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Three Shots Across the Bow of Culture

Time for something unusual: a three-way book review. I’ve just finished reading James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World, N. D. Wilson’s Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl, and Andy Crouch’s Culture Making.

At least in my circles, there has been considerable hubbub over each of these books in their own ways in the last few years. Hunter’s volume is the most academic and the most far-reaching in its coverage of late modern Christianity, Wilson’s far and away the most playfully provocative, and Crouch’s the book in the middle. All three seek to cast a vision of engagement with reality, and all three share much of the same discontent with current Christian approaches to the world around us.

The flavors are unmistakably different, of course. Wilson’s wild romp through the crazy ride we call the universe calls is a vision for exuberant being: to taste and see that the Lord is good, and so is the world he made. His language and his view of reality brim with Chestertonian, childlike wonder and equally Chestertonian, adult jabs at our follies. Wilson wants a world of faith, a world of Christians with their eyes open to the sheer, glorious, well-ordered and sometimes silly merriment of the things God has made. He wants, in other words, us to open our eyes.

cover for Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl

Wilson never comes out and calls for Christians to do anything in particular – his is not the argument for culture-making, exactly. Rather, he simply does his very best to paint a picture of a world so startling that Christians cannot help but respond, in whatever spheres they inhabit. I think he knows that nothing moves Christians to make things well so much as seeing the wonder of God in his world.

Crouch, by contrast, takes a step toward the academic, asking how Christians engage culture. But first: What is culture? What is this societal structure in which we all float, largely unconscious of the ways it shapes us? Can we change it? Is there even a singular "it" called culture? Culture Making draws on sociology and anthropology and theology in equal measures as Crouch seeks to make sense of Christian engagement with reality.

His argument, in brief, is that Christians (and everyone else, for that matter) change the world by making something of it. That is, in the act of creating new cultural goods (whether symphonies or simple recipes that go over well with our families), we inherently change our own little world, and so the world around us. "Culture" (really, we ought to say "cultures") is the sum of what people have made of the world and what that making in turn makes of people.

As he notes, however, we can never predict exactly how even the great changes to societal fabric play out. We make, and are made, and we cannot see how all will come out. We aim, then, to make in such a way that God is glorified and trust the rest to his sovereign hands.

Hunter’s volume, by far the most academic, is also the most critical. Christians want to change the world, but we have approached this task in all the wrong ways. To Change the World echoes some of Culture Making‘s observations on culture, but goes a step further, asking how and why the world changes in the way it does.

Hunter’s answer is simple and a bit disturbing: power. Not simply in the brute sense of force, but in all the myriad ways in which power is manifest in human activity: the access afforded by wealth; the cultural capital of the elite whose thoughts are echoed out from the center to the periphery, the ability of networks of highly motivated and well-connected people to, over time, completely change the shape of that center – and of course, the subversion of all of these by the shape of the Kingdom of heaven.

To Change the World is a book of tension, and rightly so. We live in an age when the old world is dying and the new world is coming in, but the process is slow and comes in fits and starts and is forever dependent on the miraculous. In the meantime, we must make the best of it – and often we do not. We have embraced the terms of our culture, Hunter suggests: ressentiment and the cry of the aggrieved, seeking power to redress perceived or real ills done us and to shape the world as we see fit. So, he points out, have done both Christian conservatives and liberals. The Anabaptists have recognized the dangerous lure of power… and rejected the world wholesale: an equally mistaken move.

cover for To Change the World

Against either the rejection or the embrace of culture as embodied in their various ways by fundamentalist, Anabaptist, neoliberal, and neoconservative approaches to politics and culture, Hunter suggests we must learn to embody faithful presence: a refusal to embrace the ways of this world and a constant rebuke to power, but not a rejection of the goodness of the world God has made. In other words, he wants us to hold on fast to that Chestertonian vision Wilson lays out, and to continue in the process of making new cultural artifacts that Crouch lays out, but to do so in a way cognizant of the limitations on our own ability to change the world, and wiser as to the ways the world changes.

Christians can change the world. We have before, and we can again. The way to change, though, is not so much by aiming at it – by attempting, over and over again, to foster revolution – but by inhabiting our spaces well, making our world well, exactly where we are. More than that: it is seeking to make "where we are" include not only the periphery but the center of our culture. Yet here comes again the great tension: for we can swiftly find ourselves not subverting the demonic institutions of our age but subverted by them, cultural power quickly becoming its own end. We dare not, Hunter reminds, seek these things for themselves. That way lies corruption and the same foolish path we have walked these last decades. Neither we cannot abandon them in fear. We must live with the tensions until God renews all things. We must ever inhabit the halls of power, and ever be willing to walk away from power when it would destroy us. We must make the world and be made by it: we must be conscious of how we are made by it, and resist the pernicious while celebrating the good, whever it be found.

So why these three books all together? Because they are of a piece of in my mind. They each have their flaws: Hunter’s volume in its too-brief application, Crouch’s in its failure to recognize the deep wasys that cultures are more than tangible goods, Wilson’s in its brevity (it could have used another two chapters). But taken as a set, they make a marvelous piece. Crouch calls us to make of what Wilson shows us God has made, and Hunter points at how and where and why, and reminds us of the dragons in the waters.

Everyone should read Notes From the Tilt-a-Whirl. It’s easy-going, fun (and funny), and will provoke you and challenge you more than you might expect.

Artists should read Culture Making as well; the first and last thirds of the book are really excellent. (The middle, Crouch’s exploration of theology, is decent but will seem old hat to anyone who’s spent much time thinking and reading in this area.)

Pastors and everyone interested in politics (these are, please note, two very different offices!) should invest the time to read To Change the World carefully and closely. Many young men and women are hungry for a vision of cultural engagement that eschews the culture war ethic while still presenting a prophetic witness against the political follies of our age. Hunter may not get all the way there, but his book represents an enormous step in the right direction.


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