Sunday, December 12, 2010

Stop Driving in Circles, Turn on a GPS

I am going to take another trip. Where am I going? And what will I do when I am there? The answer shapes the means of travel, cost, time etc. The destination is everything. We have to know the final destination, and we have to know how to get there. Yes, I am one of millions of men who will be forever grateful to whoever invented the GPS.

The evangelical church seems to be driving without a GPS. In fact, we seem to have left the map at the last rest stop. What is the end? What does it look like? How are we supposed to get there? Does anyone have any idea?

For the church, what we believe about the end times is determinative in setting priorities and putting into play the methods we use. Somewhere in the mid-1980’s evangelicals became so fried with useless bickering over the fine points of eschatology that they fell into what I would coin as an "a-eschatology" which in reality is a solid step toward anti-supernaturalism. But I don’t want to get into that here. Instead I want to think about the fact that the very phrase “to change the world” is inherently eschatological, and therefore we cannot think deeply on the topic without surfacing our own eschatological assumptions and without examining their impact on whatever ministry project we are engaged in.

Here is my take on the relevance of eschatology to James Davidson Hunter’s book: To Change the World.

Hunter speaks of the Christian Right as having taken a position toward the current culture as “defense against.” He does not deny that there is good reason for this as the current culture is extremely harmful on many fronts to faith and also to people. I wish to ask, apart from Hunter, does the eschatology of the Right influence this “defensive position?”

Through the early twentieth century two factors shaped the evangelical stance toward society. First, liberalism, which proclaimed social engagement as the way to bring in the kingdom, caused evangelicals – including A. B. Simpson and Alliance leaders, to react by abandoning social engagement. Second, the rise of dispensational eschatology provided a theological underpinning for a stance that can be described as social non-involvement. It worked out this way. Please be aware that I know that the following summaries are not nuanced and are overly brief.

Dispensationalism positioned itself this way: if Christians are going to be raptured, and if then immediately thereafter a terrible and earth devastating tribulation is going to erupt, and if, after that Christ is going to return and rule, then there is no need to be involved in the improvement of society, no need to seek to establish justice or work for peace, because all of those efforts are going to be swallowed up in the tribulation. Christ will establish justice and peace when he comes; hence the main work of the church is to evangelize so that as many people as possible are spared from the future tribulation. Thus evangelism became the one and only focus of the evangelical church.

No one should gainsay the impetus to evangelism which this view inspired. However, there were two factors which evangelicals were not thinking about when they disengaged from culture. First, culture is the air we breathe and just like air we are not always aware of it. Evangelicals were in a culture which, while not an evangelical culture, and not a Christian culture, was nonetheless tied to enough Christian reference points to create a certain illusion of being a Christian culture. Consequently, evangelical cultural disengagement from approximately 1900 through the 1970’s was done from within a certain cultural comfort zone, however illusory that comfort zone might have been. Thus, they disengaged, but their disengagement did not leave them with a sense of danger.

When Francis Schaeffer pulled the fire alarm with How Shall We Then Live? everything shifted. Evangelicals suddenly tuned into culture and saw serious and real threats to their lives and their children’s lives. For Schaeffer the flashpoint was abortion; for Dobson, the rise and legitimatization of pornography; and other issues were targeted by other evangelical elite leaders, all of which triggered the rise of what we now identify as the Christian Right.

At the same time, Hunter points out; one of the tactics of evangelicals was to attempt to shield themselves from the culture by setting up what Hunter calls a parallel culture. The mainstream culture has rock music; we can do that with Christian rock! And entertainment stars? We can do that too. You want publishing companies, and television shows, even comedians; we can do all of that. In this way, through the creation of a parallel evangelical culture, we maintained the defensive postion of dispensationalism. Withdrawal from the world, withdrawal from the surrounding culture while we wait for the cataclysmic end, continued as the order of the day.

While trying to stay safe in its parallel evangelical culture, evangelicalism also took a cultural offensive by becoming involved in the political right. I would suggest that this shift from political non-involvement to involvement was caused by a weakening of dispensationalism and an uncritical absorption of the program of alternate eschatological matrixes. This weakening happened in part because of the excess of dispensational writers in predicting the end of the world, and also in interpreting current events and predicting that various end time events such as the rise of the antichrist were going to happen within the immediate future. When these predicted events did not occur, some pastors and theologians found themselves ready to move on to a different eschatology. For many this void was filled by the resurgence of post/a millennialism.

