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Changing Culture: A Study in Cultural Engagement

October 8, 2010
S. Michael Craven
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Changing from the culture of death to a culture of life. This is really an audacious statement when you think about it and yet we talk of changing the culture all the time, as if this is an easy thing to do. Of course, as Christians, we do desire to see the culture reflect values and beliefs that represent the kingdom and honor Christ. However, when we speak this way we are speaking in terms that reflect an inadequate understanding of culture‚ what it is and how it is formed. Furthermore, such declarations assume that culture is a rather simple state of affairs—the mere rearrangement of which will yield a different culture. The fact is, culture is a far more complex phenomenon‚ especially our culture today with its extraordinary contest and synthesis of ideas, values, and worldviews.

As to the means of achieving this “rearrangement,” the prevailing view seems to be, "If you can change the hearts and minds of enough people, the culture will necessarily follow." Over the course of the next several weeks, I will challenge this assumption and offer what I think—and what history seems to prove—is a far more effective approach to cultural engagement, especially if the goal is real change in the society’s values and beliefs.

In light of the “hearts and minds” approach, there have‚ over the years‚ arisen a multitude of well-intended—mostly conservative—organizations built upon this premise. However, I would argue that this approach tends to only garner a constituency of like-minded folks; those who already share the same hearts and minds. What they generally fail to achieve in any measure are conversions‚ meaning the persuasion from one side of an issue to the other.  This reality ultimately leads to a shift—intended or otherwise—in strategy. What often begins as an earnest effort at public persuasion—the affirmation of a higher ideal—inevitably gives way to political advocacy on behalf of the organization’s constituents. The already converted don’t need to be persuaded; what they want is to see their view of the world advanced over and against all other competitors. They want a “champion” who will insure their view triumphs.

This change in approach to cultural engagement is largely the result of politicization. What do I mean by politicization? Several weeks ago, I referenced James Davidson Hunter’s recent book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010). In it Hunter argues that “in response to a thinning consensus of substantive beliefs and dispositions in the larger culture, there has been a turn toward politics as a foundation and structure for social solidarity.” Hunter is saying is that due to the disintegration of common values, worldviews, and the like that now animate our pluralistic culture, our society is increasingly polarized as competing interests seek to establish their respective views as the right view. As a consequence, persuasion is thought to be an inadequate way of competing, so in order to defend (or advance) our view, we resort to worldly forms of power—namely political power.

In light of this quest to triumph rather than persuade, organizations—including, in some ways, the American church—inevitably alter their mission. We are no longer content to say, “Help us persuade others to see a better way‚” or “Help us help others be faithful.” When the issues become politicized, concerns necessarily shift from the good of all to primarily the interests of the group and their advance. Fear replaces the affirmation of higher ideals as the means of motivation, and opponents become the enemy. And in the case of the church, we simply make ourselves one more “special interest group.”

Of course, everyone justifies this approach‚ both on the left and the right‚ convincing themselves that the advance of their agenda is in the best interest of all. However, politicization forces the abandonment of the “us for them” approach for an “us against them” tactic and constituents simply become the financiers of the campaign. Success is only measureable by “winning”; merely being faithful—a somewhat ambiguous quality—is no longer tolerable. Thus these efforts, which began with the goal of commending their view of the world, eventually descend into political coercion as the means of cultural change.

That is not to say that political activism is unimportant; it isn’t! Nor am I saying we should avoid politics. I’m not! What I am saying is this: our expectations of politics are often way too high, far beyond their real power. For one, politics has never been the means of actually changing the culture and, two, it is certainly not the means by which the Christian church—the most powerful social and cultural transforming force in history—has or should fulfill its mission and purpose.

Over the course of the next several weeks, I will give three examples of cultural engagement. The first is the Prohibition movement, which sought to accomplish moral reform through coercive political means and ultimately failed, eventually doing harm in the process. Next we will examine the abortion-on-demand movement, which as I will show, employed a more sophisticated approach to cultural engagement and thereby achieved a significant measure of success. And finally, we will look at the early Christian church and its true triumph over pagan Rome.

(Adapted from a lecture given at the Troutt Lecture Series on behalf of the Council for Life in Dallas, Texas on October 7, 2010.)

© 2010 by S. Michael Craven

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Response from : Dr. Alan Cole  

October 11, 2010 8:54 AM

Absolutely the best analysis of the breakdown of movements that started out with the noblest of intentions. If you believe the battle we wage is spiritual and if you understand the importance of worldview in relation to culture, this article is a MUST READ. Thanks for thinking through this Biblically.
Dr. Alan Cole

Response from : Redi Ferizaj  

October 11, 2010 10:37 AM

I would respectfully disagree with Mr. Craven. I think we Christians, to our peril, have for too long underestimated the power of politics and government. The result of this mistake in strategy has been the brainwashing of our kids in the public schools and the ruining of the family by the public display and acceptance of immorality. I believe we are losing this generation and the next one specifically because we have not been serious and faithful enough in our political engagement.

Response from : S. Michael Craven  

October 11, 2010 11:03 AM

Dear Redi,

I would advise waiting to read the entire series before drawing such sharp conclusions. For goodness sake, I haven't even issued my argument yet! Let's at least filter the information through our theology rather than our ideology.

Response from : Rhonda  

October 11, 2010 1:10 PM

Excellent start on an entire article that I can't wait to read! I have pondered the ideas stated and wondered how as Christians we can make permanent change. Thank you Michael!

Response from : Amaris  

November 17, 2010 5:35 AM

Excellent! You have worded perfectly, the trend that started (that i remember) in the 1980's. What began with good intentions in showing The Way became an us vs. them movement, which distorted the ministry of LOVE that Jesus demonstrated while He was here on earth. How on earth that honors Christ, or we think that as Christians we are right on, baffles me. After all, that was His second greatest commandment: "Love your neighbor as yourself." (Matthew 22:35-40) Through heated debates, viral videos & mass e-mailings, this never shines through to our cloud of witnesses; and as you said - we simply become another special interest group. Good call! I will pass this on.


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