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.