To Change the World


There is no subject that invokes as much passion in me as that of a Christian’s interaction with culture.  I was raised to believe that “God is in the universe business” (thank you, dad), and I spend the bulk of my extra-curricular time exploring ways that men and women of the Christian faith may have a more meaningful impact on the culture around them.  James Davison Hunter has written some extraordinary material on this subject (Culture Wars particularly comes to mind, along with some privately distributed materials I read several years ago that forced a bit of a paradigm shift in the way I view meaningful impact on society coming about).  His latest book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, was to be the culmination of a decade’s worth of work from Dr. Hunter.  I am extremely grateful that I patiently waited for the book, feel that I am a better person for having read it, and believe it contains a plethora of thought that is sorely needed in the community of believers I belong to.  Sadly, I also think the book falls short in a number of areas.  My objective in this review is to highlight both the strong points and not-so-strong points in Hunter’s latest work.

There is a sense in which I believe the initial notion that attracted me to Hunter shines through as the most important part of the book – and that is the idea of cultural change coming from the “top down” – specifically, when elites with a great deal of cultural capital network together in common pursuit of change.  Interestingly, Hunter’s conclusion (that people merely possessing the right belief system will be inadequate to effect lasting cultural change) is one I wholeheartedly agree with, though I find the major premise by which he gets to that conclusion tragically flawed.  Hunter argues that despite the claims of culture warriors like Chuck Colson and James Dobson, a possession of Christian faith has proven inadequate to change the world, evidenced by the 85% of Americans who have “some faith commitment” yet who have only an “intensely materialistic and secular” culture to show for it.  I am not familiar with anyone – anyone – in this conversation who believes that a merely nominal and superficial faith is sufficient to effect cultural change.  The failure of American Christianity to have produced anything remotely close to the type of culture Hunter and I share a desire to see can better be explained by the modern failure of American Christianity to look, feel, and act like Christianity.  Nevertheless, I would agree with Hunter that “the history of the conservative faith tradition over the last 175 years has been one of declining influence”, and I am intrigued by much of what Hunter has to offer to counter this trend (and would like to interact more with Hunter on Nancy Pearsey’s remarkable book Total Truth, as Hunter seems to find Pearsey’s idea that post-enlightement Christians became intellectually incapable of resisting the social revolution of Darwinism to be incomplete).  What we do know is that today’s body of believers – even those who want to engage the culture – are failing miserably.  Hunter seeks to tell us why and provide a counter proposal for what can be done differently.

The strongest portions of the book lay out Hunter’s vision for effecting cultural change in the modern context.  He views “the dominant actor in history as a network of elites and the institutions that created these networks”.  Hunter’s emphasis on cultural power is an important one and rather contrary to the consensus view, which I believe (at least operationally) is that Christians most try to impact culture by creating substitute sub-cultures.  I believe that the Christian church is divided up into three categories: (1) People who do not believe we ought to impact culture (the pietists, the separatists, the tribalists, etc.), (2) Those who believe we ought to impact culture but do no such thing in real life endeavors (the ghettoists who think that the institutions at the center of society should be avoided so that substitute institutions and sub-cultures can be built up on the periphery of society), and then finally, (3) Those who embrace the idea of cultural impact, but see that happening in a multi-generational context in the spheres of society where real cultural capital exists.  This last category is a dying breed, and to the extent that Hunter has breathed life into it he has done a remarkable deed.  Hunter’s notion of “cultural and symbolic capital overlapping with social and economic capital” is valuable work, and ought to be required reading for ministers who claim intellectual ascent to the Kuyperian notion of Jesus as Lord.  Chapter 4 is the strongest chapter of the book, and in it one finds a blueprint for cultural change that is incremental, covenantal, multi-generational, sustainable, and structural.  It alone made the price of the book well worth it.

I am unable as of the time that I am drafting this review to claim resolution regarding the exclusivity claims Hunter makes, though.  Is “top-down” change the only way in which Christians can impact the culture they live in?  Does history really provide no examples at all of “bottom-up” change?  I find that a little hard to believe, and have yet to understand why this conversation must be an “either-or” versus a “both-and”.  I do not know if this caveat puts me at total odds with the underlying thesis Hunter is proposing or not, but nothing in his book convinced me that we ought not be excited at bottom-up efforts in society as well.  However, if his major point was simply that Christians are not likely to demonstrate a comprehensive model for society without top-down, institutional transformation, then his point is indisputable as far as this reviewer is concerned.  Hunter’s observation that much of what passes for Christian culture these days is nothing more than “defensive actions by small communities that do not have the resources to go up against the behemoth institutions of modern secular culture” is a haunting one, and painfully true.

