At the beginning of the twentieth century a group of American Jewish leaders gathered together because they were very concerned about the negative influence politics, the economy, and this new industry called Hollywood was having on the culture. They prayed together for several days and at the end of their meeting one-third of the leaders moved to Washington DC and ran for office. A third of the leaders moved to New York and started working on Wall Street. And a third moved to LA and started working in Hollywood.
Seventy or eighty years later a group of evangelical leaders got together because they were concerned about the negative influence politics, the economy, and Hollywood was having on American culture. So they prayed together for several days and when they were done they all moved to Colorado Springs.
Not everyone thinks that joke is funny. But it sums up well the point of one of the best books that I have read this year - To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern Worldby James Davison Hunter (Oxford Press).
The first half of Hunter's book essentially argues that evangelicals in the last few decades have done a poor job in transforming the culture because (1) they don't really understand how culture changes, and (2) the primary ways they are working to change the culture are actually doing more damage than good.
Evangelicals, argues Hunter, tend to believe that culture changes from the bottom up. Although it is obviously a good thing to work at changing people's hearts, Hunter thinks this rarely has major impact in cultural change. Instead he details the way in which most of the major historical shifts in culture have occurred from the top down as networks of "cultural elites" work together to bring about change. (Hunter's eleven propositions on cultural change - chapter four - is worth the price of the book).
Unfortunately, in the last few decades evangelicals have begun to recognize this problem but have primarily run to politics as the location of power and influence. Three incredible chapters are devoted to analyzing the ways the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the Neo-Anabaptist movement have focused their energies on politics. Certainly each one has a very different approach to the political, but they all share a common conviction that the political sphere is in one way or another determinative.
I think every American evangelical needs to read this section of the book. Hunter's insights in this area are too varied and too complex to rehearse in a blog, but here are just some of the problems with evangelicals' political obsession:
1. The political realm doesn't actually bring about much change culturally. The political sphere is reactive more than proactive. Political changes respond to cultural change, not the other way around.
2. Politics in a democratic society is inevitably built on compromise, and so rarely does substantive get accomplished.
3. What is accomplished, however, is the politicization of the Church (and the gospel) and the continued fragmentation of civil dialogue in the culture at large.
4. There is a kind of bluff that takes place within the church regarding politics. Many Christians come to believe that if they just vote for the right candidates they have done their work to change the world. (So if we vote for the candidate who advocates for unwanted children then we don't have to adopt them into our homes). But then we wonder why culturally things haven't changed?
There a lot richness in this section of the book and Christians on the right and left need to read and discuss Hunter's critique. I think Hunter is right that there is a great deal of "irony and tragedy" about the way American Christians tend to be at work in the world. His point is not that the political realm is unimportant. It is. It is just far from being the most important social location for creating cultural change. Unfortunately, however, it is the place Christians (and many non-Christians) focus on first.
The last half of the book is constructive. Hunter advocates for Christians to live as a "faithful presence" in all of the areas of cultural influence. This would mean raising up and sending our kids into the various halls of power and influence in the culture. Hunter argues that cultural change takes a long time and requires faithful people to work diligently for God's purposes with patience and perseverance.
There is much about being a "faithful presence" that resonates with me. My one concern at the end of the book is not with Hunter's theory but with the Church. I am concerned that as the Church, we are not raising up people who have the skills necessary to live in the world but not be of it. To go back to the rabbi's joke, evangelicals need to have more discussion about what a faithful presence would look like on Wall Street, in Washington DC, and in Hollywood. Could we imagine, for example, Christian stock brokers who work for human flourishing among the poor and not for giant year-end bonuses? Can one be a good trader if profit is not the only agenda or criteria for defining success? We certainly can't send our children into the halls of cultural influence without regularly participating in the practices of resistance necessary for the Judeans to live in Babylon without worshiping Nebuchadnezzar.
The discussions of what a faithful presence looks like in the world will be very challenging. But, if Hunter is right, these Spirit-led conversations helping Spirit-filled people live as Christ's faithful presence are what we will have to have if we hope to change the world.