Enter post/a millennialism. These old relatives who had been banished to live in the evangelical basement now began showing up for dinner dressed in newly pressed tuxedos. I put these two together because while there are differences as far as the interpretation and timing of the appearance of the Antichrist, the conversion of Israel, etc., there is a commonality in regards to the possibility of a worldwide presence of the Kingdom of God which does not arise as a result of the sudden and cataclysmic coming of Christ, but instead arises from the work of God’s people in fulfilling the creation mandate and by the evangelization of the world. This I believe is at least one of the sources of language which speaks of “building the kingdom” and it seems to underlie much of the current talk about being a “missional church.” Many emergent church writers reflect this view which is clearly articulated by N. T. Wright.

At the same time there is a dissonance in current talk about the Kingdom and the missional church. This dissonance is found in the obvious disjunction between the call to reject the Constantinian project of making a Christian society, and the desire to see the kingdom of God fill the earth. I would ask some simple questions. In relation to the environment: how do Christians hope to see the environment restored without the whole world culture becoming Christian in the sense of being a people who see the environment as a gift from God and understanding that we are charged with caring for it? Likewise, justice for women, the end of poverty, -- how are any of those issues to be finally, once and for all resolved without a worldwide Christian society? You can’t have your cake and eat it too. In essence the a/post millennial project is the Constantinian project.

If I may I would like to risk reducing all of this to a small sentence. The project of the post/a millennialist is to bring in the Kingdom rather than to bring back the King. This brings us to Hunter’s forceful points, that while this or that particular effort at change may be successful, in the final analysis this is a neo-Constantinian project with the ultimate goal of changing the culture of America/Canada/the world into a Christian culture, a project which in reality is failing and cannot succeed. And, I will add, this is something that A. B. Simpson and Karl Barth both clearly understood.

I believe the shock with which Hunter’s book is being received by evangelical leaders is because there is an underlying awareness that Christians are not accomplishing their “change the world” agenda. At the same time there is a cry, a shout, to try harder, sign this petition, write a letter -- and on and on. Some of that is needed, but it can be just a continuation of the power agenda. On the other hand, should we go back to cultural withdrawal and wait for it all to burn? Should we collapse into Christian quietism? Who wants that?

Surely there must be a way forward.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

No One Evangelical Hot Dog Stand Has All The Answers

Outside of Rogers Stadium are a number of hotdog stands. Whenever my wife and I attend a Blue Jays game we head for one, because eating on the street is to us a cool part of the experience, but not for everyone. Some like to eat in one of the many restaurants along Front Street, others wait for the game to start then bring hotdogs and beer to their seats. And even among the “street eaters” there are subtle differences in the hotdog stands. Those further away are cheaper, but if you buy near Gate 14 you may ensconce yourself in a tiny park and quietly munch away.

I see our pastors as milling about, ready to go into the game, but hungry. Around them are choices, and usually, instead of picking the best from each vendor, they become fiercely loyal to one. The Religious Right which is currently dominated in the United States by Focus on the Family and Chuck Colson, and in Canada and the United States given theological underpinning by a resurgent five point Calvinism, presented by Mark Driscoll, John Piper and others, represents if you will one family of choices for the church leader.

Another is the Left which is perhaps more popular in Canada. For awhile the writings of Brian McLaren and a whole raft of others calling for new paradigms in church and a re-orientation of denominations, doctrine and the Christian life received great attention in Canada.

Looming perhaps larger in Canada than in the United States, and particularly the Alliance in Canada, are the Anabaptists writers and thinkers such as Allen Hirsch who, while not Anabaptist, have a message which seems to resonate with the Anabaptist paradigm in certain interesting ways.

A brief synopsis of Hunter’s analysis of the three movements is that they have all succumbed to the dominant cultural motif of the politicization of everything. Hunter writes:

Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups, and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws and procedures. Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts and even the family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit. … Issues gain legitimacy only when recognized by law and public policy. It is only logical, then, that problems affecting the society are seen increasingly, if not primarily through the prism of the state; that is, in terms of how law, policy, and politics can solve them. (p. 103)

When one boils it all down, politicization means that the final arbiter within most of social life is the coercive power of the state. (p.106)

Hunter’s analysis is that the Christian Right and Left have both plugged into the politicization of everything in the culture in that they not only look to the state for solutions, but they also seek political power. While the Anabaptists eschew involvement in the body politic they define themselves as not being part of the body politic.

