January 21, 2021

Our Inadequate Grasp of “Culture”

By Chaplain Mike

I hope you will join the conversation as I continue to work through James Davison Hunter’s book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. In our first discussion, we talked through a question: If America has as many people with faith commitments as studies suggest, why has our culture become increasingly “secular” in so many of its manifestations? Today, we look at Hunter’s critique of a popular view of culture and the remedy for its flaws that many Christian leaders proclaim.

“Ideas matter.” This has been the slogan of many leading Christians who take a “worldview” perspective on culture and cultural change. Here, James Davison Hunter summarizes a common Christian message, heard in sermons, published in books, and mailed out to supporters of various “culture war” causes:

Bad ideas form the basis of destructive values and these, in turn, lead to bad choices. In the end, all cumulatively lead to an unhealthy and declining culture.

But the same ideas work in the reverse. If we want to change our culture for the better, we need more and more individuals possessing the right values and the right worldview and, therefore, making better choices. (p.8)

The message is—“We can change the world one life at a time.” As attractive and motivating as these words may be, Hunter finds them simplistic and unrealistic. While not denying the power of ideas and the importance of “changing hearts and minds,” he finds this perspective insufficient both in its diagnosis of the problem and in its formulation of solutions.

This view, he writes, is based on certain implications: (1) that real change must proceed individually, (2) that cultural change can be willed into being, and (3) that change is democratic, occurring from the bottom up as ordinary people think and act rightly. In other words, “If you have the courage and hold to the right values and if you think Christianly with an adequate Christian worldview, you too can change the world.” (p.17)

Though this sentiment is common, James Davison Hunter says it is an almost wholly mistaken perspective.

Now before you jump to conclusions, let me make it clear that Hunter affirms the importance, rightness, and goodness of evangelism, recognizing and affirming the life-change that comes when people receive the gospel. He also commends Christian people participating in the political process and pursuing justice, and trying to improve conditions through moral and social reforms. However, he does not think these approaches “change the world” in the sense of transforming culture.

His view is that culture is a much more complicated phenomenon than we are led to believe, and we do not adequately understand what it takes for a culture to actually change. To lay the burden on the shoulders of individual Christians and say that the reason the world is not changing for the better is because we, as individuals, are not thinking rightly, praying hard enough, or doing enough may sound like a divinely prophetic message from the pulpit and may bring in big bucks for certain causes, but this call to action may be rooted more in certain philosophies we’ve adopted and applied simplistically than in the reality of the situation.

Hunter suggests that the commonly proposed theory of culture and cultural change is actually rooted in the philosophy of idealism that reaches back to Plato and was articulated most powerfully in the modern era in the German Enlightenment through such thinkers as Kant and Hegel. As an example of its current popular Christian formulation, he quotes Charles Colson: “History is little more than the recording of the rise and fall of great ideas—the worldviews—that form our values and move us to act.” (p.25) In addition to this idealism, Hunter pinpoints two other elements have combined with it to give us our particular American, Protestant vision of “changing the world”—individualism (the view that the rational and autonomous individual is the key actor in the world) and Christian pietism (a focus on one’s individual relationship with God).

I now quote James Davison Hunter’s critique of this vision. Read and ponder this carefully, because it is key to Hunter’s argument, setting the stage for the rest of his book:

On the face of it, there is significant merit to the emphasis given to ideas, to the individual and to personal piety. Yet filtered through the legacy of German idealism, they have prejudiced our larger view of culture and cultural change in ways that are fundamentally problematic. The image this perspective offers is of culture, somehow, free-floating in the ether of consciousness. Change consciousness and one changes culture. But are ideas, values, and worldviews singularly important to cultural change? Are ordinary individuals with conviction the main carriers and agents of that change? Is rational consistency the best way to resist worldviews different from one’s own and the most effective way to persuade others?

