To Change the World, by James Davidson Hunter

I recently saw some mentions of this book, and then stumbled across an early version of the essay which makes up the first third of the book. After reading it I wasn’t sure I wanted to read the book itself. But then I read these three paragraphs from Andy Crouch’s review [emphasis added]:

The irony is that there is no phrase more beloved to a certain kind of Christian than "to change the world." But in Hunter’s persuasive account, the strategies those very same Christians have pursued are, by themselves, woefully incapable of changing the world. (Hunter’s greatest interest is clearly Christianity’s theologically conservative varieties, though he attends to mainline and progressive Christianity as well.) One group focuses on personal renewal and national revival, while another—championing a "Christian worldview"—locates the necessary condition for cultural change not so much in the heart as in the mind. Either way, the premise is that once the hearts and minds of ordinary people are properly revived and informed, the culture will change. "This account," Hunter says flatly, "is almost wholly mistaken."

It is mistaken because of its individualism: it ignores the central role of institutions in transmitting culture. It is mistaken because it is not just institutions that matter, but institutions at the cultural "center" rather than the "periphery"—so that an op-ed in the New York Times is of vastly greater importance than one in the Sacramento Bee. It is mistaken, perhaps most of all, in its egalitarian assumption that the hearts and minds of ordinary people matter—in fact, cultural change is almost always driven by change among a small élite who occupy powerful positions in those culturally central institutions.

And Christianity in America, as Hunter sees it, is very much on the periphery, for all its numerical strength. Its institutions, such as they are, tend to be weak, they tend not to be in culturally central locations, and they tend to address the "lower and peripheral areas" of culture—secondary education rather than university research, popular culture rather than high art, ministries of mercy rather than public policy. At their worst they glory in their marginal status, feeding a subculture that churns out substandard cultural products for consumption by other Christians, simultaneously the most energetic and the least effective culture-makers you could imagine.

But wait, there’s more. Hunter’s second essay examines three Christian movements, the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the neo-Anabaptists who carry on the work of John Howard Yoder. One of Hunter’s conclusions:

What none of these movements can truly imagine, Hunter maintains, is a genuinely cultural vision, one that seeks human flourishing and sees the intrinsic value of culture in its manifold forms. The tragedy of all three movements is their impoverished understanding of culture and of cultural power, and the degree to which they have become captive to ressentiment, the rehearsal of grievances (whether the enemy is secular humanists, Christian conservatives, or the imperial state) rather than the pursuit of a true common good.

What does Hunter see as a preferable alternative?

And this leads to the last, and most hopeful, of Hunter’s essays, in which he calls for a Christian posture that is neither "defensive against," nor "relevant to," nor seeking "purity from" the culture. (Be assured that, as with his whole argument, Hunter frames these broad categories with considerable nuance—he is no sloganeer but a deft analyst.) Rather, Hunter calls us to "faithful presence"—fully participating in every structure of culture as deeply formed Christians who also participate in the alternative community of the church. Whereas the first essay is relentlessly sociological, the last is surprisingly theological, even doxological, in its call for Christocentric, ecclesially formed cultural presence. The vision Hunter would have us embrace turns out not to aspire to world-changing at all—the very idea of "changing the world" is rooted in a quest for dominance that fundamentally misunderstands the Christian gospel and the way of Jesus, not to mention the realities of our pluralist, late modern society. Rather, we should embody a sacrificial love for our neighbors, of all faiths and none, expressed in acts of culture-making and institution-building that serve their good and leave the ultimate fate of our culture to the judgment and providence of God. And by this third essay, the strategic concern for élite presence has faded into the background—Hunter envisions Christians practicing that presence at the "periphery," in the "center," and everywhere in between.

Wow. Now I very much want to read Hunter’s book.

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2 thoughts on “To Change the World, by James Davidson Hunter

  1. You can hear Mr. Hunter on the most recent Mars Hill Audio Journal, being interviewed by Ken Myer.

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