Book Review: To Change the World, by James Davison Hunter

Review
10.27.2010

I remember some of the anticipation that greeted the announcement of the release of James Davison Hunter’s latest work, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Given that evangelicals have for some time now been engrossed in a renewed and often passionate conversation about how to engage the culture, how to change the world, and what exactly the church’s mission really is, many looked forward to Hunter’s book as a major step forward in that conversation. That it is, but not exactly in the way one might have expected.

With a title like To Change the World, the book head-faked in the direction of a straightforward advocacy of a transformationalist way of thinking—that is, that the world should be changed and can be changed, and that it is the church’s task and mission in this age to do it. That’s not what Hunter does, though, and by the end of the book the reader realizes he should have paid more attention to the word “Irony” in the title. For Hunter’s understanding is a good deal more chastened and humble than much of the “change the world” rhetoric that infuses various corners of evangelicalism.

RECALIBRATING EVANGELICALS’ APPROACH TO CHANGING CULTURE

To Change the World is an academic book. It is sociological theory, sociological analysis, historical investigation, Bible study, and theological consideration all wrapped up into one. Though you probably wouldn’t hand it to the average church member—unless he’s interested in concepts like ressentiment, the meaning of culture, and the nature of power—it is certainly good material for you, the pastor, to read, consider, and have at hand for conversations with idealistic young (or otherwise!) people who want to change the world, whether their particular strategy is to do so through the political process or through some other way of “confronting the powers.” Not only so, but the sections of biblical and theological study come to largely good conclusions, even if other books will provide a fuller framework for reaching those conclusions.

Hunter’s basic thesis is that the way Christians have largely gone about trying to change the culture around them has been wholly misguided. That strategy, “idealism,” is the belief that by changing the hearts and minds of individuals, whether by conversion to Christ or by direct engagement with ideas, the culture as a whole can be changed. Hunter rejects that strategy and understanding entirely. “This account,” he says, “is almost wholly mistaken” (17). In fact, the model on which such strategies are based “not only does not work, but it cannot work.”  From there, Hunter argues that cultures are more complex than this dominant understanding allows for. Culture is not simply the sum of all the individuals which make it up; rather, culture must be understood as a complex structure of “elites, networks, technology, and institutions” which is highly resistant to change (76). Further, culture is organized in a “fairly rigid structure of ‘center’ and ‘periphery’” (36). There are some institutions that carry much more weight in the culture than others do. The New York Times, for instance, has more “symbolic capital” than the Dallas Morning News. Yale University has more than Bob Jones University.

Because of that, a movement to change the culture either by “changing hearts and minds” or by “making culture” through the production of cultural artifacts, Hunter argues, is doomed to failure. In fact, as he shows through several historical examples, cultures are not so controllable or malleable as that. When they do change, even the relatively fast changes are prone to take decades, and those changes are the result of a somewhat unpredictable coming together of ideas, institutions, elites, and technology.

Then, through an examination of the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the neo-Anabaptists, Hunter shows how each of these groups has erred in one way or another. We won’t take the time now to delve into those chapters, but they, too, provide an informative read.

RELEVANT, HUMBLE, CHASTENED—A HELPFUL CORRECTION

Hunter’s book is immediately relevant—and a corrective in many ways—to the current conversation going on among evangelicals. Into an evangelical context that seems to be swirling with powerful and often theologically inaccurate rhetoric about changing the world, Hunter writes, “It is essential, in my view, to abandon altogether talk of ‘redeeming the culture,’ ‘advancing the kingdom,’ ‘building the kingdom,’ ‘transforming the world,’ ‘reclaiming the culture,’ ‘reforming the culture,’ and ‘changing the world’” (280). That’s because these phrases imply conquest, take-over, and dominion, which, Hunter is right to say, is precisely not what God has called us as Christians to be about. Thus Hunter is very careful to say that while our cultural works in this age are not without spiritual significance (253), they are also not of “ultimate significance” (253) and are not a matter of bringing in or building God’s kingdom:

It is important to underscore that while the activity of culture-making has validity before God, this work is not, strictly speaking, redemptive or salvific in character. Where Christians participate in the work of world-building, they are not, in any precise sense of the phrase, “building the kingdom of God.” This side of heaven, the culture cannot become the kingdom of God, nor will the work of Christians in the culture evolve into or bring about his kingdom. The establishment of his kingdom in eternity is an act of divine sovereignty alone and it will only be set in place at the final consummation at the end of time…Perhaps it will be that God will transform works of faith in this world into something incorruptible but here again, it is God’s doing and not ours. (233)

That point is a matter of considerable confusion among evangelicals today, and Hunter’s clear explanation of it is a welcome addition to the conversation.

Instead of understanding its task as being the building of God’s kingdom or the changing of the culture, Hunter says, the church should understand its charge in the world to be one of “faithful presence within.” He defines this as a calling for the church “to bear witness to and to be the embodiment of the coming Kingdom of God.”  The point is not to change the world, but to bear witness to the world in word and deed that a better world is coming. I very much appreciate this emphasis, for it seems to me both more humble and more biblical than the vision of “transforming the culture” that so permeates contemporary evangelicalism.

At the end of the book, Hunter finally asks and answers the big question:

Will engaging the world in the way discussed here change the world? This, I believe, is the wrong question . . .

The question is wrong because, for Christians, it makes the primary subservient to the secondary. By making a certain understanding of the good of society the objective, the source of the good—God himself and the intimacy he offers—becomes nothing more than a tool to be used to achieve that objective. When this happens, righteousness can quickly become cruelty and justice can rapidly turn into injustice . . .

To be sure, Christianity is not, first and foremost, about establishing righteousness or creating good values or securing justice or making peace in the world. Don’t get me wrong: these are goods we should care about and pursue with great passion. But for Christians, these are all secondary to the primary good of God himself and the primary task of worshipping him and honoring him in all they do . . .

Against the present realities of our historical moment, it is impossible to say what can actually be accomplished. There are intractable uncertainties that cannot be avoided. Certainly Christians, at their best, will neither create a perfect world nor one that is altogether new; but by enacting shalom and seeking it on behalf of all others through the practice of faithful presence, it is possible, just possible, that they will help to make the world a little bit better. (285-286)

There’s much about Hunter’s thought and articulation here that I find very helpful. I appreciate, for one thing, his theological sensitivity. He understands that the establishment of the kingdom of God is a work that God and God alone performs, a biblical truth that prevents a boatload of error from creeping into our theology. He also understands, rightly I think, that Christianity is not primarily about creating social well-being. (He says it is primarily about glorifying God; I’d only add that that glorifying is to be done especially by witnessing to Jesus in the world, that is, by proclaiming the gospel and making disciples.)

What I appreciate most, however, is Hunter’s humility. For a book titled something as in-your-face as To Change the World, one would really have expected a more in-your-face conclusion than, (I paraphrase) “Can we change the world? Well, who knows? Probably not. But we can perhaps, just perhaps, make it a little better by living godly lives as aliens and strangers in it.” (Thus the word “Irony” in the title!) That’s a humility, I think, that is born of the very same theological care I mentioned before. Hunter knows that the world is fallen, he knows that God—and God alone—will finally set it right one day, and in the meantime, he wants simply to live a life that will commend that God and his gospel until that final day comes. There’s a humility there that we can all learn from.