To Change the World

James Davison Hunter’s new book, To Change the World, has been stirring up buzz since it came out this spring, and for good reason. It’s an intellectually robust, complicated, nuanced treatment of a crucial, continually difficult subject matter: The relationship between Christianity and culture. How do Christians relate to culture? How do they transform it? Is this even the right question to ask? For those familiar with this blog and my prevailing concerns as a writer, you know that this is a subject near and dear to my heart. Thus, I read To Change the World voraciously, though critically, enjoying it as much as I’ve enjoyed reading any other book this year.

Hunter’s book questions how Christians have historically “changed the world,” or attempted to, and paints a picture of how he thinks we can or should undertake such a task.

Hunter says that changing the world can’t just be a matter of ideas. It can’t just be about changing “hearts and minds,” which he suggests is the dominant language used by many Christians today calling for the church to transform the world. Change doesn’t happen merely on the ideas level; rather, it involves a much more complicated, multifaceted  matrix of institutions, systems of production, political economy, status/influence, networks of power, etc. Culture is at its most powerful when it involves a dialectic between ideas and institutions, he says. Essentially, Hunter’s point is that Christians can be as earnest and passionate as they want to be in their attempts to have the right worldview and “think Christianly enough,” but as long as they continue to be absent from the arenas in which culture is actually produced, their impact will be marginal and their cultural capital negligible.

As someone who has lived and worked in Hollywood as a Christian, and who studied production cultures and the political economy of media industries while a graduate student at UCLA, I find Hunter’s insistence on complicating the way we understand culture/power/culture-making to be absolutely right on. There are a lot of well-meaning Christians moving to Hollywood (or who have been working here for a long time) with very earnest intentions to “change the world” via media production. But it isn’t as simple as just “having a good idea”… there are layers and layers of power structures, networks, socio-economic and anthropological narratives at play that all influence the way culture is created and consumed in Hollywood. Hunter is wise to point this out, even if it might not be the answer we’d prefer to hear.

Hunter spends much of the book discussing the cultural arena in which Christians have recently been most active in trying to change the world: Politics. Politics has been “the dominant public witness” of Christianity, notes Hunter, with little actual progress/impact to show for. He leaves no political persuasion un-critiqued. The Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the “neo-Anabaptist” (non-political/separatist) all receive thorough assessment and critique from Hunter. These political approaches represent, for Hunter, 3 larger paradigms of cultural engagement that he calls “defensive against,” “relevance to,” and “purity from,” respectively. Against these three paradigms (Hunter finds each lacking), he proposes another way of engaging culture: “Faithful presence within.”

What is “faithful presence within”? Hunter spends less time describing the actual details of what this looks like than I wish he would. He does mention that “faithful presence” includes such things as creating art (excellent art), generating networks of relationships, and creating space for meaningful discussion (he describes Paste magazine as being an example of it). All good things. He writes that “the practices of faithful presence represent an assault on the worldliness of this present age,” comparing the notion of “faithful presence within” to the Israelites in Babylonian exile as described by Jeremiah. Hunter says:

The people of Israel were being called to enter the culture in which they were placed as God’s people–reflecting in their daily practices their distinct identity as those chosen by God. He was calling them to maintain their distinctiveness as a community but in ways that served the common good… The story of Jeremiah 29 comports well with what we learn from St. Peter, who with so many others speaks of Christians as “exiles in the world” (1:1, 2:11) encouraging us to “live [our] lives as strangers here in reverent fear” (1:17)… In this light, St. Peter encourages believers repeatedly to be “eager to do good” (3:17) and for each person to “use whatever gift he has received to serve others, faithfully administering God’s grace in its various forms” (4:10)…

In sum, Hunter says that “a theology of faithful presence calls Christians to enact the shalom of God in the circumstances in which God has placed them and to actively seek it on behalf of others. This is a vision for the entire church.”

