James Davison Hunter has written a provocative and important new book titled To Change the World. It is already sparking widespread conversation, and deservedly so. Hunter makes bold assessments that are contrary to conventional views, and does so with great intelligence and force, while maintaining a winsome and compelling demeanor.
If you haven’t read the book, Hunter contends that “the dominant ways of thinking about culture and cultural change are flawed” (p. 5). For most Christians, the “essence of culture is found in the hearts and minds of individuals – in what are typically called ‘values’…a slightly more sophisticated version of this is found in the view of those who speak of ‘worldviews.’” (p. 6). “Thus, changing the world requires that individual Christians vote into office those who hold the right values or possess the right worldview and therefore will make the right choices” (p. 12), the idea being that “cultures change when people change” p. 16).
“This account,” writes Hunter, “is almost wholly mistaken.” (p. 17).
Hunter then goes on to dismantle the leading approaches to cultural change, namely evangelism, politics, social reform, and the creation of artifacts. Along the way, he dismisses Charles Colson’s emphasis on worldview, brushes aside Crouch’s Culture Making, and waves away Gabe Lyons’ efforts with “Q.” And the idea of changing culture in a single generation? “Ludicrous” (p. 45).
In sum, “the main reason why Christian believers today…have not had the influence in the culture to which they have aspired is not that they don’t believe enough, or try hard enough, or care enough, or think Christianly enough, or have the right worldview, but rather because they have been absent from the arenas in which the greatest influence in the culture is exerted” (p. 89).
But don’t mistake that for getting out of your cul-de-sac and engaging in the tea-party movement.
Hunter saves his most scathing critique for the use of power through politics, which he finds in almost every approach to cultural engagement currently being offered in American Christianity. All, he maintains, are marked by “ressentiment,” a French word that includes our American idea of “resentment,” but also involves anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge as the motive of political action. “Ressentiment,” writes Hunter, “is grounded in a narrative of injury or, at least, perceived injury; a strong belief that one has been or is being wronged” (p. 107).
Christians, Hunter maintains, have given themselves over to this. We’ve politicized our faith, and stake out our positions in ideological terms. This is as true of the Christian Right as the Christian Left, marking Jim Dobson as much as Jim Wallis. All have reduced the public witness of the church to a political witness (p. 169).
So what does Hunter suggest?
Essentially, a return to a deep sense of vocation, what he calls “faithful presence,” with specific emphasis on those positions within culture that are influential. “I have argued that cultural change at its most profound level occurs through dense networks of elites operating in common purpose within institutions at the high-prestige centers of cultural production” (p. 274).
So leave behind all talk of “redeeming the culture,” “advancing the kingdom,” “building the kingdom,” “transforming the world,” “reclaiming the culture,” “reforming the culture,” and “changing the world.” “Christians need to leave such language behind them,” Hunter contends, “because it carries too much weight” - we are “exiles in a land of exile” (p. 280). In fact, Hunter goes so far as to say “it may be that the healthiest course of action for Christians…is to be silent for a season and learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through law, policy, and political mobilization” (p. 281).
There is much, much more in this book, and I would strongly recommend that you read it. Hunter raises significant issues that deserve to be grappled with.
But here are a few questions for what Hunter has raised:
Is the best approach really gaining a foothold in the highest peaks of cultural influence? While Hunter takes political efforts to task, some have taken his approach to task as well (consciously or not). Consider Thomas Sowell’s new work, Intellectuals and Society, which explores how intellectuals shape culture. Yes, their influence today is greater than previous eras, but not by their ability to influence the holders of power. Instead, influence comes through the shaping of public opinion in ways that affect the actions of power holders (regardless of whether those power holders are actually convinced).
Is Hunter then accurate in his portrayal of the New York Times being more influential than, say, USA Today? Among cultural elites, perhaps, but going to Sowell’s thesis, is that where power is in the world of the tea-party movement and blogs? Isn’t what makes Sarah Palin such a lightning rod of controversy, and so reviled on the left, is that she shouldn’t have influence – and yet does? Isn’t this why FOX News is a thorn in the side of MSNBC, and the Drudge Report annoying to CNN? Theyshouldn’t have influence (in their minds), yet do?
Another question: While critiquing the dismissal of the institutional church as suggested by George Barna in Revolution, does Hunter have a real vision for the local church as the vanguard of Christ’s efforts on earth? Or does he view the church simply as a means to support those in culture, but not necessarily a force in and of itself as a collective entity or enterprise? More to the point, does Hunter have a vision for the church as a collective whole besides just disciple-making and a means of offering a compelling plausibility structure? The Scriptures would seem to point to far, far more – as would a study of history, such as the role of the church in preserving culture following the fall of the Roman Empire.
Hunter makes a strong case for the importance of institutions...it is ironic that he does not seem to see the church as being one of those institutions that, if properly led, could be an awakened giant of influence.
Another question: Are the many contrasts and comparisons Hunter makes to suggest an alternative means of influencing culture necessary? Can we not support the robust idea of vocation and worldview as equally strategic, or different but important dynamics to the effort? Can’t we embrace “faithful presence” and working toward cultural artifacts? Don’t we need to embrace the artist and the politician? It would seem that more than a few false dichotomies are being established here.
This seems particularly important to raise as Hunter seems to dismiss the efforts of individuals such as Colson, Crouch and Lyons a bit quickly and, to my thinking, prematurely. I count all three as friends, and would consider myself relatively familiar with their thinking and their work. He takes the most time, and is most cautious, with Colson; but it is clear he did not give Crouch a fair hearing (they are much more closely aligned than he suggests), and his treatment of what Lyons is doing through “Q” and other ventures is so closely aligned to what Hunter himself argues that it betrays a possible lack of real understanding.
Another question: Hunter goes out of his way - and admirably so - to not dismiss such enterprises as evangelism, politics, social reform, and the creation of artifacts. But he gives the least acknowledgment – theologically, sociologically, and historically – to evangelism. For example, the scant three or four pages on Awakenings (p. 70-74), which were titanic in terms of cultural impact, are lifted up as examples of his “faithful presence”, as opposed to the evangelism he dismisses as a cultural change-agent. I am not sure that many historians would agree with this diminution of the role of evangelism.
Final question: What of Acts 17:6? “These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here.” That doesn’t sound like support for a season of quiet to try and clear our head and find a way to a desk job at the New York Times. It would seem the early church went straight for the blog – and the town square – and from there, worked Christianity up the ladder.
Just a few questions for a book that deserves them.
Hunter has given us the starting point for talking about what matters most.
Which I still believe includes “How to change the world.”
James Emery White
James Davison Hunter, To Change the World (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).
Thomas Sowell, Intellectuals and Society (New York: Basic Books, 2009).
Andy Crouch, Culture Makers (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2008).
Andy Crouch’s more personal response to Hunter is found here: