Are Christians Called To Influence Society? A Note Of Caution
The obvious application would be to go all guns blazing in this direction. Let’s change the world. Let’s all try to be as influential as we possibly can. Let’s cosy up to all the people we know who have a bit of clout. Let’s ruthlessly recruit 10s of thousands of twitter followers. Let’s forget the marginalized and voiceless who we’ve been helping out all these years and put our effort into people who are a bit more important… Hmm…
I’m sure you can see that this sort of application can lead in all sorts of strange and unhelpful directions. It’s a small step from the language of influence to the language of empire, and, therefore, even from good motives, we can end up with a sort of anti-gospel: prioritise the strong, despise the weak. Gain power at all costs!
But we can’t change the world!
James Davison Hunter puts this case very well in his book ‘To Change The World’. While the title may imply that this is a polemic for maximal cultural engagement and chasing hard after influence, its subheading reveals his more corrective goal: ‘The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility Of Christianity in The Late Modern World’.
Hunter’s basic argument is simple- that changing culture is much more complex than many Christians realise and is likely to be impossible. He puts forward the example of American Christianity over the last 50 years or so as a cautionary tale, demonstrating how the efforts of both the Right and the Left to influence American culture for Jesus have almost all spectacularly backfired.
His conclusion is that ‘changing the world’ really shouldn’t be that high on our list of priorities. Instead, we should aim to be a “faithful presence within” society- humbly living out the values of God’s kingdom in the way we live, wherever we live. Thus:
Against the present realities of our historical moment, it is impossible to say what can actually be accomplished. There are intractable uncertainties that cannot be avoided. Certainly Christians, at their best, will neither create a perfect world nor one that is altogether new; but by enacting shalom and seeking it on behalf of all others through the practice of faithful presence, it is possible, just possible, that they will help to make the world a little bit better. (p 286)
Greg Gilbert in his helpful review of the book paraphrases Hunter’s conclusion even more succinctly:
Can we change the world? Well, who knows? Probably not. But we can perhaps, just perhaps, make it a little better by living godly lives as aliens and strangers in it.
Can we?/Can’t we?
I think Hunter’s note of caution needs to be taken seriously although it could be taken too far.1 If you push what he says to conclude that we cannot exert any influence on culture at all, I think that would be mistaken (and I don’t think that is what he’s saying). We all make a difference all the time, whether we like it or not, in the spheres of influence in which we live. Sometimes that influence is positive, sometimes it’s negative. And obviously some individuals or groups of people do have a significant influence on the values of entire cultures. To use some classic Sputnik examples, it would be hard to argue that Lewis and Tolkien did not change the world at least just a little! However, his basic point still stands, especially in the face of the gung ho optimism some sectors of evangelicalism seem to demonstrate in this area.
I personally agree with Hunter that we shouldn’t be overly optimistic about the effect we can have on society at large, and I also agree that there is a significant danger of being so focused on influencing people we’ll never meet by doing unusual things, that we stop doing the simple daily stuff all Christians are called to and therefore neglect the people right under our noses. But, you may ask, how do I square this with all I’ve said about the need for Christians to hold positions of influence (not to mention all that art shaping life stuff I’m always banging on about).
Back to the Bible
Well, what did the key influencers in the Bible achieve? Joseph didn’t overthrow Egyptian polytheism and Esther didn’t halt Babylonian cruelty in its foreign policy. However, they used their influence to help God’s people to survive and grow. For Paul, we don’t see many of the effects of his interactions with the ‘kings’ he met, but we know that these influencers saw a faithful Christian, living out the message he taught. Some like Sergius Publius and Lydia became Christians, almost all of the others warmed to Paul personally, and by association, that must have softened them towards the Christian church. This must have had an impact on how they used their influence from that point on.
For us, as artists, we must not get carried away with our potential. Yes, in the gifts God has given us, we have a unique opportunity to reach out to loads of people that many other Christians will never get to meaningfully engage with. For some of us, God will give us a measure of influence through our skill and craft that is able to cause a gentle softening of hearts towards Jesus and his church, all across our society and even beyond. At the very least, it is harder to hate Christians because of Fujimuras, O’Connors and Bachs! At the best, as we know, artists who function at this sort of level actually sow seeds that lead people who would otherwise have no interest in the God of the Bible, to seek Him, and even to find Him.
While your work may not have this scale of impact, any artist can do exactly the same among those who appreciate what you do. Your work has an influence in whatever sphere you work in- whether that is in your local community, in your niche genre or on a wider scale. We should take this responsibility seriously wherever God has placed us, and use any influence God has given us for the enhancement of his reputation not our own.
And this is where I think it gets practical for us. Ultimately we must remember that God places people into positions of influence, he doesn’t call us to chase after these positions. Think of all the examples from the Bible- it is interesting that of all the examples I mentioned in the last article, the only one who set his face towards influence was Jesus. The others were placed there, either by vengeful brothers, national exile or, in Paul’s case, imprisonment. God is very keen on increasing his influence and He has every right to do so. He is acting in such a way that one day ‘the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.’ (Habakkuk 2:14). To do so, he is looking for people who can faithfully wield his influence how and when he sees fit.
And who is he likely to choose? Well, this is where it all comes together. I think he tends to choose those who, as Hunter puts it, know how to practice ‘faithful presence’ in the world.
Well, thank you for having me these last few weeks on ThinkTheology. If you’d like to explore more practically what this might look like for artists, and see how Public Enemy, Slayer and John Stott fit into this, check out parts four and five of the series on sputnikmagazine.co.uk
This post first appeared on the Sputnik website
Featured image by Witzel (L.A.) – Peter Milne, Motion Picture Directing; The Facts and Theories of the Newest Art, Falk Publishing Co., New York, 1922.
- 1: I would like to give an extra poke to those who merge the talk of influence in with their theology about ‘the kingdom of God’. I keep coming across people whose thinking about the kingdom seems to lead them to the very conclusions that Hunter is concerned about. I struggle to see how the Bible’s teaching on the kingdom leads us to the view that Christians, through our cultural engagement are going to renew and restore the world substantially before Jesus’ return. In fact, the teaching of God’s kingdom implies the existence of another kingdom- the kingdom of this world- which is under the direct rule of the devil (2 Cor 4:4, Eph 2:2, Luke 4:5-6, Jn 12:31, Jn 14:30). Whatever tinkering we do on the surface of this kingdom, surely we shouldn’t think that we can fundamentally alter a system whose key architect and sustainer is Satan! This kingdom will fall, but, according to the Bible, it will do so through the return of Jesus (Rev 11:15). Until then, as I read it, our main responsibility is to signpost people from out of the kingdom of the world, towards the kingdom of God. Where I’m at in my thinking on this at the moment is that any influence we wield in our culture should ultimately be to that end.