Engaging the Culture, Changing the World

John ArmstrongCulture, Education

The late Jewish novelist Chaim Potok, whose work I have read and treasured, said several years ago that “we live in a world of colliding maps.” Dr. Philip W. Eaton, the president of Seattle Pacific University, understands this “world of colliding maps.” In his new book, Engaging the Culture, Changing the World (InterVarsity Press, 2011) Eaton suggests that “each of us has constructed our 3929 own little, individual story, our map, out of the bits and scraps of information we have been given.” Eaton believes that the philosophical, cultural and educational orthodoxy of our time says that there really is no big map, no overarching story, no drama into which we are all moved. In this context everything is personal. Everything depends on us. Eaton says that we've, “deconstructed any meta-map we have been given and then [we try to] construct our own map.” Is human flourishing really possible on this planet where so much is colliding around the world?

One contributor to this chaos has been the collapse of true universities. The very name means “unity within diversity.” But in most cases our universities are not one in any meaningful sense of the word nor is there any true diversity that leads to flourishing. Eaton calls for visionary leaders who care about equipping a new generation of kingdom agents for the difficult challenge of our complex world. His call is “hope-filled” and urges Christian schools, in particular, to engage this culture and work to transform it. He gives a hopeful account of what can happen, thus making this a book for educators, administrators and all Christians who want to understand how and why Christian universities and colleges still matter.

Eaton writes:

We need universities at the front edge of building up “vibrant moral cultures” (John Paul II). We need universities fully committed to educating “men and women of virtue",” people “capable of knowing, and choosing” the good (John Paul II). These are alternative universities in our day. And this is the way we can reimagine our Christian Universities; animated from the very core of their identity by the great mystery of Easter, these universities seek to build up vibrant, life-giving cultures by equipping men and women of virtue to choose the genuine good (90).

Eaton nails this, so far as I’m concerned, when he call this culture work, not political or ideological work. Following James D. Hunter’s masterful treatment To Change the World (Oxford, 2010), he quotes: “There are no political solutions to the problems most people care about” (90). Eaton, with James D. Hunter, fears that we have engaged in “the politicization of everything” (90). By turning to political power to speak to our culture we have lost the richness of public life and reduced real issues to simple political answers. The result is catastrophic.

Eaton is right when he says we need to find ways that transcend our present obsession with politics as the only way to publicly discuss what really matters in life. “As important as politics may be at times, they are not everything or even the most important thing. We’ve got to get this culture thing right. We’ve got to equip young people in culture-savvy ways, understanding that in the end our potential to make the world a better place will only come through building up life-giving cultures. Indeed, this is the only way our Christian universities can be the place where the world change begins” (91).

This is the kind of book all who influence or care about Christian education ought to engage. I highly recommend it.