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To Change the World: Thinking Theologically about Culture

This is the first post in a nine-part series for the SPECTRUM Summer Reading Group. The nine posts will be drawn from the chapters of To Change the World by James Hunter. You can find the reading schedule here.

Imagine sitting in a church service where the following two hymns are sung consecutively: “This World is Not My Home” and “This is My Father’s World.” Confusing, no?  The opening lines of the two songs contrast two different outlooks, both, arguably, found in Scripture. The first focuses on the transient nature of the present world, especially in light of the glories of the next. The other acknowledges the present world’s glory and beauty. Your immediate reaction to the premise of Hunter’s work will depend on which hymn you prefer over the other.  

Hunter assumes that Christians are “obliged to engage the world, pursuing God’s restorative purposes over all of life, individual and corporate, public and private” (4). He dismisses “lifeboat theology”—the view that world is a sinking ship and Christians are called to rescue as many people as possible to get off of it (4)—as a minority view.[i] But some, many more than Hunter acknowledges, will find the assumption of this book to be a foreign one. Many Christians think they are “just passing through.” This being the case, I’d like focus on some theological reasons for taking Hunter seriously and address some of the theological objections that might prevent one from doing so.

Hunter grounds his view in what he calls “the mandate of creation.” This mandate, found in the book of Genesis, has nothing to do with Sabbath observance as some Adventists may initially think (or marriage and reproduction as some Catholics might emphasize).  Rather, it refers to the instructions the first humans receive to “cultivate” and “keep” the garden in which they were placed (Genesis 2:15). This is understood to apply to humans generally: “People fulfill their individual and collective destiny in the art, music, literature, commerce, law, and scholarship they develop—the families, churches, associations, and communities they live in and sustain—as they reflect the good of God and his designs for flourishing” (4-5). 

This reading of Genesis, drawn from the Reformed tradition, broadens and compliments the narrow focus some of us place on the opening chapters of Scripture. Lately, many in our community seem more interested in how God created things, rather than the theological implications of the more basic fact that God created all things and declared them to be good. Furthermore, the writer(s) of Genesis tell us humans are created in God’s image. Humans, in other words, find deep fulfillment in community and creative activity. So, in addition to the creation mandate, the goodness of creation and the imago dei in humans, also support the idea that humans should produce and care about culture; God created us to do so.     

It might be argued that despite their initial goodness, humans, and the world they inhabit, are in a fallen state. Because of the original sin, and its cumulative effects, human nature is “totally depraved.” Therefore, the culture produced by humans is fundamentally flawed. Affirming this point, however, does not entail the conclusion that the imago dei in humans has been entirely obliterated.[ii] While human nature is radically self-centered, humans still retain their intellectual, perceptual, volitional, emotional, and moral abilities, albeit, perhaps, in a diminished form. So even in a fallen state, humans, and the culture they produce, reflect God’s goodness.

Furthermore, Christians influenced by the Wesleyan and Catholic traditions have affirmed that salvation involves the restoration of human nature. Unfortunately, this process of restoration, i.e. sanctification, has often been misunderstood in negative terms as the avoidance of “worldliness”—abstaining from R rated movies, popular music, alcohol, tobacco, dancing, etc. But all this is a rather superficial understanding of sanctification, which ultimately has to do with God’s power to restore human nature to love God and love others. In other words, holiness is about what we do, not what we avoid. So even if one believes the prospects of good culture are impossible for humans in their fallen state, sanctified humans can produce a new kind of culture and are called to be salt and light in the world (Matthew 5:14-16).

Jesus also teaches that the Spirit is at work in ways we cannot fully understand or control (John 3:8). This means God’s Spirit is at work in the world, and when Christians engage culture, they are joining the Spirit in her creative and restorative work beyond the bounds of the church. 

Aside from rather narrow readings of Genesis and impoverished views of salvation and the Holy Spirit, negative views toward culture are further motivated by certain understandings of eschatology. Those who affirm an eminent and catastrophic eschatology are constantly interpreting news headlines as being indicative of a rapidly degenerating society and the nearness of the parousia (Matthew 24:37). This present world is full of sin, suffering, and death. At the second-coming, Jesus will destroy it as it is and recreate it.

But if this is the case, why should one invest in the present world at all? Miroslav Volf summarizes the tension succinctly:

The expectation of the eschatological destruction of the world is not consonant with the belief in the goodness of creation: what God will annihilate must either be so bad that it is not possible to be redeemed or so insignificant that it is not worth being redeemed. It is hard to believe in the intrinsic value and goodness of something that God will completely annihilate…Hence Christians who await the destruction of the world (and conveniently refuse to live a schizophrenic life) shy away as a rule - out of theological, not logical, consistency - from social and cultural involvement.[iii]

Volf, constructively, argues that instead of eventually destroying the world before recreating it, God should be understood to be renewing, restoring, and transforming it.

The crux of the issue is not the timing of the eschaton, i.e. the when, but what we think will happen when Christ returns. The fire mentioned in the book of Revelation is commonly associated with judgment and destruction. But fire, in the Bible, can also symbolize purification. Based on a close reading of Isaiah 60, where the prophet depicts the presence of pagan entities like “the ships of Tarshish (vs. 9), foreign kings and their wealth (vs. 11), and the cedars of Lebanon (vs. 13), in the restored Jerusalem, Richard Mouw argues for the purification view. All that was once used for idolatrous ends will one day be used to serve and glorify God.[iv]

Is it possible that at the end of history, rather than destroying all things, God will purify them, preserving what is beautiful, good, and true?

The first three chapters of Hunter’s book assume Christians are called to change the world and are devoted to debunking two popular misconceptions about culture—the common, idealistic view that culture is mainly about the ideas and values individuals hold (18-26) and the more recent view that places emphasis on the artifacts humans create (27-31). Hunter observes that although Christians form the majority in America, their influence in society is minimal. Conversely, minority groups, such as the Jewish community, the gay and lesbian community, and the scientific community impact society in ways that seem disproportionate to their size. He argues that Christians have been thinking inaccurately about culture, conceptualizing it idealistically or materialistically. While I agree with much of Hunter’s analysis and critique, I am suggesting the issue for many Christians is more fundamental, and this contributes significantly to contemporary Christianity’s overall ineffectiveness in engaging culture.

Before thinking of what culture is and how to change it, we may need to revisit our assumptions about the beginning and end of the Bible—Genesis and Revelation—as well as what comes in between—salvation and the work of the Holy Spirit. Put in theological terms, the implications of what we affirm about protology, eschatology, soteriology, and pnuematology need to be more thoughtfully considered.  Some narrow and/or traditional understandings on these topics make a consistently healthy attitude toward, and engagement with, culture impossible.

____

Zane Yi currently serves as the pastor of the Canton Adventist Church. He is a Ph.D. candidate in Philosophy at Fordham University and has an M.A. in Theology from Fuller Theological Seminary.  


[i] Using the typology of H. Richard Niebuhr, those that share this view understand Christ to be against culture. See H. Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (New York: Harper Collins, 2001), 45-76. This view is one shared by some writers of the New Testament (See 1 John), the early church, and figures from church history like Tertullian and Leo Tolstoy.

[ii] Total depravity, accurately understood, refers to the comprehensive scope of sin’s effects on humans, rather than its totality.

[iii] Miroslav Volf, Work in the Spirit (Eugene: Wipf & Stock Publishers, 2001), 90-91. See also Ryan Bell’s insightful discussion here.

[iv] See Richard J. Mouw. When the Kings Come Marching In: Isaiah and the New Jerusalem (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 29-32.

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