EDIT: The original title of this post was “You Won’t Change the World, pt. 1” and was changed after the church I worked for at the time took umbridge with that phrasing. Their mission statement was “Gather the People. Tell the Stories. Change the World.”
This is the first in a series of posts interacting with James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. These posts are part of a larger discussion on Hunter’s work that is happening in the Global Missional Leadership cohort of George Fox University’s Doctor of Ministry program (the title of the program was changed to Leadership in Global Perspectives after this post was originally published). You can join in the discussion at www.dmingml.com (now www.dminlgp.com) and by using the #dmingml (now #dminlgp) tag in your tweets and facebook status updates. I should note that all citations of Hunter’s book will make reference to a Kindle location, not a page number, by using the format “loc. #”.
Hunter’s book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World promises to be one of the year’s most important books for anyone interested in how culture change happens. In three “essays” Hunter takes on the fallacies inherent in the notion that Christian idealism is the way to change culture. For an excellent review of the book, see James K. A. Smith’s post “How (Not) to Change the World” at theotherjournal.com.
In the first essay, “Christianity and World Changing”, Hunter lays out the fatal flaw in the aims of Christian organizations who make the claim that they exist to change the culture or transform the world. Almost without exception the strategy of organizations, whether church or parachurch in nature, for culture change begins with changing the “hearts and minds” individuals. This is based off an assumption that sweeping cultural change can happen if only one can first get people to believe rightly.
Hunter refers to this as the “apparent problem” upon which these organizations base their strategies. He sums up their thinking this way:
The apparent problem, in brief, is two-fold: First, Christians aren’t just Christian enough. Christians don’t think with an adequate enough worldview, Christians are fuzzy minded, Christians don’t pray hard enough, and Christians are generally lazy toward their duties as believers. By the same token, there are not enough people who actually do fully embrace God’s call on their lives, praying, understanding, and working to change the world. (loc. 340)
The problem with this “problem” is that it is grounded in a Hegelian-informed idealism, clothed with individualism, and trimmed with a Nietzsche-esque will to power understanding of how change can and should happen (see loc. 353 and 365). In short, if anyone just believes rightly and sets his or her mind to changing the way things are into the way things ought to be, then the world will be quickly (James Dobson, for example, is fond of saying that culture can be changed in just one generation) and drastically changed. Hunter asserts that this is a misappropriation of individual agency, “implying the capacity to bring about influence where that capacity may not exist or where it may only be weak” (loc. 375).
I see this happening in the church by the way we choose which stories to tell – biblical or otherwise. When talking about culture change from the pulpit, pastors are quick to use Nehemiah, Esther, David, or Moses as examples of how through one person drastic change was brought about. There’s no denying that these (and many other) biblical characters were agents of cultural change.
However, what is too often extrapolated from these stories is that each one of us is a Nehemiah, an Esther, a David, or a Moses, and that if we are not having the kind of impact on our culture as they had on theirs it is because we are not acting responsibly enough or believing rightly enough. The assumption is that there is a latent power to drastically change the world lying dormant within each of us, trying to break free if only we would get our acts together and let it out.
The problem with that application is two-fold. First, it ignores the empowerment of the Spirit of God in those biblical heroes. These were men and women singled out by God as his agents of change. They were not successful in changing culture because they unlocked some power within them by believing rightly and trying hard enough. It was empowerment by God and significant orchestration by God of their surrounding circumstances that led them to be used as agents of broad change.
That leads to the second flaw, the denial of these character’s proximity to power. Hunter deals with this in his second essay, but it is worth touching upon now. Nehemiah was serving in the court of the king, Esther was married to the king, David was living in the house of the king before becoming king himself, and Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s house before his self-imposed exile. These were not your “average Joes” leading grassroots movements. They were aligned with the dominant power structures and knew how to both use them and buck them effectively.
So, while it is quite important that the hearts and minds of individuals are changed to align with the Kingdom of God, that simply isn’t enough to change the world. There are other factors that must come into play beyond thinking and believing Christianly. Hunter gets to those in his next two essays.
I want to hear from you. What are your thoughts on the notion that not everyone can “change the world”? Do you disagree? Why?