A Review of To Change the World

Here’s a formal review of To Change the World by James Davison Hunter.

Hunter, James D. 2010. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, New York: Oxford University Press.

James Davison Hunter is LaBrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia, Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, and the author of several books and articles.  In To Change the World he attempts to answer an academic question that holds deeply personal significance: “How is religious faith possible in the late modern world?” (Hunter. 2010:IX).  In this regard, the book is both a scholarly treatise and intended for a broader audience, and his writing reflects this mixture; though it is accessible to most audiences, the level of language would be challenging to most.

The books is divided into three essays: the first essay describes why typical Christian attempts to affect cultural change have failed; the second essay critiques the relationship between three major Christian groups and power; and the third essay articulates an alternative to the aforementioned groups’ models of culture-change.

In Essay I Hunter describes the usual Christian attempt at cultural change from the bottom up, using a historical survey to show that large-scale cultural change always occurs from the top down.  American Christianity in particular, then, is poorly positioned to affect any real cultural change; while we excel at producing low- and mid-level culture, we are notably absent from the upper echelons of academics, law and public policy, and the fine arts.  The Christian aversion to elitism has caused us to avoid becoming elites, and thus we are forced to pursue cultural change among the masses.

In Essay II Hunter describes the relationship of the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and Neo-Anabaptists to power: the Christian Right and Left attempt to use political power to affect cultural change, in bids to return to a moral culture or to affect social justice, respectively.  Neo-Anabaptists, on the other hand, define themselves in terms of opposition to political power; in this they are as dependent upon it as the others.  While these three views each stem from genuine issues, the attempt to Christianize politics has led to Christianity becoming politicized instead.  Further, the relationship between each of these groups and the secular world is one of negation, providing no recognizable alternative to the world; this, Hunter identifies as nihilism.

Yet we must still provide an alternative: in Essay III, Hunter describes the role of the Church in relation to culture as one of affirmation and antithesis.  We must recognize that there is an overlap between Christian and worldly culture, and we must affirm the good that exists in the world, rather than simply negating all worldly culture, and provide an antithesis to it by producing a rich culture of our own.  Hunter calls this a theology of “faithful presence”; if the Church has a rich culture, including producing elites that rise in every field, then we will truly have a cultural alternative to offer the world as well as be in a position to offer it.  Faced with the twin challenges of pluralism and dissolution, the faithful presence model is preferable to the “defensive against,” “relevant to,” and “purity from” models of the Right, Left, and Neo-Anabaptists in regard to cultural engagement.

Hunter’s arguments are logical, consistent, and well-supported by 49 pages of endnotes and an 8-page bibliography.  He acknowledges that his sketches of the Christian Right, Left, and Neo-Anabaptists are broad and stereotypical, and that his selective examples from these movements are at times extreme, but he takes care to show that they are somewhat representative, at least of the leadership, of these movements.  He interacts well with both social theorists and the leading theologians from each of these groups, but much of the book is an extended criticism that incorporates both historical trends and vivid contemporary examples and soundbites; the book is thus light on theory and heavy on context.  By comparison, Hunter leaves very little room for application, and this is fitting for his conclusion: “faithful presence” can be boiled down to its essence, to live life to the fullest and let the richness of our culture be our influence on the world.  To make a plan to use faithful presence to systematically take over the broader culture would be to fall into the same power trap that holds the Christian Right and Left.  Consequently, no further application is provided, though Hunter urges others to further explore faithful presence and creatively flesh it out.  I applaud Hunter for aiming a scholarly treatise at a wider audience – surely the nature of the subject matter proves that we all need to hear it for it to be effective – and while I think that the language and concepts presented are relatively accessible, Hunter’s writing style itself can sometimes be rather dry; I found myself re-reading the same page several times because I had repeatedly let my mind wander.

I resonated strongly with Hunter’s description of faithful presence, yet at the same time I felt similarly during his description of the three main Christian groups, particularly Neo-Anabaptism.  Hunter, too, resonates with Neo-Anabaptism (and often compares it to Radical Orthodoxy, though the connection is not fleshed out), often applauding its sentiment while pointing to a fundamental shortcoming that undermines it.  Faithful presence could possibly be taken as a tweaking of Neo-Anabaptism, agreeing with its subversion of injustice and its expression of an alternative through the Church while moving away from its sectarian impulses.  My exposure to Neo-Anabaptism has been brief, consisting mainly of John Howard Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus (which Hunter credits as being representative of the movement), but I did not detect these sectarian and negational impulses.  Hunter’s theology of faithful presence, then, is what I had always thought Yoder was talking about.  So while Hunter’s theology is not new to me, the book remains extremely useful in its critiques, showing the dangers inherent to our best intentions, the downside I had not yet seen of the Neo-Anabaptist model.

