Not descending from the gun culture, that’s a weird thing to say. But not so much if by Hunter one means a more worldly-wise way of calculating just how culture works and how Christian religionists might re-evaluate their role in it. In this Christianity Today interview pushing his new book, James Davison Hunter puts his finger on a few things:
What history tells us is that the key actor in history is not the individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that arise out of that network. This is not to undermine or undersell the importance of charismatic figures like Luther, Calvin, or Wilberforce. That kind of genius, courage, and charisma, however, cannot be understood apart from a network of similarly oriented people.
The importance of cultural capital is determined not by quantity but by quality. Quality is measured according to the kind of status it attracts, and status is almost always measured by exclusivity. As I note in my book, evangelicalism boasts a billion-dollar book publishing industry, yet the books produced are largely ignored by The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, and other key arbiters of public intellectual argument.
Culture is far more profound at the level of imagination than at the level of argument. Deep structures of culture are found in the frameworks of our imagination, frameworks of meaning and moral order that are embedded in the very words we use. There’s a difference between the weather and the climate. Contemporary politics is like the weather, changing day to day or week to week. But culture, in its most enduring qualities, isn’t about the weather at all. It’s about the climate. Changes in the climate of culture involve convoluted, contested, and contingent dynamics.
We’re accountable for our actions as individual believers and as a body of believers. The nature of that accountability is clear from Scripture, theology, and history. The point is not to change the world but to serve faithfully in our relationships, tasks, and spheres of social influence.
The rhetoric of world changing originates from a profound angst that the world is changing for the worse, and that we must act urgently. There’s a sense of panic that things are falling apart. If we don’t respond now, we’ll lose the things we cherish the most. What animates this talk is desperation to hold on to something when the world no longer makes sense.
All Americans think about power primarily in political terms…The state is the sole legitimate source of coercion and violence. When Christians turn to law, public policy, and politics as the last resort, they have essentially given up on a desire to persuade their opponents…Whenever Christian churches and organizations partake in the will to power, they partake in the very thing they decry in society…By focusing too much on political power, we overlook how social power plays out in everyday relationships and institutions.
True, at the end of the interview Hunter suggests that a better sense of worldly engagement might yield precisely what those with a misguided sense are after as well:
When faithful presence existed in church history, it manifested itself in the creation of hospitals and the flourishing of art, the best scholarship, the most profound and world-changing kind of service and care—again, not only for the household of faith but for everyone. Faithful presence isn’t new; it’s just something we need to recover.
(So what happens when a smarter and likely more faithful posture don’t result in cultural flourishing? After all, isn’t doing the right thing enough in and of itself? Don’t we all teach our children to live patiently and endure a kick in the teeth for doing good, even as they watch sin paying off everywhere?). Still, Hunter seems to represent the sort of critical thinking modern believers would do well to heed. And fifty-thousand extra points for suggesting that the pro-life movement is as subject to criticism as anything else.