I think I like this “faithful presence” vision for the church’s engagement with culture. But as I read Hunter’s description of it I couldn’t help but feel like what he is calling for seems a bit like a quiet-living, inoffensive, “we’re just doing our thing and we won’t bother you” sort of presence. At a July event in Washington D.C., someone asked Hunter about this and he denied that this was what he intended to propose, saying that “faithful presence” isn’t meant to imply a sort of privatistic, pietistic, individualistic way of being.

On the last page of his book, Hunter indicates that he believes the primary task of the church is to worship God (which he insists is not “cheap pietism”). Of course I don’t dispute the importance of worshiping God; For Christians, this is essential. But is worship really the primary task of the church in the world?

A seminary professor of mine recently discussed in class three common ideas for how Christians perceive the primary purpose of the church in the world–the end to which God intends his people to strive while they exist on earth in the now-and-not-yet time being: 1) Worship of God (upward), 2) Edification/fellowship/discipleship (inward), 3) Evangelism/mission (outward).

The professor mentioned that while worship and edification are important ends for the church, they cannot be the primary ends, for the simple reason that we will never worship God perfectly on earth or be morally formed to perfect righteousness or fellowship while on earth. If those were the ultimate ontological ends for which the church was formed, why wouldn’t God just take his church immediately up to heaven, where we’ll worship him perfectly and be in community perfectly?

Perhaps it makes more sense, my professor said, that the purpose to which the church is called–in and through a history that has not yet reached God’s preordained culmination–is that of evangelism: Spreading the Gospel of transformation outward. It is an active calling–going out and making disciples of all nations. All other purposes–worshiping God, growing/edifying in community, cultivating a positive witness and “faithful presence” in the world–are beneficial only insofar as they help spread the message of the Gospel and build the family of God. Being sent out–the missio dei–is absolutely fundamental for who we are as the church. We can’t just exist passively and let others wander into the fold. We are called to take action and go out to make disciples.

Hunter’s book is incredibly valuable, but if there’s a fault in his proposed paradigm it is simply that he tends to downplay the church’s need to “change the world” a bit too much. In his attempts (correct as they are) to complicate our vision for how change is actually effected and in his critique of the disastrous nihilism of our obsession with political involvement, he seems to conclude that we should probably just bide our time and not try to change much, because we won’t be able to anyway.

I’m not sure if this is practical, insightful, or defeatist… or maybe a combination of the three. But I do know that the message of Christ cannot just idle by and exist passively.  It can’t help but burst forth and be carried outward by the mobilized church to transform lives and make a difference, “changing the world” as it always has.

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11 responses to “To Change the World

  1. It would be interesting to see how he felt about Stanley Grenz…
    Grenz: ” [Christians] continually and persistently invoke the in-breaking of the kingdom into the circumstances of the present.” (p 105, “Prayer: The Cry for the Kingdom” 1988, Hendrickson Publishers)

  2. I understand the logical distinction between worship (upward) and evangelism (outward), but I’m not sure we need to separate those two things.

    Paul seems to indicate in Rom 1 that the main tenet of the human predicament is misplaced worship. Humans have chosen to worship something other than the Creator, and this has led to all kinds of brokenness. God’s covenant with Israel is his solution. He elects a people who will worship him above all else, and they will this be a blessing to the nations. Their life together, which is shaped by placing God above all else, will be a light to the nations, leading them to likewise worship the Creator.

    In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus calls his disciples to a life radically shaped by their rightly-placed worship, and thereby they will be a light to the nations. Thus, worship and “evangelism” are intimately linked.

    What do you think?

    • Cliff- I definitely think you are correct. Worship and evangelism are very intimately linked. Rightly-placed worship, as you say, does indeed serve to be a “light to the nations” and thereby evangelistic. Ideally, the 3 aspects of our mission that my professor mentioned (worship, fellowship, evangelism) are all unified and not at odds with one another. I do not think, for example, that we have to diminish one to focus on the other. But I think there’s a way we can acknowledge the primacy of evangelism and still give ourselves fully to the other tasks of the church, viewing them all as important and vital to our identity.