While Hunter acknowledges that Christians tend to eschew elitism, he does not go into how his model can depend on elites while avoiding elitism.  Is it possible for us to strive toward the highest positions available in our society, relying on the influence that comes through elite positions in order to change that society, and not succumb to elitism?  To frame the question differently, is it possible for us to have a society that includes elites and disproportionate social power yet that maintains equality between members?  Paul reminded us that in Christ there is neither Jew nor gentile, man nor woman, slave nor free; in essence, that there is no such thing as status division in the Church.  Can we have influential Christians in the marketplace and the institutions, who empty themselves of that status when they enter the doors of the church?  Jesus tells us not only that it is possible, but that it should be the norm among us.  But in practical terms, what does this look like?  This is one of many issues to address for which Hunter lays the foundation.  Another is the question of the appropriate level of Christian involvement in politics: are we reduced to acting publically as citizens and only privately as Christians?  The temptation to Christianize politics, he shows us, only leads to politicizing Christianity; so how then shall we vote?  We cannot take the Neo-Anabaptist path of avoiding the state entirely if we are to affirm the good it does and provide an antithesis to the bad.  Our answers to questions such as these will form tomorrow’s society, and will be the true legacy of this book by James Davison Hunter.


A Christian Perspective of Global Social Problems and Change

Christians aren’t the only ones trying to change the world.  Social environmental movements, to name only one issue, are proliferating at incredible rates.  Like the Christian groups described by Hunter, these groups function from the model of bottom-up change.  The recent documentary Fuel by Josh Tickell (2010) features interviews with celebrities such as Woody Harrelson, Sheryl Crow, and Willie Nelson describing this paradigm of social change at length in regards to the issue of fuel consumption and the alternative provided by biofuels.  At the same time, the documentary profiles Richard Branson, owner of the Virgin group of companies, who has donated all future proceeds of his company, some estimated 3 billion dollars over the next decade, to fight climate change.  The initiative for social change is here coming from every direction: celebrities, representing middle and low-brow culture, urging the public to take action; and ultra-rich entrepreneurs funding and advocating for change from the top down.  The methods of public action urged include making personal changes to consumption as well as contacting political representatives in order to demand changes in laws and policies to support a greener future.  Perhaps sadly, there is a much greater chance of a green future than there is of a Christian cultural change, and from Hunter’s perspective there are two main reasons: First, because initiative for the environmental movement comes from every level of culture; and secondly, and more importantly, because environmentalism offers a constructive solution, an antithesis, to the problem of pollution.  This change is not just the acceptance of the values of a minority group by political institutions; it presents the offer of a better future for everyone, and is embraced and advocated by people at every level of society and power.

Engaging with social problems presents a personal problem: how do I use my limited power, whether of influence or money or ingenuity, to make a difference?  I can begin by selecting an issue that I think has the most negative impact on the world: global capitalism seems to feed every other problem, and so does global climate change, but oil feeds both of these issues; therefore, Canada’s expanding tar sands operations are a good place to start.  Having selected an issue that may have the most comprehensive effect for good, the question remains of how I am to use my power to affect social change?  Do I change my own personal habits, so as to not contribute personally to the problem any more than necessary?  Do I utilize my political power and contact my political representatives to urge them to take action on the issue?  Do I leverage my personal influence, starting public awareness campaigns to convince others to do the same?  I could use my researching skills to present possible alternatives to decision makers; I could use my ingenuity to engineer a new energy source or process; I could expand my social networks by joining with a group to do all of the above; or I could use my money to pay someone else to do any or all of these things on my behalf.  The trouble is, all of these things have already been done and continue to be done by others, at every level.  Scientists have developed multiple alternative energy sources whose use depends on technology that has been proven but not committed to enough to bring them up to scale; international think tanks have provided scientific consensus that global climate change is potentially catastrophic if action is not taken immediately[1]; environmental organizations ranging from grassroots activists to political parties have been raising awareness and lobbying politicians for decades.[2] It’s not even an issue of no single method working on its own; sadly, even with every type of power leveraged, social change still seems elusive.

Faced with this, what is the Church to do?  First of all, we must agree that social problems are the Church’s problem.  Climate change is iconic in this regard: no other issue has divided Christian opinion this much since the civil rights movement, if then.  Hunter’s notion of the politicization of Christianity is proved by the Church’s response to the issue of climate change, with the Christian Left jumping on the Democrat’s bandwagon to make the necessary social changes right away, and the Christian Right not only becoming climate change “deniers” but also claiming that the entire issue is a clever trick of the devil and/or socialists to distract American Christians from the truly important issues, being the moral issues of abortion and same-sex marriage.  Neo-Anabaptists, in large part, have pursued a strategy of non-complicity (reducing their personal impact) and otherwise non-engagement.  The first task of the Church as a whole, then, is unity.