The Right seeks change by going back to what was. For Canadians the Christian Right is quite weak partly due to the backlash against its visibility in the United States. However, I sense a residual longing for what might be called the myth of a pristine past, a Canada defined by the Protestant consensus of the United Church and by the Roman Catholic Church.

The Left seeks a future which conforms in some sense to the Enlightenment ideal of a society where there is economic parity and libertarian social justice. Although the Christian left is not as strong in the United States as it once was, it is still very powerful in Canada. The Left has accepted the liberal concept of progress which Hunter points out as originally a secularized notion of Christian eschatology. (p. 134) However, the Christian Left has also capitulated to a motif of resentment and a will to power.

Thus, according to Hunter, both the Right and the Left are following along the well trodden path of Nietzsche in being motivated by resentment and having a will to power.

This leaves the neo-Anabaptists who have a growing appeal among younger Christians in both the United States and Canada. Historically the Anabaptist movement has self-identified as a church that stands apart from the world and its structures. Through history, with a few exceptions, Anabaptists have refused to be involved in politics, even to the point of refusing to vote. Government is seen to be an institution of the world held in thrall by the “principalities and powers” of this age.

To literally demonize such powers as the State and the market means that the neo-Anabaptists draw much of their identity and purpose from a cosmic struggle with, and dissent from, the state and the larger political economy; as those institutions are represented in the culture of late modernity. Thus, for Hunter, the neo-Anabaptist identity depends on the state and on the state's powers being corrupt. And the more unambiguously corrupt those institutions are the clearer becomes the identity and mission of the church. (p.164)

To what extent then are we influenced by the agendas of the Right, Left and neo-Anabaptists? As I pointed out above, in Canada the Right has not had as much influence as it has in the United States. Canada is the only major country in the world with no law governing abortion and there is no powerful movement to change that; same sex marriage came into law with little more than a whimper; and Canadians of all persuasions see universal health care as the right thing to do. In my opinion this is because the Left, i.e., the United Church and the Anglican Church, have driven the communitarian agenda for decades. Yes, in Canada, those churches certainly had dense networks of elites in high prestige locations.

For evangelicals the most pointed influence is from the neo-Anabaptist movement as it is filtered through various contemporary writers. As is to be expected such influence has, in my opinion, both a positive and negative aspect.

The positive aspect is the neo-Anabaptist examination of the contemporary evangelical church for spiritual coldness; an examination conducted from the platform of the church's need to stand in antithesis to the principalities and powers of this present age. From this analysis the neo-Anabaptist is able to identify spiritual coldness in the following: the evangelical church's symbiotic relationship to corporate structures, producing a consumer driven church which commodities ministry and, the lack of concern for the disenfranchised of society, i.e., a lack of concern for justice.

Having heard this piercing analysis I think there is a growing desire among many to move from such coldness into a place of renewed spiritual vitality. In some writers this desire is translated into a call for the church to be “missional,” – a label that seems to mean different things to different people – and a desire to more truly relate to people outside of the church by bringing love and compassion to them. Note, I did not say “bring love and justice…” and the reason for that, in my opinion, is that the evangelical church has for so long endorsed the surrounding culture that it is having difficulty identifying violations of justice and is having even more difficulty articulating how injustice should be addressed apart from the will worn paths of politics.

Negatively the influence of the neo-Anabaptists may possibly be seen in some of the following trends. Here what I say that it is very difficult to prove so these points should be taken as my private read of the current situation. Take it or leave it.

First, I see the naïve rejection of the institutional church with the hope for an ideal church that somehow is like the pristine pre-Constantine church, as a negative product of the neo-Anabaptist influence. This attitude: “I am above and beyond the institutional church” pops up in many ways and places, but has Hunter points out; it reveals an amazingly weak ecclesiology as well as a total lack of understanding of sociology. Institutions have a reality and are critical to the functioning of society. The church, from its beginning, is both a heavenly or spiritual entity and an earthly institution. Both its earthly structure and its heavenly dwelling must be embraced by Christians.

