operating in common purpose within institutions at the high prestige centres of culture production. In light of this, the cultural economy of contemporary Christianity is strongest, in the main, where cultural leverage is weakest on the social periphery, rather than the cultural center and in tastes that run to the lower middle and middle brow rather than the high brow. The idea that significant number of Christian are operating in the hall so power” in ways that thoughtful and strategic, then is simply ludicrous.

Christianity in North American and the West more generally is weak culture. Weak insofar as it is fragmented in its core beliefs and organisation, with a coherent collective identify and mission, and often divided within itself, often with unabated hostility. Thus for all the talk of world-changing and all of the good intentions that motivate it, the Christian community is not, on the whole, remotely close to a position where it could actually change the world in any significant way (pp.273-274).

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