To Change the World (Book Review)

to-change-the-worldThis is an important book. It will forever change the way you understand culture, particularly the culture of the USA. It will open your eyes to all the things that confused you about Christians on the “other side” of the political spectrum and culture war. It will force you to see emphases in the Bible that “your side” has been unable (unwilling?) to see. After all this, it will push you to greater understanding, nuanced viewpoints, and sincere love for those with whom you usually disagree. That’s saying a lot about a book that is simply a theological reflection on the nature of culture, viewed through a sociological lens, with a few rough sketches on what Christians and the Church can expect from culture, and can expect realistically to change about culture.

James Davison Hunter, professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia, is the author of To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. His aim is to describe what culture is and isn’t, and to rethink how Christianity ought to seek to change the world in light of the Church’s inherent spiritual power. In the preface, he writes,

The questions that animate this book are both broadly academic and deeply personal. The basic academic question is simply, how is religious faith possible in the late modern world? From this, of course, many others follow—Is it possible? How does the encounter of religious faith with modernity change the nature and experience of faith? Or, for that matter, modernity itself? These questions have puzzled scholars for several centuries and they will continue to do so long into the future. The more personal question is a variant of the academic one; simply, how do believers live out their faith under the condition of the late modern world? In searching for an answer to that question, one discovers endless complexity. As a Christian believer, I find many perplexing disparities between the Christian faith that I have come to know and what I see acted out in the world. Within those disparities, there are elements of irony and tragedy, but also assurance and possibility. (The reader will eventually discern that the title itself is ironic and yet also suggestive of latent possibility.) The three interconnected essays that make up this book are an attempt to make sense of these bewildering realities in a way that, I hope, will contribute to scholarship on these enduring questions as well as be useful for believers.

Those words may sound a little scary, ivory-tower “academicy”, and perhaps a bit inaccessible for the everyday believer. But don’t let the lofty goal of this book, or its prestigious publisher Oxford University Press, intimidate you. If you consider yourself a thoughtful person who can follow the reasoning the political pundits on TV (when they are being reasonable!), then you can understand what Hunter is trying to do. Namely, to get Christians to see and admit that their heretofore attempts at “changing the culture” have failed and must fail because we’ve done a terrible job at understanding how macro-culture operates, perpetuates, and is controlled.

Tim Keller says, “No writer or thinker has taught me as much as James Hunter has about this all-important and complex subject of how culture is changed.” Hunter’s thesis is that changing the individual worldview of the masses, one person at a time, is not the way to change a nation’s culture. It is an excellent way to create a Jesus-shaped, biblical culture in a community of believers. It may even be useful in changing the culture of smaller neighborhoods, towns, and communities. But macro-culture is controlled by a few powerful elites who work in a closely guarded network of powerful elites. Change only comes to culture from a similar network that wields power similarly from the outside trying to force its way inside the existing power structures.

Moreover, Christians have not been able to change the culture because they cannot agree with each other. Hunter categorizes Christians into three camps: (1) the Christian Right; (2) the Christian Left; and (3) the Neo-Anabaptists. These groups of Christians regularly fight with one another and cancel out each other’s attempts to change the culture to reflect the values of Jesus. Each group subscribes to a different version of what the ideal culture looks like, what it currently wrong (unbiblical) in the culture, what went wrong to bring us to the place we are today, and what is the best strategy to get us to the utopian society. But rather that choose to identify with one of the three sides as the position most faithful to the Bible, Hunter brilliantly shows that each group has emphasized legitimate biblical notions—but also to the exclusion of the other groups’ equally biblical notions. The effect of this argument is to help the reader see a broader, fuller vision of the institutional church’s relation to culture, and the individual believer’s place, purpose, and mission in it.

One of the most eye-opening experiences any believer can have is to take an honest critical look at his open presuppositions. Hunter leads the way. Those who identify with the Christian Right may object to Hunter’s harsh words castigating their side’s strategies for wielding power. But his assessment of evangelicals needs to be more forceful since they are currently the Christian group that exercises the most visible influence (at the grass roots level and at the organized national political level) in seeking to change the culture. However, Hunter criticizes what he sees as unwise, foolish, inconsistent, wasteful, and harmful culture-changing methods that are incompatible with the gospel in all three groups.

So if Hunter is against the typical use of power used by the Christian Right and Left (and to a certain degree in the Neo-Anabaptist camp as well) in order to change the culture, then what is his proposed solution? Faithful Presence. Charles Taylor describes Hunter’s proposal.

How should Christians act in the world? The dominant answer in America today seems to be: through politics. But the major model of Christian political action, visible most obviously but not exclusively in the Christian Right, has been a politics fueled by resentment and a sense of victimization, actuated by a strong will to power, and a propensity to demonize its opponents. This politics is a capitulation to the worst elements of the contemporary culture it claims to be redeeming. Hunter offers an acute and penetrating analysis of this paradoxical and distressing phenomenon, and carefully charts an alternative course for contemporary Christians, a form of ‘faithful presence’ within culture and society. The book is brimful of insightful challenges to our conventional understanding of things, and of inspiring suggestions for a new departure.

It is in Essay III (the final section) where Hunter sketches in broad strokes what a truly biblical vision might look like for Christians to live and work in the culture without compromising the gospel they believe and share with the methods the adopt to engage the culture. First, Hunter seeks to build the case that Faithful Presence is the biblical model. Second, he laments that there are no cultural leaders that have arisen to capture the church’s attention and lead it in this vision. (I suspect this is probably a sociological necessity in a non-Roman Catholic, post-Protestant nation.) Third, he offers some brief examples of Christians who currently practice faithful presence in their vocational ministries and in their service in the ministries of the institutional church.

In the end, his proposal is a modest hope for this world: Christians living in the paradigm of Faithful Presence may help the world be a little bit better without denying God and his gospel through their methods of cultural engagement.

Now, if only we could get tons of Christian pastors and leaders to read this book! Please do your part to read it, digest it, let it change you, and pass it on in your circle of influence.

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This entry was posted in Book Review, Church and the World, Cultural Observations, History, Leadership, Worldview and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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