Theology 101

Can Christians Today Really Impact Culture?

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As we discussed in a previous post, the idea of Christ transforming culture takes seriously the biblical narrative of creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

It celebrates the goodness of creation and of human culture. It recognizes that creation is fallen, but also recognizes God’s desire to restore creation by the death and resurrection of Christ, through the ministry of the church.

To the often-asked question, “Should Christians try to influence culture at all?” we answer in the affirmative. The Bible calls us to engage, redeem, and restore culture. This is at the very heart of the Cultural Mandate.

This brings us to another very good question: Why have Christian attempts been so ineffective in influencing culture?

In his book To Change the World, sociologist James Davidson Hunter suggests that Christians employ three failed tactics to bring about cultural change:

1. Evangelism: not only as a way of saving souls but of transforming individuals and, indirectly, the culture

2. Political Action: elect Christians who have the right values and worldview and therefore will make the right choices

3. Social Reform: renew civil society through social movements of moral reform (addressing problems within families, schools, neighborhoods, etc.)

Hunter argues none of these three tactics can change the world, because flawed assumptions underlie their strategies. The foremost error, Hunter says, is the idea that the essence of culture is found in the hearts and minds of individuals.

According to Hunter, social science and history prove that popular ideas such as “transformed people transform cultures” and “in one generation, you change the whole culture” fail to work because they do not take into effect the power institutions play in forming and maintaining culture. Hunter further argues,

Evangelism, political action, and social reform are worthy undertakings, but they aren’t decisively important if the goal is world changing. These strategies don’t attend to the institutional dynamics of culture formation and cultural change; in fact, they move in exactly the opposite direction of the ways in which cultures do change. 

Hunter sums up his argument in the following statement:

 The main reason why Christian believers today (from various communities) have not had the influence in the culture to which they have aspired is not that they don’t believe enough, or try hard enough, or care enough, or think Christianly enough, or have the right worldview, but rather because they have been absent from the areas in which the greatest influence in the culture is exerted. Its cultural capital is greatest where leverage in the larger culture is weakest.

While Hunter’s argument helps explain the weakness of Christian impact on American culture over the last 100 years, it fails to acknowledge the centuries of positive influence Christianity has exerted over Western civilization.

Another sociologist, Rodney Stark, stresses in his book The Rise of Christianity that Christianity’s 40% growth per decade during the first three centuries A.D. can be credited to Christians’ deep involvement in the fabric of their culture:

Christianity served as a revitalization movement that arose in response to the misery, chaos, fear and brutality of life in the urban Greco-Roman world. . . For what they brought was not simply an urban movement, but a new culture capable of making life in Greco-Roman cities tolerable. 

D. James Kennedy and Jerry Newcombe’s book What If Jesus Had Never Been Born?  details the profound impact of the Christian religion upon the culture of the Western world. They demonstrate that,

“Christians, for distinctively Christian motives, have vastly influenced western culture in such areas as help for the poor, teaching of literacy, education for all, political freedom, economic freedom, science, medicine, the family, the arts, the sanctity of life.”

The Bible itself is responsible for much of the language, literature, and fine arts we enjoy today. Christian artists and composers through the centuries have been heavily influenced by the Bible. Contrary to many history texts’ treatment of the subject, Christian influence on values, beliefs, and practices in Western culture are abundant and well-ingrained into the flourishing society of today.

Nowhere is the cultural influence of Christianity more apparent than in the history of the United States. The Puritan John Winthrop proclaimed in a 1630 sermon that their new community would be a city upon a hill, watched by the world.

Until the beginning of the 20th century, American evangelicals enjoyed a position of cultural dominance and great influence. But as Nancy Pearcey writes in her book Total Truth

“…after the Scopes trial and the rise of theological modernism, religious conservatives turned in on themselves. They circled the wagons, developed a fortress mentality and championed separatism as a positive strategy.”

So how do we justify Hunter’s position with the historical facts and answer the question “Can Christians Today Really Impact Culture?”  More in our next post…

What do you think? Have Christians influenced society in positive ways throughout history? Is Hunter right in suggesting Christian influence is ineffective? 

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