The other extremely strong component of Hunter’s work is the high value he puts on vocation in discussing a Christian’s interaction with culture.  Hunter addresses the subject theologically, and does so quite well.  My own belief is that if one is looking to an actual “sphere” of society where the most opportunity exists for demonstrating the incarnational truths of the Christian faith, it is in the marketplace.  I suspect Hunter agrees (“fidelity to the highest practices of vocation before God is consecrated and itself transformational in its effects”).  I do not agree with all Hunter has to say about the ideal of Christians backing off from success in political endeavors, but I certainly agree that politics as a priority is dramatically off track.  Should believers find the inspiration to rediscover dignity in their work, to practice their craft with excellence, and to use their vocation as a means of living in “faithful presence”, I suspect the foundation would quickly be built for longstanding cultural change.  While I do not see it as necessary for believers to withdraw for the civic sphere, I concur with Hunter that political successes will be a result of cultural impact, and not a cause of cultural impact.  This distinction is sadly lost on many believers, and while I will not accuse them of a Hegelian Idealism, I will accuse them of pursuing an incomplete strategy.  Whether or the not the James Dobson’s of the world are merely advocating a certain “division of labor”, devoid of a comprehensive understanding of engagement with the world (as I suspect), or they are actually leading the cause astray through a malignant idolatry of politics (as Hunter seems to suggest), we can agree that the Christian Right is not presently engaged in the task of changing the culture.  I do not share Hunter’s obvious animosity for many of the God-fearing men and women in this camp who perhaps lack the depth and nuance that I wish they would possess, but I do share Hunter’s view that their perspective is inadequate.  What Hunter promises in the final act of his book is the missing ingredients in this conversation – the proper tactic for a lasting cultural transformation – is where I sadly feel the book comes up most short.

Hunter is a true non-dualist, and the American church needs more non-dualists as much as it needs anything.  He operates outside of Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, so it packs a punch when Hunter says that the “dualism they embrace is cut from the same fabric” (noting that they seem to have merely ecclesiastical differences).  I wonder if part of my attraction to Hunter is that he shares the same degree of jaded cynicism towards the institutional church that I do, particularly when it is in the context of effecting cultural change.

Hunter does set the final act up very well rhetorically, as the very title of his “counter proposal” has a nice ring to it: Faithful presence.  I have read the last fifty pages of Hunter’s 300-page book at least four times, and I continue to feel that a tremendous opportunity was missed.  The final section is chalk-full of brilliant rhetorical devices, contains nuggets of extraordinary truth and beauty, and provides a series of individual propositions that I believe are powerful (and in some cases profound).  However, I am convinced that it is not just me, but in fact nearly every single person I have discussed this book with, who finds the book’s flowery rhetoric regarding “faithful presence” to be at best a sort of “begging the question”, and at worst a mixed and confusing bag of ideals and applications that do not seem to provide any real conhesive substance to the subject Hunter is seeking to address.  I am firmly convinced that Hunter is right when he says: “The practice of faithful presence 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 …”  But Hunter’s attempts to reconcile this with pluralism – a task that I think can be done without sacrificing the truth claims of the Christian worldview – convulutes his message (despite his own warnings), and leaves readers scratching their heads as to exactly what Hunter is saying.  He is certainly right in the civic sphere that the competing truth claims of other religions and faiths deserve the freedom of speech.  But the idea that “the viablity of the Christian faith depends on a social environment in which any faith is plausible” is an unnecessarily confusing introduction to the conversation.  Should Hunter have contented himself with the indisputable fact that Christians, while possessing exclusive claims of truth and salvation, do not have a right to suppress their unbelieving neighbors, or deny them courtesy, charity, and fairness, I doubt anyone would be so alarmed.  But Hunter has to know that the real issue comes when worlds collide.  When that antithesis gets smacked upside our head, is the highest ethic then to be the equalizing of all worldviews as “equally plausible”?  Societal etiquette can be maintained without diluting the creedal claims of the orthodox faith.  I suspect Hunter would say he agrees with me.  I do not believe anyone reading the last 25 pages of the book could honestly say that Hunter was sufficiently clear in making these distinctions.

