Of Paradigms and Priorities

As I write this the New Hampshire primaries are winding down. CBS gave its Nostradamus like predictions several hours ago, and it looks as if New Hampshirites (?) are backing the guy they dislike the least. Much has been said of about so called “values” voters especially the will of the Evangelical right and their influence. For the longest time, “Evangelical” was synonymous with conservatism but as of the last election this is no longer the case. The Evangelical Left has made its presence known spoiling the neat political landscape. The press is certainly interested:

Pastor Jeffress of First Baptist Church Dallas is willing to vote for a good Mormon over an inconsistent left-wing professed Christian for the good of the country. That is a bold claim and it implies that the priority of the the Church is to support a certain set of values irrespective of the world-view of the candidate. Recently Don Veinot quoted from a new book by sociologist James Davison Hunter called To Change the World: The Irony,Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.  I am also reading this book and what Hunter has to say about cultural engagement is relevant as we sort through all the voices shouting from New Hampshire, South Carolina, and the Super-Tuesday states. Hunter’s thesis is that there are three dominant paradigms of cultural engagement and all of them have been weighed and found wanting. As you can imagine, Hunter has his own fourth way of cultural engagement but I will have to reserve that discussion for another post.  I want to summarize these paradigms in hopes of sparking a discussion about just how Christians should engage a culture that is increasingly politicized.

Hunter begins a chapter entitled “Old Cultural Wineskins” with a caveat about neat divisions of cultural engagement:

The word “paradigm” may be too strong, for each one is defined more by tendencies and priorities rather than mutually exclusive qualities and consistent commitments. Each paradigm, then, is at best a general orientation that anticipates exceptions, qualifications, and some blending . . .

Fair enough. He’s not going to entertain hairsplitting. So when you read these three strategies, don’t look at them as set in stone. With that out of the way, let’s take a closer look three paradigms that Hunter calls “Defense Against,” “Relevance To” and “Purity From.”

“Defense Against” Paradigm

According to Hunter, Christians who adopt the Defense Against (DA) strategy see the purpose of cultural engagement as “first and foremost to retain the distinctiveness of Christian orthodoxy and [practice].” They want to “hold the ground against apostasy” and even “win back the larger culture to a situation where Christianity would gain its place of privilege.” According to Hunter the Defense Against paradigm believes that if God can be re-positioned in the culture, culture will be restored. “The Church . . . would regain its standing in society, the family, and local community would recover its Christian character.”  This would explain Pastor Jeffress’ reluctant advice to “hold our nose” and vote for a president who may not be a Christian but would preserve good cultural values of family and marriage from the secularization of society. This would be a positive change from Barack Obama’s detrimental effect on society. According to Hunter, the problem with this paradigm is that it is not easy to defend Christian values from both theological heresy and political heresy because the Defense against paradigm creates an obligation to preserve both nation and the faith. The desire to preserve the faith led to a withdrawal from the culture in the 1930s in favor of creating rival institutions in the form of exclusively Christian schools, music, art, literature etc. The narrative of “take back the culture” is an acknowledgement that Christianity has lost its place in the cultural landscape.

“Relevance To” Paradigm

According to Hunter, originally the this paradigm was associated with liberal theology which historically sought to make the Church’s priority one of being connected to social issues including child labor, the labor movement, Communism, the war in Vietnam,  and above all the Civil Rights movement. However, this paradigm has also been embraced by many (but not all) of the seek-sensitive movement and the emerging church. For those who embrace this paradigm there is something wrong with the way the church has engaged with culture in the last 100 years and it must change.

It is not just that Christians are irrelevant to the culture, but they are vilified by the culture. It is for this reason that many of their leaders insist “we as a church have got to figure out how to do this differently.”

Ironically there is the same desire to re-engage with culture that we find in the “Defense Against” paradigm. Gabe Lyons is the founder of the counter-culture self-professed “Christian learning community”  (which may or may not be a church-like entity): We just need to be part of the culture, to be friends, to be thoughtful Christians, aware of the issues that are at stake and just going for it.” Going for “what” is however vague by design. Hunter argues that specifics of orthodoxy are seen by the Relevance To crowd as divisive and restricting. Thus Brian McLaren says that a generous orthodoxy “comes not to bury doctrinal distinctives but rather to put them in their marginal place.” As with the DA paradigm, the RT paradigm is about priorities, and the priority is connecting with the culture not critiquing it.

Purity From Paradigm

The Purity From paradigm is one that I admit I was the least familiar. This might be because followers of the PF strategy tend to avoid the political discussion. In fact, the hallmark of the PF paradigm is avoidance of any political engagement:

They tend to operate with a “two kingdoms” view of the church and the world that also moves them to increasingly withdraw into their own communities with less and less interest in any engagement with the larger world. . . their identity depends on a logic of us vs. them . . . that is separatist if not sectarian.

The Purity From paradigm is espoused by insular groups such as the Amish or Mennonites and extolled by theologians such as John Howard Yoder. The dominant narrative is one in which the Church stands as a enclave of righteousness where the Church has no duty but to be itself and stand witness through its practices to the irredeemable culture without Christ.

There are some obvious (and not so obvious) difficulties with Hunter’s arguments but before I delve into them, I will ask you, dear  reader, to tell me what you think. Are these descriptions more or less accurate even if they are not precise? Is there a fourth paradigm that Hunter has overlooked?


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