In fact idealism misconstrues agency, implying the capacity to bring about influence where that capacity may not exist or where it may only be weak. Idealism underplays the importance of history and historical forces and its interaction with culture as it is lived and experienced. Further, idealism ignores the way culture is generated, coordinated, and organized. Thus, it underrates how difficult it is to penetrate culture and influence its direction. Not least, idealism mistakenly imputes a logic and rationality to culture where such linearity and reasonableness does not exist but rather contingency and accident. In all, it communicates the message that if people just pay attention, learn better, be more consistent, they will understand better the challenges in our world today; if they have the right values, believe the right things, embrace the right worldview, they will be better equipped to engage those challenges; and if they have the courage to actually jump in the fray and there choose more wisely and act more decisively, they will rise to and overcome those challenges and change the world.

…In sum, idealism leads to a naïveté about the nature of culture and its dynamics that is, in the end, fatal. Every strategy and tactic for changing the world that is based on this working theory of culture and cultural change will fail—not most of these strategies, but all. …Thus, if one is serious about changing the world, the first step is to discard the prevailing view of culture and cultural change and start from scratch. (26f)

The common Christian view of “culture” is inadequate. It is simplistic, idealistic, and fails to take into account the complexities and dynamic processes that characterize our world.

We need to think more clearly and deeply about the world we live in before we even start to consider changing it.


  1. My pastor tells the story of his ancestors, who raped and pilaged their way through Europe, murdering and terrorizing evrywhere they went. They were the Vikings.

    And over time, because of the work of those who brought the gospel to them, those people were totally transformed by the gospel of Christ Jesus.

    This is what can happen when we share the gospel, one person at a time.

    Thank you.

    • Steve,

      Read “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo” and the others in the series if you want to see how close present-day Scandanavians are to their Viking roots. I think it’s no accident that these countries are known for pornography production, death metal and thrash metal music, and some very successful corporations. They may have dropped their swords and axes, but the persistence of their viking (as in the verb to go viking) ways is very much alive and points to the persistence of cultural ideals over millennia.

    • Furthermore, in most of Scandinavia, the gospel was not shared “one person at a time.” Instead, it was accepted by the leaders, who then forced their subjects to accept it — often at swordpoint. So I’m afraid your entire argument is built on faulty premises. (Sorry.)

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        His whole argument sounds like it’s based on several “Get out there and Witness!” sermons. Very conventionally Christian.

  2. Steve, your comment is a good example of what Davison is talking about. The process of “transforming Viking culture” (if we can call it that) was complex and took nearly half a millennium, involving changes on levels both broad and deep. And most of it happened not because individuals had their hearts and minds changed, but it came about through megashifts in the power structures of Scandinavia and Europe.

    The Vikings were not just murderous adventurers, but conquerors and colonizers who emigrated from Scandinavian countries not just to “rape and pillage,” but also to settle down after conquering other lands. The Vikings were instrumental in forming Russia, England, Scotland, Ireland, Iceland, the Normandy region of France and other vast settlements throughout Europe and beyond. And they weren’t always representing barbarian culture. The second Viking age was commenced under Harald Bluetooth king of Christianized Denmark. So a lot of those raids were done in the name of Christ.

    By and large, it wasn’t through those who “brought the gospel to them,” but their settling down in new lands after conquering them that led to the end of the Viking ages. And since many of them had already been Christianized by various means and were now settling down in Christian lands, their culture became absorbed into the greater fabric of Christian Europe.

  3. Dan Allison says

    What are the right values, the right things, the right worldview? Certainly the Vikings were transformed, but “thank you” is pretty simplistic. I mean, c’mon.

    Which of the many “Christianitiies” transformed these Vikings? Was it a Christianity that never challenged consumerism? A Christianity that acted as a cheerleader to American empire and technological prowess? A Christianity that looked for quick fixes to problems — passing the right laws, electing the right politicians, pursuing the right marketting strategies? Was it a Christianity that justified militarism, imperialism, slavery, and the destruction of God’s creation in the name of profit?

