Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Unsustainable Prejudices

Well, those racist, sexist, redneck, bigoted Tea-Partiers in South Carolina have certainly refused to conform to the stereotypes we keep hearing about them. Yesterday they chose a daughter of Indian immigrant parents, Nikki Haley, to run for governor and a black man, Tim Scott, to run for congress. If Haley is elected, which she's favored to be, she'll be one of two Indian-American governors - Bobby Jindal being the other - and both are Republicans. I wonder how the media is going to fit that irksome development into their Tea Party narrative.

It should be fun to watch. Meanwhile, South Carolina Democrats are still in a swivet over the fact that their primary voters have served up ... Alvin Greene to run against GOP incumbent Jim DeMint for U.S. Senate.

For years we've been lectured about how the Republican party is suspiciously underrepresented by minorities and women and that the Democrats, by contrast, are the party of inclusion and competence. Now the Republicans have selected an Indian-American woman and a black conservative man to serve their political interests, and the Democrats have selected a man with criminal charges pending, no job, and an IQ that seems to hover somewhere on the south side of normal. Add to this, among others, the conservative GOP women running against Harry Reid in Nevada and against Barbara Boxer in California, and all the old liberal prejudices and shibboleths are just getting much, much harder to sustain.


To Change the World

James Davison Hunter has written a book (To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World) that should be read by every Christian who is concerned about modern America culture, how to change it, and how best to relate to it. The book is built around three essays. In the first, Hunter argues that, contrary to what many might believe, cultural change does not come about by changing the hearts of ordinary people, but by changing the way the cultural elite see the world.

The elite are the creators of culture - the artists, politicians, professors, journalists, novelists, celebrities, and so on. They're the engine (my metaphor, not Hunter's) that pulls the long freight train of society. Ordinary people are just box cars. It doesn't matter how many box cars there are in the train, or how easily they glide along the rails, the train's not going to move unless the locomotives pull it. Unfortunately, for those Christian revanchists on both left and right who wish to see a renascence of a culture more compatible with Christian assumptions, Hunter doesn't think that's something that can be accomplished through conscious effort.

Many readers will perhaps find parts of the book a bit too academic for their tastes, but, if so, they'll be confirming one of Hunter's main points in the first two essays. The reason Christians have had so little impact on modern culture is that they too often fail to appreciate the crucial importance of being among the cultural elite. Christians do not reside at the center of culture either in terms of their institutions, their artifacts, or their intellectual life. Too much of the Church is anti-intellectual, and those who are not too often reside on the cultural margins from whence they can exert little influence. Christians, Hunter notes, are lamentably content to produce culture (books, music, films, etc.) solely for themselves and too infrequently inclined, or able, to speak to the world in terms it can understand. The idioms of Evangelicalism simply have no resonance with the secular world and Christians marginalize themselves further if they cannot speak in accents with which our culture is familiar.

In the second essay Hunter offers an interesting an impartial taxonomic description of the Christian right, the Christian left, and the small but growing neo-anabaptist movement. His treatment is fair, as far as I can tell, and, with regard to Christian progressives, a bit more frank than perhaps they'll appreciate.

There is much to commend in these three essays, but in the third he makes the controversial claim that Christians would do well to content themselves with being a "faithful presence" in the world rather than trying to change it. It's here that he'll probably find many of his readers parting company with him. My problem with this section is not that I disagreed with what he said, so much, indeed, the majority of it was very good. Rather, I didn't think that his notion of faithful presence needed to be seen so much as an alternative to the right or left, but instead as an adjunct to, or reinforcement of, whichever of the other two approaches one is inclined to follow. In other words, nothing he said convinced me that either conservatives or progressives were mistaken in pursuing their vision of culture-change through changing the hearts of ordinary people one heart at a time. His insights, however, do serve the very important purpose of putting those visions into perspective and cautioning us against slipping into the perennial "neo-Constantinian" temptation to lust for, and abuse, political power.

A short post can hardly do Hunter's book justice so I recommend that those who want more of an introduction before tackling To Change the World go to the interview with Hunter at Christianity Today in which he talks about his main themes and which also features replies by Chuck Colson and Andy Crouch, two writers Hunter criticizes in his first essay.

For those who'd like to dive right in, however, To Change the World can be ordered at our favorite bookstore, Hearts and Minds. It's a book I feel sure will be referenced and discussed for many years to come.