Second, I see the gradual drifting from doctrinal anchor points which give identity to both the Christian faith and particular church communities as arising from this movement. One spin off of the loosing of doctrinal moorings has been a deep controversy among those who work among people of other religions and a call for the use of a methodology that in its extreme at least flirts with syncretism. I am referring to the contextualization debate in missiological circles. Another is the growing inability to identify error and deception which continually presents itself to the church.

A legitimatization of compassion work (seen as a proper work of the church) and a commensurate de-legitimatization of evangelistic work (seen as a concentration on the individual which is a result of enlightenment thinking) is another by-product, so that, as a denominational leader, I can raise over one million dollars with a single email for any disaster that is highly publicized by the media, but must beg to raise an equivalent amount to sustain the training of young people in our university college or to sustain our worldwide evangelistic effort. Let’s be honest. Evangelism is virtually dying out in Canadian evangelical churches. And I can bring forward empirical data from our denomination to back this statement up.

The three segments, The Right, The Left and the neo-Anabaptists have each addressed legitimate issues, have raised consciousness in regards to those issues, and have created some legitimate responses. However, they have not delivered on the promise to change the world, or America, or even Canada. Next let’s pull together the reasons why.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Why We Are Not Going to Change the World -- Hunter's Sociological/Theological Analysis

After giving some of my own experiences with the three motifs for change presented by James Davidson Hunter in his book:To Change the World, I will now continue to present some of his key ideas.

To the thesis that individuals can change culture James Davidson Hunter presents a counter thesis: culture changes individuals. Cultural change does occur but not in the ways we as Christians have thought. We have thought that a great individual, acting alone has at various times changed the culture. We have thought that certain key ideas have changed culture. We have thought that if enough people became Christians and in so doing changed their values, culture would change. However, culture is changed very slowly, and with conflict “…through dense networks of elites operating in common purpose within institutions at the high-prestige centers of culture production.” (p. 274).

This statement is worth careful consideration.

Dense networks. Hunter gives example after example of dense networks throughout history that have worked together. Almost always there are key people within those networks, people who formulate and articulate concepts and modes of action, but without the network they would be mere voices in the wilderness. (For an excellent discussion of this read Malcome Gladwell, The Tipping Point.)

Elites. Culture, says Hunter, is about how societies define reality, and the capacity to do that is not spread evenly throughout the society. “Deep-rooted cultural change tends to begin with those whose work is most conceptual and invisible and it moves through to those whose work is most concrete and visible.”(p. 41). Thus there is what Paul Ricoeur spoke of as a sedimentation process. Picture a lake with various streams coming into it. The input contains various chemicals, minerals, salts, etc. which hang in the water, but which eventually sink to form the sediment. The input, says Ricoeur, is innovation. This is what Hunter’s elites do. They live in universities, they head major corporations and control the media. As they work and play together their ideas gradually sink down to form the sediment of society, that is, the culture.

Within institutions. One of the failures of contemporary evangelical thinking, in my opinion, has been to naively underestimate the importance of institutions. This, as Hunter points out, is especially true of those who do not grasp the importance of the institutional side of the church. Institutions, be they churches, universities, charities, various societies such as The Order of Canada, are places where elites can form networks, and are a vehicle for the elites to transmit change into the culture.

High-prestige centers of culture production. Culture is produced in many places, but there are places which have high prestige, and the culture production that comes from these places spreads. Thus, the high prestige place for theatre is New York City, movies, Los Angeles, social and political commentary, the Eastern seaboard, and much of that influence spreads to Canada from those centers. Canada’s social and political commentary as well as its media production is based in Toronto.

Culture production that comes from dense networks of elites operating from high prestige locations becomes the texture and fiber of society. Christians, but in particular, Evangelicals, have failed to be part of this production. Evangelicals have not produced enough elites to form dense networks, and they do not locate themselves in prestige locations. Hunter gives a stunning and, for an evangelical, embarrassing rundown of what appears to be almost a conscious effort to do the exact opposite, that is, to place ourselves as far from the centres of influence as possible; to maximize our marginalization in the culture.


