The issue of how the church interacts with culture has perennially energized and dogged Jesus’ church throughout the centuries. While most Christians, and Christian movements, would seek to positively influence culture, we’ll disagree about how best to achieve that goal. Many of us will also cringe as we see some Christians doing (hopefully well intentioned but) dumb things in the name of Christ, and we’ll agree with many skeptical and secular approbations of them. Still, to paraphrase an old phrase from church history, What hath Jerusalem to do with Washington and Hollywood, Main Street and Wal-Mart?
A recent and helpful book that provides needed critique to much of the church’s forays into Christ-and-culture territory and points a way forward is James Davidson Hunter’s To Change the World. For starters, the volume amounts to a massive critique of Christians’ efforts to do what the title suggests.
Hunter is a Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia. One of the real strengths of To Change the World is that it takes a historical-sociological perspective on how cultures actually transform over time. In other words, while we may talk a lot about culture change, how does, and has, that really happened? Are churches seeking to transform culture for Christ employing means that will achieve that end? Hunter contends that many Christian efforts to change the world for Christ not only fail to hit the mark but may also do more harm than good.
Marshaling a vast array of voices from Christendom, Hunter observes that the contemporary church employs three primary strategies in order to alter culture—converting hearts through evangelism, populist civil/social movements, and political activism. While he would allow that Christians should seek to share their faith with others and peacefully to engage in the socio-political process, Hunter demonstrates from every period in Western Civilization since the Roman Empire that cultures have never changed through those means. Hunter writes:
The evidence of history and sociology demonstrates that this theory of culture and cultural change is simply wrong and for this reason, every initiative based on this perspective will fail to achieve the goals it hopes to meet. . . The hearts and minds of ordinary people are. . . relatively insignificant to change cultures at their deepest level.
As an alternative view of how cultures shift, Hunter claims,
Cultural change at its most profound level occurs through dense networks of elites operating in common purpose within institutions at the high-prestige centers of cultural production. In light of this, the cultural economy of contemporary Christianity has been strongest, in the main, where cultural leverage is weakest—on the social periphery rather than the cultural center and in tastes that run to the lower-middle and middle brow rather than to the high brow. . . Thus, for all the talk of world-changing and all of the good intentions that motivate it, the Christian community is not, on the whole, remotely close to a position where it could actually change the world in any significant way.
These are heady words from Hunter, and the case he builds is persuasive to me.
There’s one other aspect to his critique of the church that bears repeating. He notes that while many typical Christian causes may have some limited merit (although not always), the means by which these causes are put forward are never neutral. In fact, Hunter argues, the occasional vehemence of Christian advocacy, which he documents exhaustively, can be interpreted as simply another will to power that seeks to establish its own claims by vilification of the “other” and by aspiration to dominance:
The tragedy is that in the name of resisting the internal deterioration of faith and the corruption of the world around them, many Christians. . . unwittingly embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry. By nurturing its resentments, sustaining them through the discourse of negation toward outsiders, and in cases, pursuing their will to power, they become functional Nietzscheans, participating in the very cultural breakdown they so ardently strive to resist.
Yowzers! This certainly isn’t liberti’s way. Thankfully, I don’t know any Christians personally that are “corrosive” by any stretch, but are they out there somewhere? What would youtube, or our skeptical friends and neighbors, observe? (And don’t forget: Mr. T says, “I pity the fool that pursues functional Nietzscheanism under the guise of Christian witness.”)
So how, on the other hand, ought our people and churches to engage with culture? There are more questions here than there is space to answer, but we begin with the cross, where Jesus turned the very idea of power on its head and demonstrated by his crucifixion and resurrection a way of victory through service, weakness, sacrifice, and faithful presence. As ones freed to be truly human through the grace of Jesus, we dream of a better world and seek it by the Spirit of Jesus.
In a short story collection by Edna O’Brien called Saints and Sinners, a sexually abused woman wonders, “How beautiful it would be if one of us could step forward and volunteer to become the warrior for the others. What a firmament of love ours would be.” There was this man named Jesus; he was also God himself. Jesus possessed memory, courage, and love for us, bringing good news of a new city and for cities full of broken people. Jesus for the joy set before him recognized the dream of a city as a promise, and for the cross set upon him recognized the promise of a city as a dream. As our warrior-deliverer, Jesus brings peace, a peace that recalls God’s original intention for creation and witnesses to God’s good future that has already begun. Now God’s shalom—his kingdom peace of beauty, forgiveness, healing, and harmony—has been unleashed upon the world, as surely as the last book in the Bible, the Revelation of St. John, tells us of a garden city yet to come that will envelop the world.
Jesus beckons that people follow him, and his followers that they seek the peace of the city. This is culture change at its most audacious. The Lord Christ gives his people every resource for his mission, and we receive the courage to remember, the audacity to dream, and the resolve to serve. Jesus’ grace operates in our world to repeal the fall, overturning the broken spiritual, psychological, relational, and social dimensions of our world. Including where are congregations have been planted: as the kingdom comes to bear upon our region, what a firmament of love ours would be.
The mission of all of the liberti churches is to live, speak, and serve as the very presence of Jesus in our areas. To that end, lives of worship, community, and mercy are the are the sine qua non of what Jesus calls us to do, and by God’s grace the heartbeat of the liberti churches. We believe that this type of life is the one that truly fulfills the longings of the human soul, brings flourishing to a broken world, and unites people as no other message can. We do not pursue a different world, but a freer one.
(FYI: this article will have appeared as a post in liberti’s new app. I’ve cross posted here, and I hope that you enjoyed my savvy deployment of the future perfect tense in the previous sentence.)