    Or was it some whole OTHER Christianity? A Christianity that built community and welcomed the stranger? A Christianity that poured itself out in sacrificial service to others? A Christianity that respected the dignity and personhood of non-Christians? That would never think of enslaving or exploiting another, of stealing land or exploiting God’s creation for profit.

    I would certainly agree with Hunter that “idealism” may be too simplistic, but I don’t really believe the Christianity that can change a culture has been tried or practiced much. What we have in America — with a few beautiful exceptions — is a Christianity that props up staus quo culture and then wonders why things don’t change.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Which of the many “Christianitiies” transformed these Vikings?

      A Christianity consisting of Young Earth Creationism Uber Alles, Pin the Tail on The Antichrist, and Culture War Without End, Amen?

      A Christianity that keeps the Church Ladies comfortable as they polish their halos?

      A Christianity that parses theology not only word-for-word but letter-by-letter for Heresy Hunting?

      A Christianity that goes all Magick and Superstition and calls it Spiritual Warfare?

      A Christianity whose pastors’ widows have to eat out of dumpsters? (“We’ll Pray For You (TM).”)

  4. I heard Hunter make a comment during a recent AEI panel that concisely sums up this point. He said, “Politics is the weather, and culture is the climate.” Changing our politics – complex though it may seem – is several orders of magnitude simpler than changing the culture.

    • “Politics is the weather, and culture is the climate.”

      I like that quotation from Hunter, Andy Catsimanes.

  5. Any Marxists on imonk? How does the notion that an induvidual can change culture fit with the idea that culture shapes induviduals?

    marx said that a society was primarily driven by the economics of that society, and its beliefs/values etc were formed in this way.
    How does this fit with christianity?

    • And is the current American tendency to assume that individual values shape cultural ones possibly (at least in part) a Cold War-rooted reaction to Communism’s assertion of the opposite?

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      Ever thought it might be a Both/And instead of Either/Or?

      While Individuals try to change the culture, the culture is shaping them?

      Or while the Culture shapes the individual, the culture itself is being changed by individuals?

    • I am not a Marxist, but here’s Marx’s comments about culture, change, and faith, oftimes quoted out of context.

      “Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

      (The next paragraph explained his intent.)
      The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.”

      Marx thought that the promise of peace and comfort of a better life in the next world gave people just enough contentment in the here-and-now to allow injustices to continue unchallenged / unchanged in THIS world.

    • Forget Marx. Go to Aristotle.

      “(M)an is by nature a political animal. And he who by nature and not by mere accident is without a state, is either a bad man or above humanity; he is like the Tribeless, lawless, hearthless one, whom Homer denounces—the natural outcast is forthwith a lover of war; he may be compared to an isolated piece at draughts…

      …The proof that the state is a creation of nature and prior to the individual is that the individual, when isolated, is not self-sufficing; and therefore he is like a part in relation to the whole. But he who is unable to live in society, or who has no need because he is sufficient for himself, must be either a beast or a god: he is no part of a state.”

  6. St. Paul went into the desert for 14 years. Why? How faithful was Peter?

    How many of you are stellar examples of the Christian life?

    Do you not know what kind of a world it is out there. “The day is EVIL.”

    Look at your own hearts. Or are you so stuck in your Phariseeism that you think your ___ smells like roses.

    Is there NO confidence in the Word to change people’s hearts? Peter and Paul were, and continued to be real sinners. And so are we , until we are laid to rest for the last time, and raised for the last time.

    Is it some kind of utopianism that this man speaks of? That ain’t gonna happen. Not until Christ returns.

    We DON’T “need to consider the complexities of the world we live in” before we start to try and change it.

    Read Romans 1:16

    We need to have some guts to open our mouths in a world that is suffering and needs Christ.

    Thanks for listening.

    • Steve, I agree with you, and so would Hunter. Please read what I said in the post again.

      “Now before you jump to conclusions, let me make it clear that Hunter affirms the importance, rightness, and goodness of evangelism, recognizing and affirming the life-change that comes when people receive the gospel. He also commends Christian people participating in the political process and pursuing justice, and trying to improve conditions through moral and social reforms. However, he does not think these approaches “change the world” in the sense of transforming culture.”