• While there is evangelical scholarly work that is good, much of it is published by evangelical presses, not by high prestige presses.
• The works of literature produced by evangelicals are huge in volume, but are seldom reviewed in prestige publications, i.e., The New York Times.
• There is not one evangelical research university.
• There is little evangelical presence in the media, in any location.

So what’s the point? Is the point that we should, as James Dobson says in one place, work harder? Should we take Hunter’s analysis, absorb it, figure out what we are doing wrong, raise ten billion dollars and launch a new strategy to create a Christian culture, to change the world? No. Give it up. It’s not going to happen. Hunter points out that America has never had a Christian culture. And in my opinion Canada has never had a Christian culture. And, even if everything was done right it – elites were enlisted, culture production from high prestige locations began, etc., it would take about three hundred years to bring about the true culture change that is envisioned. And that won’t happen because the main problem with all of this will continue to be a problem -- sin, or, as Hunter puts it, the corruption of power.

This is the irony that lurks in the title. Those who have embarked on this project are quickly enmeshed in what Nietzsche called the will to power. This is especially true for the Christian right and the Christian left, but surprisingly it is also true of the neo-Anabaptist movement also. I might here recommend SJS' comment to my "If not Chicago, how about Detroit" post.

Next, a closer look at Hunter's analysis of the Christian triad of Right, Left and Anabaptist.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Institutions Can Be Change Agents

I have written of my own experience with the first two ways by which evangelicals believe they can change the world, namely, through evangelizing enough people to reach critical mass, and through changing values by gaining political power. Hunter also speaks of the institutions of society.

Those of us who have only a passing acquaintance with sociology sometimes overlook the crucial role that institutions play as they mediate between the body politic and individuals. I have been involved with many institutions through the years. I was on the board of a small Christian school in Chicago and in Detroit much action occurred through community organizations. However, those organizations seemed to be exclusively focused on being agents of influence on the political machine.

After our daughter was killed in a crash my wife and I became involved in one of Canada’s best institutions, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, or MADD. In my opinion the people who run MADD really know what they are doing. They understand how to act on multiple societal fronts at the same time, how to bring about political change, and how to influence a change of values in society.

MADD caries on a continual political lobbying effort. They gather statistics, they make presentations and apply pressure. As a result they have seen a gradual change in laws that have raised the penalties for drunk driving while lowering the legal tolerance level.

MADD also seeks to change the values of society. They do this through advertising and through presentations. My wife and I have spoken at The Rotary on behalf of MADD and we also coordinated a contest among school children in Grey County whereby children drew a billboard against Drunk Driving and the winning design was actually turned into a billboard and displayed.

MADD also cares for people who have lost family members to drunk driving. This was in fact our first contact as a nearby chapter called us and offered support.

What we see from this institution is an example of a number of things which Hunter speaks of. MADD speaks to the cultural forming elites of society. Because harm from drunk driving is no respecter of persons they have been able to enlist the support of a number of people who are part of Canada’s elite opinion making class.

As a result society has begun to change its values in regards to drinking and driving. Drunk driving is no longer a joke, it is no longer socially acceptable to drink and drive. That is not to say it does not happen, it happens all the time. But society no longer considers it to be permissible behaviour. And this real shift in attitude is largely credited to MADD which effectively, year in and year out, harnessed the power of the opinion making elites. Thus, as I see it, they have functioned brilliantly as an institution by mediating between the political sphere on one hand and seeking to influence the value system of individuals on the other. And further, to a limit extent, they have sought to give care to people at moments of great vulnerability.

MADD however understands its limitations as an institution. It does not, as far as I know, set as a goal the one hundred percent elimination of drunk driving. Nor does it seem to be tempted to go off mission and become involved in other worthwhile causes. Thus MADD seeks change but seeks it within a reasonable framework.

One more thing should be added from my perspective. Many of the people who are active in MADD are people who have lost part of their lives to a drunk driver. And this fact is ever before the organization. Yet, in spite of its title, the majority of people who compose MADD are not consumed with anger, or what Hunter would call resentment. They are people who wish to spare others the horror that they have experienced. This has added to the institution’s impact.

I do see in mediating institutions a way to bring positive influence on society.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

If not Chicago how about Detroit?

