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 na├»ve 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.

Briefly:

• 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.