Book Review: To Change the World by James Davison Hunter

Title: To Change the WorldTo Change the World Cover

Author: James Davison Hunter

Publication Year: 2010

In one sentence: With the dismissal of Christianity from the public sector, faithful presence is the means by which Christians may regain their voice in the culture.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Review:

Anyone who has spent time working through the contemporary landscape of the challenges facing modern evangelicalism, and Christianity in general, will have had to interface with James Davison Hunter to be taken seriously. In his current position at the University of Virginia, Hunter has become a significant scholar on the shaping of evangelicalism (and fundamentalism) in modern America. This text has, as its purpose, providing an answer the challenge of Christianity in the late modern era, particularly its marginalization culturally. Hunter’s means of resolving the prevailing question is through three interconnected essays that work out and explain the problem and his solution.

The three essays are:

  • Christianity and World-Changing
  • Rethinking Power
  • Toward a New City Commons: Reflections on a Theology of Faithful Presence

 

In the first essay, Hunter lays out the terrain of what the common view of culture is and how Christians might go about a task of cultural engagement that leads to cultural change. Central to his work in this essay are eleven propositions which frame out his understanding of culture. Each of the propositions work together to show that culture is highly resistant to change from institutional methods of change. Culture change, for Hunter, comes from individuals or movements that penetrate the linguistic and mythical elements of culture. This is a truly grassroots kind of movement. Throughout the essay, Hunter keeps the contemporary plight of Christianity in the viewfinder with comparisons and discussions.

The second essay, Rethinking Power, steps into the political discussion in the extremes of evangelical activists. Hunter’s primary approach considers the historical parameters of the discussion and how things have worked themselves out in both the Christian right and Christian left. He then presents the example of the Neo-Anabaptists as the best example of historical and New Testament forms of engagement. His sixth chapter in this essay is his strongest, though without immediate resolution to its central questions. Hunter resolves some of this with a final discussion about the implications of power in a culture.

The final essay is where Hunter more formally presents and works out this notion of faithful presence from within the culture. The opening of this essay is one of the best parts of the text. He then points out that there are two challenges which encumber this project: that of difference, with a pluralistic west there is no dominant culture; and dissolution, with no underlying agreement on terms and conditions. He then works through how Christians in a post-Christian culture might go about this task of changing the world through faithful presence. Ultimately, faithful presence from within, is an incarnational effort that requires sacrifice of ourselves on behalf of our calling.

Interaction:

Hunter’s text is an important one for church leaders to work through. It is well written and carries a historically informed discussion to bear in the contemporary problem. As I encountered the text initially, it was after a conversation with several leading edge ministers who were raving about the text. I found it erudite and articulate in its arrangement of the issues and presentation of the author’s solution. 

Copious endnotes allow the motivated reader to dig a bit deeper into the text and research behind the author’s work. Hunter’s criticisms seem fair as they approach both wings of Christianity he is considering. I do have reservations about the neo-Anabaptist movement he puts forward as being more apostolic and biblical than the other alternatives. Perhaps this is because I don’t buy political solutions in the earliest Christian communities. When one is without power, appeals to corrupt leaders are moot.

This text is important young leaders to read through. I would caution against the employment only for political reform; culture changing should move beyond that limited horizon. Church leaders would do well to engage key laity with discussions about this book and others like Andy Crouch’s Culture Making and Gabe Lyon’s The Next Christians. (Of course that’s a lot of reading for a church staff.)

Finally, I simply disagree with Hunter’s idea of faithful presence from within. As I consider how the New Testament and the earliest Christian communities, even through the immediate post-apostolic age, interacted with culture it was the idea of faithful proclamation. My challenge is that, for all the stories of anabaptist type incarnational living, the examples given in the early communities find early Christians caring for the sick, feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, and clothing the naked while earnestly proclaiming the Gospel tradition handed down for all generations. Though I don’t wish to take more time to unpack this here, it seems that proclamation wasn’t about obtaining power for the early Christians but about being devoted to the apostolic teaching which is that message that can save. 

Hunter’s text is a fine one and it should be read by serious ministers who seek to engage the culture to transform it through the power of the Gospel. You simply won’t be disappointed in the text. For those who can manage a deeper discussion of its historical points, there is a rich mine of fortune in these words.