In my seventh year in Chicago, while in the midst of the Vietnamese refugee re-location project, I was called by David Clark, District Superintendent in another district, and asked to consider coming to a church in Detroit’s inner city. This was quite a different situation from Chicago in almost every way. Chicago, under Mayor Daley, was a well run city. People worked, raised their families and were frequently involved in community organizations. Even so there were of course massive problems in Chicago, problems large enough to challenge thousands of pastors and workers for their entire lives and I don’t wish to understate that reality.

Detroit however sat in contrast to Chicago, for Detroit was then beginning the slide to its current decrepitude. Riots has seared the soul of the city. White flight took on epidemic proportions and was encouraged by various policies. City government had as its goal to establish political power and to skim money. I will never forget walking into a city hall office and reading a large sign which said something like this: “Employees are forbidden to talk to the FBI without permission of their supervisor.”

The church itself was a result of the split of Central Alliance -- the old mother church of the Alliance in Detroit. Wayne State University wished to buy the old church to make a parking lot and so the congregation sold and moved to Dearborn. But a small group stayed behind and took up residence in another large building which was already owned by the city and slated to be demolished for even more parking.This "stay behind" group was the church that called me. I answered the call and went.

When I arrived the whole city was politicized in a way which has only recently become familiar to wider society. The presence of the city government was like humidity on a hot day and I knew that we would not be able to establish ourselves or have any relevance without becoming immersed in the political milieu.

And so I did. To this day I display in my office a plaque of appreciation given to me by one of the community organizations. Voter registration drives, court injunctions to stop this or stop that, appearing before City Council and being on a first name basis with many, including the now well known United States Senator Carl Levin, I was there, fully present and active, I worked the system.

It was generally accepted by many that community political action was going to save Detroit. Individual houses would be spared demolition, work programs would be brought in, prostitution bars closed and “hot bed” hotels zoned out – by community action. And all of this happened, and more. If political action could save even a local society, Detroit would have been saved. But Detroit was not saved.

Perhaps Detroit activists have moved on from those dreamy days of believing in change through politics. An article on Detroit in The National Post September 13, 2010 reveals the current state of affairs. Individuals act to plant gardens or to develop farms, art projects are erected in empty areas, and local people band together to push out drug pushers from their neighbourhoods. Promises from the government are met with scepticism, a scepticism that I totally resonate with. From the article I sensed that there may be glimmers of hope, not that yet another Federal grant will be obtained, but that a modest sense of community may be formed in this once great city. People are doing good things, seeking to live healthful lives, bringing healing and joy where they can.

It seemed to me as I read The National Post article that the people being described were practicing something like what Hunter calls “faithful presence.” That is, they are trying to breath life into their society. This is something for us as Christians to think about in Canada. Can we breath health, temporal health and eternal health, into Canada?

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Could I At Least Change Chicago?

Church planting in Chicago first brought me face to face with questions of the involvement of Christians/church in the world. Race, war, poverty, the environment, it was all on the table and Christians around me where trying to be relevant. As part of my Ph. D. studies at Northwestern University I was in classes at a seminary where the students were trying to apply the theories of social involvement which they drew from their studies of then contemporary theologians – trying to develop their praxis as some would say. A fairly large group of them decided to have a sit-in at the seminary to protest the development of a certain coal burning power generating plant in Chicago. As I walked by one day I noticed that the whole area of the sit-in was thick with cigarette smoke. Later I asked one of the participants if he did not think this a bit odd, that they would protest air pollution yet pollute each other’s air. He didn’t see my point. Of course now, everyone sees that point. This incident really brought home to me that Christians –desiring, as they do. the best for others-- are quick to get on bandwagons, right or left, without considering the wider ramifications.

As my wife and I planted a church, we faced the question: what should be our attitude toward the issues of the day? I took the stance of focusing on planting a church, believing that a church, a group of people committed to Jesus Christ, could best address the issues of the neighbourhood. Thus, most of our programs were in some way or another slated as “outreach.” Friday youth night with a full basketball program run by volunteers from Moody Bible Institute and Wheaton College. Door to door visitation, small group Bible studies by the dozens. I kept a written log of my time and sought to spend fifty percent in evangelism. As a result my wife and led more people to Christ and baptized more people than we have at any other point in our lives. It was an amazing period in our ministry.

