"To Change the World" James Davison Hunter

James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Oxford University Press, 2010. 368 pgs. 

Get ready for a long summary. 


To Change the World is organized into three 'essays' consisting of multiple chapters. Hunter calls them essays because in them he is painting with broad brushstrokes and exploring big ideas while not exhaustively perusing and sourcing the literature behind all of his issues. While some may find issue with this, I think Hunter has found an appropriate balance given the issues he is exploring. What issues, you ask? Let me tell you. 

The first essay is an extended critique of the assumed definition of culture and method of changing it which is predominant in Christian circles. The problem, says Hunter, is that Christian projects for 'transforming culture' and 'changing the world' assume an 'idealistic' worldview. In other words, they assume that ideas are the foundation of culture, and individuals the foundation of ideas, and therefore to change the world we must merely change the hearts and minds of individuals. This association of culture with ideas/beliefs/values transforms missions of cultural impact into missions of cognitive impact and, thus, entirely miss their mark. Culture, says Hunter, is much more like an infrastructure or an environment and it is highly dependent on centers of power. Ideas do have consequences, but only under certain conditions do those consequences matter much, and most Christian efforts to change the world ignore these conditions. 

So, those trying to change the world are working with naive models of 'the world' and how to change it. But, they are also ignoring the power centers and movements of power which inhabit all human interactions, most powerfully in institutions. Hunter's second essay takes on issues of power in the midst of withering critiques of three common views/movements for cultural change: Conservative Christian right, Christian left (both liberal and emergent), and the ana-baptist movements (a la Hauerwas). Hunter urges Christians to depoliticize their actions (because we have become subservient to the political in its modern all-encompassing incarnation), decoupling public and politic (because they are not the same), get over our ideas of avoiding power (because we can do no such thing; power of ever present in human interaction) and avoiding elitism (centers of power are what they are, and important), and follow Jesus as an exemplar of the right use of power (in a fashion which he explores in greater depth in essay three). 

This all sets Hunter up very nicely for his third essay, in which he lays out and tears down three common models of cultural engagement, and offers his own as a replacement. The three common models are: Defensive Against, Relevance To, and Purity From. Bonus points if you can 'guess' which party each of those is associated with. Each of this is riddled with problems, most notably that they have given in to ideas of will to power and therefore hold within themselves destructive seeds of nihilism, and are therefore highly ineffective. Over against these options, Hunter offers a fourth model: "Faithful Presence Within." 

In contrast to the first three models, which focus on secularization, exploitation, and violence as the most important problems Christians face, Hunter argues that the real core problems are 'difference' and 'dissolution' (seen best, but not exclusively, in pluralism and the fragmentation of modern life). In contrast to the will to power embedded in all of the first three models, in which all that matters is winning, Hunter urges us to carry out our creation mandate of creating culture in ways which line up with God's desires for creation. The means for this are, says Hunter, modeled in God's actions as he 1. pursues us (though we are completely other and undeserving) 2. identifies with us (though it involves giving much up in the incarnation) 3. offering us life (as only He can) 4. through sacrificial love. The obligations and goals are to faith, hope, and love. 

In his own words: “A theology of faithful presence obligates us to do what we are able, under the sovereignty of God, to shape the patterns of life and work and relationship—that is, the institutions in which our lives are constituted—toward a shalom that seeks the welfare not only of those of the household of God but of all.” (254) "The practice of faithful presence, then, generates relationships and institutions that are fundamentally covenantal in character, the ends of which are the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth, beauty, belonging, and fairness - not just for Chrsitians but for everyone." (263)

How, then, do we change the world? Wrong question. Hunter argues that we need to abandon language such as: "'redeeming the culture,' 'advancing the kingdom,' 'building the kingdom,' 'transforming the world,' 'reclaiming the culture,' 'reforming the culture,' and 'changing the world.'" (280). The question, of changing the world, is wrong because it assumes that the world and history can be controlled and managed. It is wrong because it makes our primary mission (loving God and our neighbor; being faithfully present) subservient to something secondary (the effect our faithful presence may or may not have). 

Instead, we engage the world by being faithful presences within it, as per the model laid out in Jeremiah 29:4-7: "Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce. Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease. But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare."


Ok, take a deep breathe now. The summary is over. That is what the book is about. Now, what do I think?

The classic and 'must-read' text on church and culture has long been Niebuhr's Christ and Culture (which I have now read). Hunter's book ought to replace Niebuhr; maybe it won't, but it should. Niebuhr's book suffers from many of the problems Hunter diagnosis, and tries to come up with categories of engagement which are simplistic and inseparable. Meanwhile, Hunter's suggestion of faithful presence encompasses Niebuhr and more.  One can see Christ standing against the culture in 'faithful presence within' by the example of a better way and the implicit, or explicit, critique of the failings of the larger culture. One can see the Christ of culture in several places, especially in Hunter's discussion of Christians at work. Christ above culture is the foundation of Hunter's suggestion, since it is Christ who is our model of how to create culture rightly. Christ and culture in a paradox can be found as Hunter explores the many tensions which Christians must live in if they are to be faithfully present in the world. Finally, Christ transforming culture is put in it's rightful place as a secondary goal embedded in hope. Instead of five separate (though perhaps complimentary) viewpoints on Christ and Culture, Hunter offers one synthesis which contains them and opens up to much more. 

In other words, this book is crucially important and a must read. Hunter masterfully and carefully expresses the problems which presently reign in the N. American church, and his suggestions for a way forward are nothing short of breathtaking. 

Hunter's accounts and arguments could have used more nuance. In particular, his interactions with ana-baptist thinkers seem shallow. In a book of this length and breadth however, such oversights are remarkably minor. A second critique is that Hunter is perhaps too negative with regards to para-church institutions and the possibilities for reform within the current positions. Again, fairly minor in the scheme of things. 


5 Stars. Recommended. This book is no short, easy read. But it is worth it. Personally, I will be re-reading within the year. You will not find, at least currently, a better book on the subject of church and culture nor, for that matter, a better critique of the quagmire the N. American church has recently gotten itself into.  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Sounds really interesting! I have to return a few books to you, lol.