      • I think we are on the same page, Brett, especially if we can conceive of a broadly defined evangelism. Rather than simply a synonym for proselytization, I think of evangelism as fulfilling our covenant role to be a people who joins God in his mission to heal the brokenness of Creation (which includes our broken relationships with God, one another, and the land). I find it more challenging and creatively inspiring to think of “evangelism” in those terms. How can we join in the “good news” that the kingdom of God is at hand? (Which dovetails nicely with Lisa’s comment.)

  3. One interesting thing about the 3 aspects of our mission is that the church will (probably) not engage in evangelism in the new heaven and earth – but certainly worship and I assume fellowship.
    On another note, I find this insistence to place these types of things in a hierarchy tiresome and probably pretty western. I see no reason these can’t exist in harmony and I suspect there are few, if any, situations where we have to choose one over the other.

  4. I’m playing around with thoughts similar to “faithful presence” but more to do with the simplicity of the Christ presence within. Jesus changed his world by being “in” his world — fully. He was fully present. I think Christians have become too much like chameleons, constantly adapting to our surroundings, outside to in. Instead of the surroundings adapting to the Christ pouring out. Jesus drew people to himself by his mere presence. And really, shouldn’t that be the same for us? If not, why not? If the Christ within is being perceived as passive, then “something” is getting in the way.

  5. I agree that it is vital to go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. At the same time, I think we also need to keep in mind Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians in I Thes. 4:11-12: “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands, just as we told you, so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.”

    I think if more Christians heeded this command, Christendom would have a lot more credibility than it currently does.

  6. I’ll be curious to see how Hunter engages Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture. At a glance, there seem to be many similar themes and I wonder if there are also similar conclusions.

  7. The idea of evangelism being primary strikes me a bit wrong at first glance….maybe I need to think about it more. Although Christ Himself came to “seek and save that which was lost” and though He told His disciples to “go and make disciples, baptizing them,” it appears that Christs fellowship with the Father (inward) was primary, and from that sprung glory (woship) and witness/evangelism. If the church believed her primary purpose was evangelism, then she would transform totally into the seeker geared churches that many have become. Some have pointed out, however, that in gathering together, we should be the church (inward again, I think), focusing on worship with one another. What would a family life look like if they were constantly hosting outsiders? If you had visitors all of the time, you would eventually say, “hey, join into what our family is doing”. Maybe that is a poor description of what I’m trying to say. Evangelism is like asking someone to come in and join the family. If there is no family life to join, what is the point of the invitation. If invitation is primary, we loose the substance. I believe God will call the chosen, and that He chooses means, of which our lives are to be a part. Much of the new testament seems to encourage that “quite” life we sometimes run from at first glance.

    From I Thess 4″ But we urge you, brethren, to (B)excel still more,

    11and to make it your ambition (C)to lead a quiet life and (D)attend to your own business and (E)work with your hands, just as we commanded you,

    12so that you will (F)behave properly toward (G)outsiders and (H)not be in any need.”

    This reminds me of thoughts of Oss Guiness in his book, “The Call”, in which he encourages that the little, humdrum things of life are not dull, they are our calling as much as speaking God’s truth and participating in fellowship with our fellow believers. Good stuff to think on. Thanks for this article!

  8. How is the idea of “faithful presence” similar/different to what is known in some Christian traditions as “vocation” – that God calls his people to serve in a multitude of ways in the world and to be salt & light (cf Matt 5:13-16)? It seems to me that “vocation” can overcome an artificial “division” (for want of a better word) between worship, discipleship & evangelism, all of which are about ‘doing’ things, as it unifies them in the child of God “being” in the world. In other words, God calls his people to BE the salt & light of the world and everything we say & do flows out of that as worship, discipleship & evangelism.
    Love your work Brett!

  9. Amazing article you have here. Very much inspirational and Im very touch by your words. Indeed a beautiful and awesome words from God also. We have to worship His Almighty.

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