However I did very little with the structural issues of the community. I would say there were several reasons for this. During that time the government answer to poverty was welfare, and I saw welfare destroy people’s lives. I also observed some effective government sponsored programs, such as one that trained youth in marketable skills. Ironically, that particular program was cancelled during a period of budget cutting while programs that produced few results continued.

In was for sure in Chicago that I developed a deep cynicism toward almost all government run/sponsored anti-poverty programs. At the same time I learned to respect the lives of the working people around me. My father was a member of a union and worked his whole life. The people I knew in Chicago were not rich like the people in the suburbs, but most of them brought home a paycheck and lived happy lives and hoped for better things. At the same time, teens dropping out of high school, a rising gang presence, the insidious entrance of drugs, these and other community dysfunctions were an incoming storm.

In the end I left Chicago for Detroit realizing that just being a church like all the churches I had known growing up was not enough for the tumultuous seas of the inner city. By then I had worked on a number of things beyond youth basketball night, but was still trying to see how the church could truly be a church and truly be a place where people’s lives could be holistically changed.

Friday, October 08, 2010

The Thesis: Our Key Assumptions on How to Change the World are Wrong

As a sociologist James Davidson Hunter begins To Change the World with an analysis of the social theory that has guided Christians (it needs to be kept in mind throughout that while Evangelicals are highly profiled, Hunter is including both Mainline Protestant Churches and Roman Catholics in his critique) through the past one hundred years or so. To do this he first gives a synopsis of the project of “world making” by which he means the creation mandate given to Adam and Eve to cultivate and keep the garden and subdue the earth, which he interprets to be the whole human enterprise of creating culture. Theologians have traditionally spoken of this as the creation mandate and there is general agreement that sin did not lift this mandate and therefore culture is an outcome of our mandate to “make the world.”

Currently Christians are not happy with the culture that has been created, especially Christians in North America, and Hunter agrees with their analysis that the Christian culture of yesterday has been severely eroded. Because he is writing for the American church, I will humbly undertake to comment on how I see the relevance of his analysis to Canada. I will venture to say that Christians in Canada also are not happy with the culture in which they live, and that they desire to change it.

Later we will notice that this is precisely what Hunter advises us not to do, that is, we need to stop desiring to change the world. But first, how do we think we can change the world and how has that shaped our action?

Essentially Christians have accepted the very popular understanding of culture that has been widely adopted by politicians and by educators. Hunter says:

"The substance of this view can be summarized something like this: The essence of culture is found in the hearts and minds of individuals—in what are typically called “values.” Values are, simply, moral preferences; inclinations toward or conscious attachment to what is good and right and true. Culture is manifested in the ways these values guide actual decisions we individuals make about how to live.He says: . . . . By this view, a culture is made up of the accumulation of values held by the majority of people and the choices made on the basis of those values.” P. 6

Thus, in this view, the culture changes when individuals change their values. Change the values, change the culture. In the past one hundred years Christians have approached this project of changing the values of individuals in three ways, choosing one method exclusively, or working a combination.

First Christians have approached the project through Evangelism. The impact on values that is made when a person is truly transformed by the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit and discipled can be profound. Thus, through evangelism Christians have sought to change the culture by seeing one person at a time become a Christian, one person at a time re-orienting their personal values to the values of Scripture. In so doing they have hoped that somewhere they would reach critical mass, that is, if enough people in Canada would be truly converted, become true and devoted followers of Jesus Christ, then the culture of Canada would shift back to a Christian culture. The success of the past sixty years of evangelism (post World War II with the rise of Youth for Christ and Billy Graham through the campus ministries and the Jesus People movement until today) is obvious. Around the turn of the century I recall reading an article in the New York Times that spoke of the Christian resurgence as being a third Great Awakening. However pollster George Barna gave Christians of all denominations a rude awakening when he noted in several books that Christians display values that mirror those of the surrounding culture. So "change individuals -- change culture" is not working.

The whole project of evangelism has come under withering attack in recent years by certain voices in the evangelical left (Brian McLaren to mention one) and the Anabaptists. In the name of the Creation Mandate they call for us to notch evangelism down on the priority list and to ratchet up the renewal of cultural forms. That is, if evangelism is the pathway to changing the culture of North America, it has failed, so these voices say, so let’s try something else.

