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Category Archives: To Change the World

Hunter’s To Change the World: Seven Propositions on Culture

I’m doing a chapter-by-chapter summary of  James Davison Hunter’s new book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010). Today we’re on chapter 4.

Hunter has been looking at the fundamental flaws of the prevailing view of culture and cultural change. They are weak and ineffective because they fail to take into account

    the nature of culture in its complexity; and
    the factors that give culture its strength and resilience over time.

Hunter presents his social theory in eleven propositions, divided into two categories. We’ll look at the first category (on culture) today, and the second category (on cultural change) tomorrow:

Seven Propositions on Culture

1. Culture is a system of truth claims and moral obligations.

“Culture is, first and foremost, a normative order by which we comprehend other, the larger world, and ourselves and through which we individually and collectively order our experience” (p. 32).

At the heart of culture is a complex of norms, or commanding truths, which define the shoulds vs should-nots of our experience (i.e., good and evil, right and wrong, appropriate and inappropriate, honorable and shameful).

Frameworks of knowledge and understanding are largely prereflective (we take them for granted and things seem obvious) and are mainly coterminous with language—which is why it’s very difficult to change or question one’s worldview. Most of what shapes and directs us “operates far below what most of us are capable of consciously grasping” (p. 33).

2. Culture is a product of history.

Culture is highly resistant …

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Hunter’s To Change the World: What’s Wrong with the Common View of Culture

I’m doing a chapter-by-chapter summary of  James Davison Hunter’s new book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Today we’re on chapter 3, “The Failure of the Common View.” (The “common view of culture” holds that cultures change when individuals change their ideas and values.)

Hunter clarifies that the three tactics—evangelism, political engagement, and social action—are themselves good things, and that much good can come from them. His criticism is with the “working theory that both undergirds these strategies and approves them as a primary if not only means for changing the world” (p. 18). The working theory itself is “fundamentally flawed.”

So according to the common view of cultural change, why aren’t Christians having more of an influence to shape culture? In effect, Hunter says, they think that “Christians are just not trying hard enough, acting decisively enough, or believing thoroughly or Christianly enough” (p. 22).

But the problem with this working theory of culture and cultural change and its strategies is its dependence upon idealism—the notion that ideas move history. As Colson puts it, “history is little more than the recording of the rise and fall of the great ideas—the worldview—that form our values and move us to act.” Hunter says that this “unqualified idealism” is “the convention among most American Christians” (p. 25).

Two other elements give this idealism a uniquely American and Protestant flavor:

    individualism (“the autonomous and rational individual is the key actor in social change”); …

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Hunter’s To Change the World: The Common View of Culture

I’m doing a chapter-by-chapter summary of  James Davison Hunter’s new book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010).

Chapter 2 is on “Culture: The Common View.”

Even though they are many views on culture, one view in particular has “gained predominance in the public imagination.” Charles Colson, Jim Wallis, James Dobson—all are cited as believing  and promoting this view, which holds that the essence of culture is found in the values (moral preferences) in the heart and minds of individuals. A culture, then, is made up of the accumulation of values held by the majority of people and the resulting choices those people make.

“Worldview” thinking is slightly more sophisticated. “Though driven by ideas, worldviews exist primarily in the hearts and minds and imaginations of individuals and take form in choices made by individuals” (p. 7).

Good ideas form the basis for good values which lead to good choices.

In contrast, bad ideas form the basis for mistaken or immoral values which lead to bad choices.

Changing culture requires more and more individuals embracing the good (i.e., good ideas leading to good values leading to good choices) instead of the bad. “Change the values of the common person for the better and a good society will follow in turn” (p. 9).

Christians generally employ three tactics to implement this working theory of how to change the world:

    evangelism: not only as a way of saving souls but of transforming individuals and, indirectly, the …

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James Hunter Lectures

For those following the discussion about James Hunter’s new book To Change the World, here’s a related Presidential Lecture he delivered at the University of Montana (April 6, 2009).

You can listen below to the talk, “Public Service and the Idea of a Changing World.” The first 5 minutes is introduction; the lecture itself is just under an hour in length; and then he answers questions for about 20 minutes.

[Audio clip: view full post to listen]

You can also download it.

See also this PDF, a transcript of a talk that Hunter gave to the Board of the Trinity Forum in June 2002 that formed the basis for the book.

HT: Tullian

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Hunter’s To Change the World: The Goal and Thesis of the First Essay

I’m doing a chapter-by-chapter summary of  James Davison Hunter’s new book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010).

The first “essay” of the book is on “Christianity and World-Changing,” and the first chapter in on “Christian Faith and the Task of World-Changing.”

Genesis 2:15 says that Yahweh “took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to cultivate [Hb. abad: work, nurture, sustain, husband] and keep [Hb. shamar: safeguard, preserve, care for, protect] it.” “These active verbs,” Hunter writes, “convey God’s intention that human beings both develop and cherish the world in ways that meet human needs and bring glory and honor to him” (p. 3). Christians therefore view human beings as designed by God to be “world-makers,” reflecting God’s goodness and his design for human flourishing.

With regard to the cultural mandate, Christians have a legacy of ambivalence: “There is much for Christians to be inspired by and much of which repent” (p. 4).

Hunter lists numerous mission statements from denominations and parachurch organizations “calling each other to engage the world and to change it for the better” (p. 4).

In the first essay, Hunter’s goal is to examine the ways in which diverse Christians “actually think about the creation mandate today, examining the implicit theory and explicit practices that operate within this complex and often conflicted religious and cultural moment” (p. 5, my emphasis).

What will Hunter argue?

I contend that the dominant ways of thinking about culture and …

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Hunter’s To Change the World: What Are the Questions?

I’ve begun reading James Davison Hunter’s new book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010). This is a highly significant book; I’m already benefiting from and being corrected and challenged by it. A website has been set up to further the conversation.

I’ll try to blog my way through the book, chapter by chapter (something I’ve never done with a book before).

In the preface Hunter explains that his concerns can be grouped into two broad categories, the academic and the personal.

The basic academic question is:

How is religious faith possible in the late modern world?

Related to this are questions like:

    Is it possible?
    How does the encounter of religious faith with modernity change the nature and experience of faith?
    How does it change modernity itself?

The personal question is related to the academic:

How do believers live out their faith under the conditions of the late modern world?

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