DMINLGP

DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Embrace My Elitist Tendancies?

Written by: on March 15, 2018

I’m starting with the man in the mirror

I’m asking him to change his ways
And no message could have been any clearer
If you want to make the world a better place
Take a look at yourself, and then make a change

-Man in the Mirror, Michael Jackson

 

In his book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, James Davison Hunter is challenging popular notions of what it takes or what it means for Christian people, or the church “to change the world”.

Michael Jackson’s pop song sums up what Hunter refers to as “the common view” of culture. He writes, “the substance of this view can be summarized something like this: the essence of culture is found in the hearts and minds of individuals… culture is manifested in the ways these values guide actual decisions we individuals make about how to live… 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.”[1]

This is the “hearts and minds” notion, where culture is made up of the sum of its parts. As such, anyone could simply start by looking at “the man in the mirror” and could decide to make a change, even a major change that would affect the world. In his excellent review of the book, Andy Crouch writes, “the premise is that once the hearts and minds of ordinary people are properly revived and informed, the culture will change. ‘This account,’ Hunter says flatly, ‘is almost wholly mistaken.’”[2]

Another reviewer continues “Culture is not simply the sum of all the individuals which make it up; rather, culture must be understood as a complex structure of “elites, networks, technology, and institutions” which is highly resistant to change (76). Further, culture is organized in a “fairly rigid structure of ‘center’ and ‘periphery’” (36).”[3]

It is this description of the way our culture is built that explains why most of the ways that Christians of all stripes think about “engaging the culture” won’t be effective in the end. Hunter writes that there is a “center” and a “periphery” and that Christians from the Right, the Left and the “neo-anabaptist” position, have all staked themselves out in the places where they actually have the least amount of leverage or influence.

He argues that rather than taking up residence in the centers of power, the elite institutions and the taste-making capitals, that Christians have fallen into settling for a second-tier, or periphery existence. He says that much of the church is animated by the idea of ressentiment, or “what we in the English-speaking world mean by resentment… ressentiment is grounded in a narrative of injury or, at least, perceived injury; a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged.”[4]

For me, this was a place of disconnect with the book and it may be because of my own underlying elitist tendencies. Hunter is quite compelling in making his argument about the way “Christian culture” has become a subculture that largely lacks excellence or real meaning to the larger society. However, I grew up as a child of the church, deeply steeped in our theological tradition, and my experience was the opposite of what he is describing.

At least for the Presbyterian Church (USA) folks in my circles, we largely do inhabit those elite institutions, and we certainly value the access to such environments. In fact, for my tribe, we tend to feel much more comfortable with the New York Times in our hands, a diploma from a well-regarded school, and a network that is broad and diverse, than anything related to a “Christian subculture”.

Part of what I wrestled with in this book was Hunter’s conclusion that the answer to trying to “change the world” was really instead, to practice what he calls “faithful presence”. In a sense, the title of his book is ironic, because he is saying that Christians and the church really can’t change the world, or re-shape, re-form, or re-claim culture in very meaningful ways.

So, practicing “faithful presence” for me, sounds like little more than carrying on as I already do. It seems to indicate an orientation toward a subtle, long-term influence campaign, waged from the centers of power, influence and control. Indeed, Hunter reminds us that, “Whether we like it or not, merely engaging the culture implies the issue and exercise of power. The matter of power is unavoidable. One cannot transcend it or avoid it or pretend it isn’t there.”[5]

This means that power is always a factor when thinking about how to affect change. He is encouraging me to more intentionally be the “faithful presence” in the place where I am. But the temptation then, is toward complacency.

The challenge for me in embracing my underlying elitist tendencies, is that this flies in the face of Jesus’ teaching about what it means, or what it costs, to follow him. The way of the cross is the way of losing one’s life in order to take it up, and Hunter’s view seems to indicate the best way to follow Jesus is to consistently show up at cocktail parties, enjoy the gin and tonics, and be seen as an interesting Christian person.

And this naturally seems fine to me, since it is what I’ve been doing anyway, but… But I have always known the Gospel and my own faithfulness as a disciple to call for much more than just “a nicer version of myself”. Maybe I am overly Calvinistic on this point, but I don’t trust myself to be my best self, and to practice this kind of “faithful presence” consistently enough.

Maybe that’s where the church comes in. Because it is within a community where we experience accountability. It is in a community of faith where my own version of life and gospel comes into contact with others, which helps to sharpen and refine my own thinking and practice. In the end, Hunter offers an excellent way to think about how Christians can engage with the world and seek to bring meaning into it, but I would add the caution that this cannot be done in isolation. It would take a brigade of like-minded followers of Christ, who see their access into “elite” environments, not as a comfort-blanket to be wrapped in, but as a true opportunity to show the light of Christ in places where it is needed most.

[1] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 6.

[2] Andy Crouch, review of To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, by James Davison Hunter, Books and Culture, May/June 2010, Book Reviews, http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2010/mayjun/hownotchangetheworld.html (accessed March 15, 2018).

[3] Greg Gilbert, review of To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, by James Davison Hunter, 9Marks Journal(2/27/2010): Book Reviews, https://www.9marks.org/review/change-world/ (accessed March 15, 2018).

[4] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World: (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 107.

[5] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World: (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 94.

About the Author

Dave Watermulder