The call to substitute, or downplay, evangelism for the Creation Mandate is worthy of a lengthy critique. But here, a few words. First we should remember that C. S. Lewis stood against this morphing of evangelism into renewal of culture when he pointed out that cultural forms do not exist but that individual people exist, that is, individual people have ontological status. So, “the laboring class” or what have you cannot be saved and will not live in eternity, but individual laboring people can be saved and live in eternity. Later Hunter argues that when Jesus told us to “obey” all that he had said that this would include the Creation Mandate. I am a fan of the Creation Mandate, and certainly it is part of the Christian’s obedience. But, evangelism, that is the evangelism of individual people who can be immersed into the waters of baptism, is the heart of the Great Commission.

Hunter does not call us to abandon evangelism – he is totally in favor of evangelism. What Hunter says is that by itself bringing people to Christ will not change the culture. The focus on the conversion of people which we find in the book of Acts is absolutely critical, but I personally have learned the hard way how resistant the overall culture is to change and agree that evangelism by itself will not bring such change about.

Second, Political Action. After evangelism, political action is the strategy of choice to change the world for Christians.

The logic is simple. Values are shaped by law, and law is shaped by the values of law-makers, i.e., legislators, judges and heads of state. So, when Christians sit in those positions with Christian values they will make good laws which in turn will create a Christian culture.

While Hunter affirms politics as a legitimate sphere of human activity and one in which Christians are properly to be involved he sees the current situation where “politics is the tactic of choice for many Christians as they think about changing the world” (p.12) However, he says, politics by itself does not shape culture. I would point out that politics, as part of the on-going stream of human activity, does play a role in shaping culture, and for this reason the hard work of political leaders should not be minimized as being either unimportant or ineffective. However, while I agree with Hunter that politics by itself does not shape culture, in Canadian culture politics is the focal point for power, perhaps even more so that in the United States because the Canadian people look to government to solve many of life’s problems.

A second issue in regards to the Christian involvement in politics is the question of Christians and power. Politics and power walk hand in hand, so many Christians (again—not only evangelicals) in America have faced the question: “does the cultural mandate call for us to brazenly seek power-- to have a “will to power?” and many have answered “yes.” The ironic implications of that decision are playing out before our eyes.

Third, Social Reform.
In every society there are various institutions which mediate between “citizens and the state and market.” (p.14) These are voluntary institutions and they have been used to bring about moral reform by “addressing particular problems with the family, schools, neighborhoods and civic associations.“ Illustrations of these voluntary social movements include, among others, “the fatherhood movement, the marriage movement, the character movement, the teen-abstinence movement.” (p.14) Hunter points out that these movements have contributed to culture but again have not created the desired cultural change sought by Christians.

Thus these three activities: evangelism, politics and social reform are the three projects of choice for Christians to change the culture to a Christian culture, to change the world if you please, by changing the values of individuals one person at a time with a goal of reaching a critical mass at which point the whole culture will shift. Hunter says:

"At the end of the day, the message is clear…. If you have the courage and hold to the right values and if you think Christianly with an adequate Christian worldview, you too can change the world. This account is almost wholly mistaken.” (p. 17)(emphasis mine)

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Let’s Discuss – Can We Change The World?

For my money James Davidson Hunter has been putting out the keen analysis of evangelicalism for the past thirty years. Now his life’s work is finding a focus in calling Christians of every confession, that is Baptists to Roman Catholics, to change the way the stand in relation to the surrounding culture. To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in a Late Modern World, Oxford University Press, 2010 calls us to abandon the enterprises that have been foisted on us by: The Christian Right (including the Roman Catholic Right), the Christian Left, and the neo-Anabaptists, and in their place to re-formulate what living as Christians in the world might mean. Hunter admits that this is a mammoth undertaking and that all he can provide is a sketch. But the sketch he provides is one of health and significance with a realism that can be followed. As well, his proposal actually could provide substance for the word “missional” without falling into the vagaries of what has rapidly became a cliché.

In a series of blogs I wish to explore and comment on Hunter’s book. I do not pretend to expound it completely for it is a dense book and deserves the careful attention of thinkers who are much more gifted than I. But I would like to add my affirmations, some caveats, and also begin to think about what the implications might be for local churches, and in particular local Alliance churches in Canada. To do that I will also present some autobiographical material so that the reader might know a bit of the context of my thinking.