      We are dealing with a particular subject that is being talked about in evangelicalism these days, most prominently in the United States—are Christians called to “transform culture”? For a generation now, evangelical Christian leaders have been calling us to do this, and Hunter is responding to that call.

      No one is disputing that the Gospel has power to save or that Christians should proclaim it. That’s not the issue here.

  7. Mike,

    His last sentence is what I had trouble with.

    The gospel changes and transforms hearts. Transformed hearts, transform society. Often in ways we cannot readily identify. But transformation happens, nonetheless.

    Thanks, Mike.

  8. David Cornwell says

    It’s hard to believe that bible believing Christians will change culture. So much evil we wrestle with is systemic to our way of life and will not yield because of individuals being converted to Christ and somehow acquiring the “right” ideas as a result. Christians are shareholders in most of that culture. As was mentioned above our country is militaristic and has strong imperialist tendencies. So we cheer when the bombs are dropped. Capitalism and its attendant greed, self serving, and power is wedded to much current Christian thought. Also, for instance, a person hates war, yet works for a company that makes most of its profits from producing arms or arms technology, many times exporting that technology to countries who’s ideology we claim not to share. We could go on down the list of those things that each of us are knee deep in.

    In the past, as now, most of us were blinded by the cultural situations of civilization as we know it. Taking land from the Indians was seen as a positive good. Moving them to another locale through brutality another. Slavery was a way of life for Christian landowners. Being ruthless in business is/was part of economic reality. Immigrants have always been exploited by the powerful. On all these issues Christian voices are all over the place and participating. We do not even have the power to see what we are participating in, let alone change things through evangelism and one conversion at a time. Even those things where many Christians share a common vision have hardly been moved, abortion being an example. Name the problem, we are part and parcel of it.

  9. Isaac (the poster formerly known as Obed) says

    I find myself wondering at a goal of changing an entire culture. Maybe I’m a bit myopic, but I think I’ve got my hands full with doing right by my own circle of influence. The greater culture seems a bit above my pay grade. When I look back on the early church, there certainly were some great Apostles who’d go to the various heathen folk in the outer ends of the Empire or beyond. And they certainly planted those initial seeds of the Christian faith. But, it seems like the greater transformation happened because regular folk lived out their Christianity (including some evangelism) in the regular world and little-by-little spread the faith.

  10. Before every election we are reminded that our vote is important. In many places the poll workers adorn you like a hero with a red, white and blue “I Voted!” sticker.

    Well, the truth is your vote probably never changed anything. Your town council race may have swung on a few dozen votes, but even then yours didn’t change the outcome. Instead of voting, the person who cares ought to work behind the scenes to persuade hundreds or thousands of people to vote his way. And before beginning such an effort, the activist ought to know that he or she is only one of many people, each working to motivate hundreds or thousands of others, all for the same goal.

    Changing culture is a vaster and slower process than winning an election. So it would require even more sustained, cooperative effort. Instead of thinking that one caring person can change the world with a bold action, we ought to think in terms of involving many people, reaching consensus that may involve sacrifice, and of a sustained effort over a long period of time.

    I’m eager to see if Hunter affirms this, or leads in a direction I haven’t suspected.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      California. Except for the much-hyped Governor’s Races, every election for the past 10-15 years has been “All Incumbents Re-Elected. NO Exceptions.” Every one.

  11. This is fascinating and seems to be an insightful and pretty accurate analysis. My fear is that it will, for that reason, have little impact on those who need it most. American evangelicals too often want quick results and some kind of visible victory or evidence of victorious living. Waiting centuries for cultural change and admitting that your own influence, however faithful, is probably only a minute part of it is, well, sort of discouraging. It’s not easy to preach, and it certainly won’t bring in the big donors looking for a return on their “investment” in the kingdom (God loves the cheerful investor?).