I referenced earlier the various nuggets that exist throughout the concluding chapters, and some of them are truly outstanding.  “Employees and customers have a greater intrinsic value than their tangible contribution as economic actors”.  This is important to say and important to understand.  On the other hand, Hunter seems to bring a bias against free market capitalism to the table that serves as a wild contradiction to much of what Hunter says he is seeking to accomplish in the book. Saying that “capitalism transforms the nature of work in ways that can be profoundly dehumanizing”) seems to be a rank political jab, a strategy Hunter himself condemns.  But the bigger problem with it is the fact that it is demonstrably false.  Capitalism as a system of private property rights and allocation of resources does nothing (intrinsically) to profoundly dehumanize.  I could walk through each page of the final 50 pages and produce excerpts from the book that are incompatible with his underlying thesis, and I could produce excerpts that deserve to be taped on to our computer monitors.  What I can not do (and Hunter could not do without better editing) was see this chapter coalesce around his vast body of work.  Ultimately, I think he made a couple major mistakes that take away from the drama of the book’s final act.  He implores Christians to quit using language like “building the Kingdom”, “transforming the world”, and “changing the world” (that last exhortation being particularly confusing since the name of the book was To Change the World).  I want to respect where Hunter is coming from in making this charitable request, but I do not believe the case was argued persusasivly.  He additionally calls for Christians to bind together “for a season and agree to just sit and listen.”  Shockingly, he wishes to claim that this suggestion is not marinating in dripping pietism, but alas, it is.   Impractical, impossible, token pietism is the very worst kind.  I suspect the aesthetic of this approach will seem attractive to a certain brand of readers, but they are not the leaders to whom Hunter is speaking. 

I wanted to take from the portions of the book that I disagreed with a firmer set of counter-propositions to what Hunter is proposing.  Ultimately I am afraid Hunter’s own propositions (for now) lack the clarity, specificity, and “denseness” to which he often speaks.  Very little is said about “faithful presence” that is in any way disagreeable – in fact, much is positively beautiful.  But if the intent was to sort of serve as a counter-direction, he disappoints.  I do not see how one reads the last 50 pages of the book with any clearer idea as to what he ought to be doing in his Christian life than he had before.

Hunter is at a huge disadvantage in writing a book of this nature that has such a compelling objective.  One suspects that Hunter would find far more clarity, specificity, consistency, and depth in his vision for cultural engagement if it could be accompanied by a particular belief system in  the eschaton.  Hunter lays out brilliantly in this book why believers have a duty to demonstrate Christ in the culture, and explains this theological concept remarkably well, capabaly delving into a theology and history of creation, of the fall, of redemption, of incarnation, and of restoration.  Without self-conscious eschatological commitments he is purposely playing with only one arm.  An improvement in this could lead to a dramatically improved-upon revised book.

Parts of the book are truly exceptional, and I expect that my ongoing collection of thought-provoking quotes will be added to soon.  I wish that a great number of believers would read the important contributions of this book, and re-examine what really needs to take place to see Christ proclaimed in the centers of cultural capital, and not merely on the periphery.  Hunter has much to say to this cause, and he does so with a passionate heart for fidelity and authenticity in the process.  This is not a power grab for Hunter, and Christian “conquest” is not his end-run.  But seeing our society being led in its primary institutions by leaders of faith is an obtainable goal.  With few exceptions, the church is not making this call, and wholly unprepared to bring about this result.  Hunter has given us a lot to discuss, even if the book did not end the discussion.

In the meantime, I believe Christians ought to resist political tyranny (from either psrty), and do so not because they believe it is the full essence of Christian dominion.  They should do so because God called them to do such – period.  One day perhaps a “master plan” will be more apparent.  For now, I join the pietists in praying for families whose children actually do love the Lord.  And I join the activists in believing that there is work to be done in the political square (and others).  Ultimately, the doctrine of moral proximity tells me that turning a generation of young people into dynamic vocational passionates will go a long way.  These things are just a few theological abstractions away from being understood.  In reading Hunter’s book, I get to benefit in greater ways than the readers he was writing the book to: I recognize that God’s purposes in culture will most certainly come about, and they will come about as we live in faithful presence day by day.  It need not be so difficult. 

I close with vintage Hunter.

“The new creation he speaks of is a reference to the Kingdom of God working in us and in the world; a different people and an alternative culture that is, nevertheless, integrated within the present culture.  Whatever its larger influence in the world may be, a culture that is genuinely alternative cannot emerge without faithful presence in all areas of life.  This will include networks (and more, communities) of counter-leaders operating within the upper echelons of cultural production and social life generally.  These are realms of performance and distrinction that may be rare and inaccessible to the average person, but they are still critically important to both the renewal of the church and its engagement with the culture.”