To Change the World


In the latest issue of Christianity Today, Christopher Benson interviews James Davison Hunter, author of To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. In both the article and the book Hunter critiques the common understanding of cultural engagement. Here is one excerpt from the CT interview:

Benson: Why are the principal strategies for cultural change failing?

Hunter: Evangelism, political action, and social reform are worthy undertakings, but they aren’t decisively important if the goal is world changing.  These strategies don’t attend to the institutional dynamics of cultural formation and cultural change; in fact, the move in exactly the opposite direction of the ways in which cultures do change.

How is it that American public life is so profoundly secular when 85 percent of the population professes to be Christian? If a culture were simply the sum total of beliefs, values, and ideas that ordinary individuals hold, then the United States would be a far more religious society. Looking at out entertainment, politics, media, and education, we are forced to conclude that the cultural influence of Christians is negligible . By contrast, Jews, who compose 3 percent of the population, exert significant cultural influence disproportionate to their numbers, notably in literature, art, science, medicine, and technology. Gays offer another example. Minorities would have no effect if culture were solely about ideas, but that’s clearly not the case.

Hunter’s answer to the previous question is insightful:

Benson: What’s wrong with viewing culture as ideas or as artifacts?

Hunter: Both perspectives fail to recognize that culture is also infrastructure. Culture is constituted by very powerful institutions that operate on their own dynamics independent of individual will. Ideas do move history, and objects do have their place, but only under certain social conditions. When ideas do move history, it’s not because those ideas are inherently truthful or obviously correct, but rather because of the way they’re embedded within institutions and structures of power. Both perspectives are looking at the tip of the iceberg, overlooking the mass of ice beneath the water.

For those interested:

A chapter by chapter abstract of Hunter’s book.

Andy Crouch’ helpful review and critique of To Change the World


Posted on May 16, 2010, in Culture. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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