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To Change the World: Cultural Transformation, Then and Now


This is the second 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.

Hunter’s book is written for the young Lisa Clark Diller, even though she never got to read it. As an idealistic adolescent and college-student, I could see all sorts of things that needed to be changed in my church, school, government, and perhaps even my friends and family.  I was also sure that strong arguments and good ideas, presented by compelling individuals (namely myself), were the right way to change these entities.

Hunter reminds his readers that all change occurs within a particular culture and that “culture” refers to a set of truths that are so deeply embedded that we can’t list them out as propositions. Culture is the long product of history and that is why it is hard to transform.   Additionally, culture is part of a dialectic between ideas and institutions.  Institutions are historical and longer lasting than individuals, so they have more power than individuals or their ideas. 

Hunter’s history of the Christian church in Europe and North America is intended to show how changes in the church happened not just because of the strength of the ideas and the work of individuals, but because Christians were embedded in the cultures of the time and established networks of elites who helped support each other. Hunter correctly identifies the sense in which the early church was the church of the aristocracy.  This remained true even at times many reformers criticized the wealth and power of the nobility, and articulated the need to be on the side of the poor and the powerless as Jesus had been.  Historically, we have no examples of Christianity spreading without this tension between those who focused on the elites and those who criticized the centers of power.

This look at the way Christians have interacted with cultural elites raises several questions.  First, how necessary is it for the wider culture to be Christian.Biblically, is this something we need? What would this look like? Second, if we take seriously the idea that there are multiple cultures, even within a particular society, it may be less clear where the centers of power are, or which elites Christians should be trying to influence.  Instead, Christians would be acting within many different subcultures—ethnic groups, academic disciplines, hobbies, and professions—to be part of the conversation within that arena, leavening it by their work and participation. 

I question a few of Hunter’s other assumptions.  The first concern has to do with the notion that culture is a form of power and is the province of elites.  This is an area of debate within the academy, so I don’t think I can fully address it here, but it seems that Hunter is making a significant ideological point without really justifying it.  He tries to defend himself from attacks that he might be adhering to the Great Man theory of history by arguing that it is in fact networks of elites, not single people, who make cultural change happen.Those who study popular culture will no doubt be able to address this more fully, but the way in which popular Christianity has forced the hand of the elites in the church on such matters as pilgrimages, the use of icons, revivals, and worship styles is just one example of culture changing without primary leadership from the centers of power or institutional support.

Additionally, while Hunter seems to want to encourage Christians to get involved in the centers of power, especially the universities and intellectual institutions, his reasons for this encouragement are impoverished. Mark Noll’s recent book Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind provides much more compelling reasons for being involved in the arts, the academy, politics or other institutional/elite leadership.  In fact, these are areas of study and work that are worthy in their own right and not simply for the consequentialistmotivations of “changing” them.  In this sense, Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture (and Zane’s review posted last week) did a better job of reminding readers of the ways in which the world and all that is in it are God’s and, therefore, worthy of work and study.  The joy we might find in investigating institutions, fields of study, or systems and being part of networks that do so is much more in line with honoring all of God’s creation than is the attitude that we must get into positions of power so that we can influence culture.

Third, Hunter seems to see Christian cultural change as happening largely through the universities. While Christian activity within the academy is near and dear to my heart (see Noll’s book above for just the latest outstanding call for this work), are these actually the places where cultural change occurs? Are they as influential as he seems to think? Surely the work of the Civil Rights movement, the Christian abolitionists, the Great Awakening and the charismatic revivals (Hunter mentions these briefly) are influential and widespread without being centered in the universities. They also don’t seem to be anomalies. 

With this said, I find Hunter’s analysis to be deeply helpful as I think and teach about cultural change over time. Institutions last longer than individuals and even though we are often frustrated with them, they are the only way we know how to ensure that knowledge is not lost and that efforts expended in a lifetime lasts to help another generation; the influence of an institution can last for millennia. Influencing institutions, however, requires more than being a prophetic voice on the outside.  We have to be open to joining in the conversation and becoming part of a project. This is a lesson I had to learn the hard way in my twenties—long-term decisions are often made in boring meetings and by people holding positions I thought were silly. Then I realized that I needed to cooperate with others in order to accomplish large scale goals, and that I couldn’t insult the regular functionings of the institutional process as I did this.

Ultimately, I do think it is very helpful to be reminded of   how long it takes for culture to change. Another of Hunter’s helpful admonitions is that most of the time people do not see the ultimate effects of their activities.  Actions have consequences, mostly unforeseen ones.  This means that we act for good in the world, not knowing whether we will see the fruit of our labors. Seeing the long arc of change is not only good for those of us who want to be social activists, for voters, or perhaps for the students who want to shape university policies, but it is good for our character.  We need to be reminded to work in the field God has given us, and to see all arenas as under God’s authority—and to do so whether or not we get to harvest the fruit.For those of us who judge our value by the tangible effects of our work, this is disappointing, but a good way to learn to live by faith.

—Lisa Clark Diller teaches early modern world history at Southern Adventist University. She and her husband, Tommy, are part of the leadership team at The Well, a church plant on the Southside of Chattanooga, TN.

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