At the very least, the Church can all agree that we must love our neighbour.  Assuming that we can agree to take this command seriously and affect social change, how are we to go about it?  What is the special and unique role of the Church in making the world a better place, in reaching out to the lost, and in showing the love of Christ?  This is where Hunter’s principle of affirmation becomes most helpful.  The assumption that the Church is the only source of good in the world, when combined with the Christian desire to safeguard our good values, has hardened us against the world, against those we are supposed to reach out to.  Not only does this turn the lost into potential enemies, but it assumes that while God is at work in our hearts, he is not at work anywhere else!  When we can see that God is at work in the rest of the world, and that there is a cultural overlap between the Church and the world that we can affirm, then we no longer need to build parallel institutions (Hunter. 2010:80) that tackle the same issues from a “Christian perspective”, but rather we can join with like-minded people to work toward the same ends, and have input through that partnership on the means used to achieve those ends.  We can, as Hunter suggests, maintain a “faithful presence” within these organizations, including grassroots movements, structured organizations, and even political parties.  In a sense, for Christians to be effective in affecting social change it will be better for us to stop worrying about being involved in a distinctly “Christian” way and start affirming the “Christian” character of efforts that are already underway.

Does this mean that we must stop proclaiming Christ in order to see his will done?  Absolutely not: our Christian character is further exemplified by our willingness to cooperate with others to make positive changes to our society, and there is no reason that a Christian cannot (tactfully) make it known that it is Christ that drives them to do so.  But does this mean that the role of the Church in this respect is passive, allowing other organizations to do the work, but with the support of the Church?  Not at all, and here we must distinguish between the Church as an institution and the Church as the body of believers: it is not necessary for the institutional Church to publicly advocate any particular group, so long as its members are actively engaging the issues.  While the institutional Church should be publicly advocating change, at the very least as an act of discipleship and repentance and easily as advocates of justice in society, to attach itself to a particular agent of social change is to become politicized.  Instead, individual Christians, like individual citizens and at every social level, have the responsibility to act for the good of their neighbours.  This is not a passive option by any means.

The area where Christians can provide a distinctive influence in this struggle is in prayer.  Whether a conservative Christian who sees the “powers and principalities” as demons who have attached themselves to individuals, territories, and social institutions,[3] or a liberal Christian who sees them as the spiritual aspects of social institutions that affect individuals and areas,[4] Christians all agree that the struggle for this world is spiritual in nature.  We believe that prayer is an effective weapon in this spiritual battle, and that whether demons are affecting our social institutions or are these fallen institutions themselves, prayer calls on God to bring change in them, bringing release from spiritual bondage and the renewal of fallen creation.  Like Christ, we must not only reach out to those in bondage but we must face the powers that put them there, dealing with both the victims and the causes of the issues.  There are many in the world who are reaching out to the victims, and as Christians we must exercise a faithful presence among them, even being the first among them to reach out; yet that faithful presence also requires us to contribute the spiritual aspect of the battle that others are unaware of.

The Christian response to social problems, on its own, is at least as problematic as Hunter has shown; there is more chance of positive change happening without us than there is of us affecting it on our own, in negation of the world.  But rather, if we can recognize that God is at work in the world itself, and partner with the world by affirming the good that God is already working there, then we can make a distinctive and vital spiritual contribution that is required in order to deal with the systemic roots of injustice in our society and around the world: the fallen creation itself.  May the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ make us equal to these tasks, by his grace and for his glory.  Amen.

[1] The accumulation of greenhouse gases is causing a warming effect that will seriously damage the ecosystems and natural processes of the planet, including an estimable rise in sea levels.  Described by the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in their 2007 report “Climate Change 2007: Synthesis Report, pt. 3, Projected climate change and its impacts” accessed November 7, 2010. http://www.ipcc.ch/publications_and_data/ar4/syr/en/spms3.html

[2] For extensive research efforts, policy suggestions and lobbying regarding the Alberta tar sands, see The CCPA Monitor. Volume 17, No. 4, September 2010.  For more on the related issue of biodiversity, see Alternatives Journal. Volume 36, No. 6, 2010., which focuses on the biodiversity.

[3] For representative conservative/charismatic views, see Wagner, C. Peter., ed. 1991. Engaging the Enemy: How to Fight and Defeat Territorial Spirits. Ventura, California: Regal Books.

[4] For a representative liberal view, see Wink, Walter. 1998. The Powers That Be.  New York: Galilee Doubleday.



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