    But I suspect relatively obscure faithfulness has been the lot of most of the saints throughout history, and most of them probably didn’t think much about changing their culture or taking back their country for God, etc.

  12. Maybe I missed this with part one of this discussion, but I am wondering what we are even talking about when we are talking about ‘culture?’ For example, I, as a white/heterosexual/male/office worker living in the Western U.S have in common culturally with a black/lesbian/professor living in Atlanta? Sure we share a language and could perhaps find movies we share in common, but I think it is a mistake to think that there is some monolithic culture out there to change. From my perspective we live in a society of hundreds of overlapping sub-cultures. Anything that could be classified as one ‘culture’ is so thin and superficial as to be almost pointless to talk about or try to change.

    • Topher says:

      > I think it is a mistake to think that there is some monolithic culture out there to change. From my perspective we live in a society of hundreds of overlapping sub-cultures. <

      Yes. But isn't it a cultural choice that sub-cultures exist?

      The dominant cultural principle in America is that whatever anyone wishes to do is his business. Americans don't agree on much, but they agree on that. Most Americans don't even understand how unusual that cultural principle is.

      • “…a cultural choice that sub-cultures exist?”

        Well, what’s the alternative? Require all cultures to conform to one culture? Makes me queasy just to type those words.

        Sub cultures exist because there are really only a few things that truly matter (love your neighbor as yourself being one of them) which most healthy normal human beings would be able to agree on — and a zillion ways to live those things out. Some of which hit the target better than others — but determining which is also a matter of sub-culturally inspired perspective.

        Humanity on planet earth means cultural variety. A country where ever more cultures and sub-cultures and sub-sub-cultures are allowed to exist is beyond wonderful, in principal and in experience.

        I’d say rallying around those few things that truly matter which easily tend toward cultural consensus is the way to bring about positive change.

        • Pam asks:

          > Well, what’s the alternative? Require all cultures to conform to one culture? Makes me queasy just to type those words. <

          I'm sorry you are queasy, but you've misunderstood me. I was not suggesting that the world conform to any particular single culture. I was saying that such diversity as you enjoy in America couldn't occur within a culture unless the people agreed to tolerate it. And most people around the world wouldn't agree to it.

          I've lived in West Africa and former Soviet Central Asia. In both places, there is a dominant culture and there is very little diversion from it. They don't object to cultural variety in other places, but they don't tolerate variety in their own communities. In the region of Liberia where I lived adults eat the very same food every day of their lives, and would no more consider eating anything else than they would cut off a leg. In Kyrgyzstan, condolences at funerals and congratulations at weddings were always expressed in exactly the same words. Each person knew he was using the same words as the person before, but they didn't think for a moment that a personal heart-felt statement had any value — they wanted to condole or greet you in the correct way according to their culture. Neither of those places would tolerate a vegetarian, a homosexual, or any other free-thinker for a moment. So, yes, we Americans have made an unusual choice to let each person live as he wishes. I'm glad you like it here.

          • I understand what you are saying.

            I think I can see how complex culture is (at least as much as I was ever able to see those dinosaurs hidden in the pointalism poster — circa 1990, or so).

            Perhaps I’m moving ahead from the point of the original post, but if one has the desire to impact their world for the better, would the approach be different in a homogeneous culture (like Kyrgistan) than it would in an ever diversifying culture like in America?

  13. Yuri Wijting says

    Hi all,

    Hunter’s understanding of culture seems very similar to H. Richard Niebuhr’ “Christ and Culture.” I would go over Niebuhr’s outline for addressing culture which is easily accessible by googling it up, or buying the book. I think a refresher of Niebhur would help facilitate discussions of Hunter’s book. If I am right, the two of the are on the same page on many issues.

    I’m looking forward to the rest of the series on this subject. So far, Hunter’s critique of idealism within the Church, with respect to individuality and piety, have got me thinking.


  14. As one individual in the greater American culture & any/every sub-culture I must inhabit, I am not convinced that my ‘right living & right thinking’ will impact said culture(s) positively enough to be quantifiable.

