To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World
Hunter, James Davison
Oxford University Press, USA
April 14, 2010
368 pp., $22.36
Over two decades have passed since Allan Bloom's famous polemic, The Closing of the American Mind, shook up the American academy. The time is ripe for another shakeup. Enter James Davison Hunter, whose latest contribution, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford), promises to shake up American Christianity. An endorsement for Bloom's book applies just as well to Hunter's: It "will be savagely attacked. And, indeed, it deserves it, as this is the destiny of all important books … Reading it will make many people indignant, but leave nobody indifferent."
Hunter, professor of religion, culture, and social theory at the University of Virginia, is author of Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America and The Death of Character: On the Moral Education of America's Children.
To Change the World comprises three essays. The first examines the common view of "culture as ideas," espoused by thinkers like Chuck Colson, and the corrective view of "culture as artifacts," as recently argued by Andy Crouch in Culture Making. Both views, argues Hunter, are characterized by idealism, individualism, and pietism.
Hunter develops an alternative view of culture, one that assigns roles not only to ideas and artifacts but also to "elites, networks, technology, and new institutions." American Christians—mainline Protestant, Catholic, and evangelical—will not and cannot change the world through evangelism, political action, and social reform because of the working theory that undergirds their strategies. This theory says that "the essence of culture is found in the hearts and minds of individuals—in what are typically called 'values.' " According to Hunter, social science and history prove that many popular ideas, such as "transformed people transform cultures" (Colson) and "in one generation, you change the whole culture" (James Dobson), are "deeply flawed."
The second essay argues that "the public witness of the church today has become a political witness." Hunter critiques the political theologies of the Christian Right, Christian Left, and neo-Anabaptists, showing that unlikely bedfellows—James Dobson, Jim Wallis, and Stanley Hauerwas—are all "functional Nietzscheans" insofar as their resentment fuels a will to power, which perpetuates rather than heals "the dark nihilisms of the modern age."
The third essay offers a different paradigm for cultural engagement, one Hunter calls "faithful presence." Faithful presence is not about changing culture, let alone the world, but instead emphasizes cooperation between individuals and institutions in order to make disciples and serve the common good. "If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world," Hunter writes, "it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God's command to love our neighbor."
Christopher Benson, a writer and teacher in Denver, Colorado, spoke with Hunter about To Change the World. Benson's work has appeared in The Weekly Standard, Books & Culture, Christian Scholar's Review, Image, and The City. Mark Galli, senior managing editor of Christianity Today, assisted in the interview.