Up front, let me say that this series of posts is not going to be a traditional critique or summary of the book. Rather, I will be processing my response to the material as I work through the book and answering three questions as I go:
- Do I agree with what the author says?
- Should his ideas be applied?
and if so,
- How can they be applied in the context of the churches of Christ?
The book is broken into three essays: “Christianity and World-Changing,” “Rethinking Power,” and “Toward a New City Commons: Reflections on a Theology of Faithful Presence.” Each essay has about six or seven chapters and I will likely devote two or three posts to each essay depending on the complexity of the material.
Now with all of that said, let’s jump right in.
Chapter One ~ Christian Faith and the Task of World Changing
In this brief introductory chapter Hunter identifies a divine mandate from Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to till it and keep it” (NRSV) and suggests that this mandate was renewed in God’s covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and culminates in the person of Christ. From this Hunter infers that God has always expected human beings to be about the task of making a better world through our relationships, labor, art, and every other activity which consumes our time. In Hunter’s view, changing the world for the better is not an option for the believer but one of the commitments that we make when we become Christians.
Whether the reader agrees or disagrees with Hunter’s theology on this point, he demonstrates that throughout history, most Christians, whether Catholic or Protestant, evangelical or mainline, have shared this view. He offers a long list of denominational, para-church organization, and Christian college mission statements that include “changing” or “impacting” the world as part and parcel of their function. Historically, these efforts have yielded a diverse set of outcomes. Remarkable works of mercy and charity, the life-saving efforts of medical missionaries, dramatic social reforms, and the redeemed lives of millions are sadly balanced by institutional corruption, appalling abuses of power, rank hypocrisy, and lusting for political gain.
Despite these failings, almost all Christian organizations, churches and otherwise, perceive a responsibility to impact their communities, countries, and their world. Hunter writes:
“…the idealism about fulfilling the mandate of creation is sincere, the efforts are earnest, and the intentions are undoubtedly honorable. But is that enough?”
Obviously, Hunter would say no; hence the book. Hunter believes that our failure to generate meaningful change in the present is rooted in a flawed perception of culture and mistaken concepts of how culture changes.
Chapter Two ~ Culture: The Common View
In this chapter Hunter assesses what he believes to be the most commonly held view of how culture is created and changed – a view which stresses the role of the individual, or more to the point, the values of the individual. Individuals with corrupted values generate a corrupted culture; likewise, where one finds a majority with healthy values one finds a healthy culture. If one wishes to change the culture, one must begin by changing the values of the individuals who make the culture. Hunter identifies three common tactics for accomplishing this end: evangelism, political action, and social reform.
Evangelism is a divine mandate which almost no Christian group disputes. However, the advocates of this tactic as a means of cultural change (which include Billy Graham, Bill Bright, and James Boice) believe that if enough Christians make soul-winning the highest priority of their spiritual lives, then cultural change will be an inevitable result. The faith spreads exponentially, values are reformed on a large scale, and culture is changed.
I find this approach both appealing and disturbing. The appeal lies in its simplicity and that it re-directs us back to the Great Commission, which the contemporary church often seems confused and ambivalent about in the best of times. What I find disturbing on the other hand is the question of motive – it appears to me that evangelism done with the intent of generating cultural change places those whom we evangelize in the role of being a means to an end. My understanding of the Gospel and the Great Commission is that we are to bring souls to Christ that they might be saved; not so that we can transform the culture. It seems to me that Biblical evangelism has no covert cultural agenda but rather an overt spiritual agenda, and nothing more.
Hunter rightly observes that political action has been the tactic of choice for the majority of Christians of all theological and political stripes in the US since the 1980s. Simply stated, those who favor this approach (which include Bill Donahue, James Dobson, Mike Huckabee, and at the other end of the political spectrum Jim Wallis) believe that change is achieved through a top down model. Bad law creates a bad culture, good law creates good culture. In this view the appropriate actions for Christians include lobbying, campaigning and voting for certain candidates, and advocacy in the halls of power for laws which reflect spiritual values. Of course, many leaders have warned against this course of action as well. As regular readers of this blog well know, I fall squarely on the side of the naysayers with this one. As I have said repeatedly and will continue to say – there is no mandate in the New Testament to establish the kingdom by legal fiat. Jesus never lobbied Rome and the apostles never formed a PAC. What’s more, history shows that when the church dances with the ruling powers, the ruling powers almost always end up taking the lead. Believers become nothing more than useful idiots.
Finally, there is social reform. Advocates of this tactic believe that voluntary private organizations can initiate reform movements through partnering with churches and other community/civic organizations. These movements tend to establish chapters in various communities and focus their efforts on marshaling volunteers for community action; strengthening families, mentoring children, volunteering at schools, encouraging personal responsibility, etc. Their work with children focuses on building character, developing skills, and providing strong adult role models. The social worker in me loves this approach, and it certainly has historical precedent: Martin Luther, William Wilberforce, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer are just three individuals who managed to make significant and lasting impact without the power of the state behind them.
Hunter concludes the chapter by saying that the belief that any of the above mentioned tactics, or even a mix of tactics, can generate sweeping and lasting cultural change is “almost wholly mistaken.” He elaborates on this conclusion in the chapters that follow; so I will stop here for now. I want to throw out some questions for your consideration and to prompt a conversation.
- Do you agree with Hunter’s assertion that believers have a divine mandate to change our culture? Why or why not?
- Which of the three tactics discussed above (evangelism, political action, social reform) do you find most appealing? Which do you think is least effective or appropriate? Why?
- Can you share any personal experiences of being involved with a group of believers who generated change in their communities or on a larger scale?