    During the 37 years of my Christian faith journey, I have been addressed by The Moral Majority, James Dobson, Chuck Colson, Mike Bickle (IHOP), Ed Silvoso, & Lou Engle (The Call) & others. Engle is quoted in a Right Wing Watch article October 2008:

    As if to prove to his acolytes that their prayer and fasting is not in vain, Engle maintains that their prayers and prophecies shaped the Supreme Court. “One of the young ladies had a dream,” Engle asserted, “that a man named John Roberts would be the next Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.” He beams with pride. “Don’t you think those kids were baptized with confidence? Their prayers, I believe, were literally moving a king to appoint a justice who has now led a court that has banned partial birth abortion. Don’t tell me prayer doesn’t shape a nation.”

    Then there are the extreme prophetic voices proclaiming God’s strategies, direction, commands, proclamations about this nation collected daily in the Elijah List. Heck, why aren’t the elect actually listening to God’s clear declarations from heaven & following the Prophet’s word(s)???

    While considering the immense amount of effort, time, money, organizing, resource requirements, etc., expended in the name of God, I have wondered what impact for the kingdom such machinations have truly achieved, let alone ‘steered’ or ‘shaped’ our culture. Is it all a sad case of majoring in the minors & vice versa? Is it all a great big waste of going thru dramatic motions but to no avail? And is God really in all those efforts?

    The doomsday voices & the militant “take back the land” battle cries have me shaking my head in speechless indifference. The immediacy of their pleas do not move me. in fact, they sound more & more shrill with each repetitive delivery…

    Lord have mercy… 🙁

    • cermak_rd says

      some of those machinations and voices have been very successful in creating a rich and varied opposition made up of people who are not Christians (and in many cases those who are!).

      So there’s that going for it.

      • It is because the message(s) wrapped up in language foreign to the kingdom? The gospel missing altogether? Agenda & self-importance & insensitivity & esoteric inferences the underlying ‘tone’ fashioned according to the spokesperson making the loudest sound bites?

        • Headless Unicorn Guy says

          “Whether The People be led by The Lord
          Or lured by the loudest throat;
          If it be quicker to die by the sword
          Or cheaper to die by vote —
          These are things we have dealt with once
          (And they will not rise from their grave);
          For Holy People, however it runs,
          Endeth in Wholly Slave.”
          — Rudyard Kipling, “MacDonough’s Song”

  15. I struggle with why we ever think we can be in charge of outcomes when it comes to Gospel and Spirit work. We have some degree of success in predicting outcomes because we tend to shape everything as much as possible to fit what we have defined as the desired outcome. But often we only get a hollow verision of what we shoot for in matters of Spirit and faith because we not in control. To a lesser extent, this is true of morality as well. It seems we are called to faithfully live out the Gospel. What comes of that is God’s domain. I wonder if we actually experience less of what we say we want as Christians (and what God may want to do in and through us) because we are trying to force what belongs to God. Sometimes the ways of the Spirit seem like our autonomic system. It works better if we don’t try to control it.

  16. textjunkie says

    So is the argument that cultural change does not occur because people change their behavior or actions? I’m not following–I appreciate that the sweep of history is a combination of accident and randomness, but still, if you remove the people and their choices, there’s no culture to have any history.

    There are certainly individuals whose actions have changed the culture (MLK comes to mind, as does Alice Paul) but none of them have acted in a vacuum. They made individual choices in the context of their times. If they hadn’t made the choices they made, if they hadn’t stood up for what they thought was right stemming from their faith, would the culture be what it is now? Would there have been someone else, or would the tide have turned another direction?

    Hard to say. But what I don’t see is how you’d have the civil rights campaigns of the 60s or anti-slavery movements of the early 1800s–or any major cultural shift–without individuals making choices based on their beliefs and their values.

    Now the other question, Is rational consistency the best way to resist worldviews different from one’s own and the most effective way to persuade others?
    That I can answer most definitively as no, not always. Nor is resisting worldviews different from one’s own always a good idea.

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