To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
This is an important book! James Davison Hunter challenges the rhetoric (and hubris) that often comes with the idea of “changing the world” that is embraced by many Christian ministries and movements. He argues first that we often work from inadequate assumptions about the nature of culture change. Secondly, he argues that either in our embrace or rejection of political power, we wrongly attribute too much to this kind of power. Third, he would argue that the proper stance for the church is one of “faithful presence.” These three points are more or less the theses of the three “essays” that comprise this book.
In his first essay, he begins by challenging what he sees as the shared assumption of many movements that “world-change” happens as you change the hearts and minds of individuals through evangelism, political, and social efforts. Related to this is often a version of a “great person” theory of culture change. Hunter argues that this view, based on getting individuals to think better and do better, is mistaken because of an inadequate understanding of culture and culture change, which he articulates in the form of eleven propositions. He would argue that culture is embedded in overlapping institutions of cultural power as much as in ideas and that culture changes as elites within overlapping networks work toward shared ends. Hunter observes that part of the failure of Christians despite some political heft and media presence to effect the changes they hope for in American culture is their absence from these elites. He also looks at the history of Christianity and notes how their influence extended into the culture when they represented the elites of education, the arts, social institutions, as well as politics. William Wilberforce, for example, was not simply an individual reformer but part of a network of politicians, educators, landowners, and industrialists who, together, helped form a social consensus against slavery. He concludes the essay with warnings about hubris as well–change often has unintended consequences.
The second essay explores what Hunter sees as a Christian embrace of the postmodern politicization of power and its reduction of all of public life to politics. One of the things he also notes in this analysis is the phenomenon of ressentiment, the narrative of injury that often drives the postmodern striving for power–whether it is the anger of the decline of values, the inequalities of society, or the disdain of politics. What he then does is apply these insights to a description of efforts of Christians on the political right, left, and the neo-Anabaptists and their apparent disdain for political engagement. Hunter would see all three as participating in the conflation of all public life into political life either by their embrace or disdain of that life. All miss the “something more” that he believes is part of the calling of Christians in the world.
That “something more” which he calls “faithful presence” is what he elaborates in the third essay. He argues on the basis of the incarnation and servant ministry of Jesus that our faithful presence is not one of grasping for power but rather of seeking the shalom of our human society through a full participation in all the dimensions of human life. He contends that Christians often lack an adequate sense of calling to living out their faith in every day life in the world, and that this is what constitutes Christian faithfulness. He also notes the struggle of this, that we participate, and share in imperfect institutions that we might make a bit better through our presence in the way that heralds the coming kingdom.
I call this an important book because it challenges thoughtfully our inadequate assumptions about culture change, it diagnoses our absence in many of the powerful centers of culture, it names what has been wrong with so many of our political engagements, and it proposes an alternative deeply rooted in the person and work and mission of Christ. Some will no doubt contend with his characterization of the Christian Right, Left, or neo-Anabaptism. What I am concerned with is the question of whether “faithful presence” and a de-constructing of the rhetoric of world-change might lead to a vision of making the world just a little better, but discourage the more drastic but sometimes needed efforts like those of a Wilberforce, or a modern day Gary Haugen in fighting human trafficking. Would those committed to “faithful presence” see an outrageous wrong and move beyond what I would call mere presence to active belligerency that engages the overlapping networks to address something that prevents human flourishing? I think that Hunter’s idea of “faithful presence” is probably robust enough to include this, but I wonder how the language would translate into everyday church circles. I suspect it could easily turn into a response that says, “we should not resist evils like this but simply be faithful to the Lord.” Will “faithful presence” be understood in the terms Andre’ Trocme and Le Chambon understood it in hiding Jews escaping Nazi Germany? Or could this simply support the thin, privatized faith that goes along with tyranny?
That said, I think this one of the most important works written about Christian engagement in public life and one that deserves more attention and discussion by all who care about public life and how Christians engage the wider culture.
I would also call your attention to an earlier post on this book and two review essays I learned of through comments on the post:
Revisiting “To Change the World” by James Davison Hunter, Andy Catsimanes
How (Not) to Change the World, James K.A. Smith
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