Book Review: To Change the World by James Davison Hunter
James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. x + 358pp. $27.95
In a "post"-everything age (whether it be postliberal, postconservative, postmodern, etc.), being "postpolitical" is perhaps not such a bad thing for the church. Given the all-to-frequent "hostile takeovers" of the church by the Christian Left and Right, it is refreshing to return to some familiar, less "American" Christianity. And this is precisely what James Davison Hunter provides in his book, To Change the World.
Some have called this book a "game changer," often comparing it to H. Richard Niebuhr’s, perhaps too popular, Christ and Culture. In a way very welcome to those who are tired of the Christian Right and Left dominating Christian political involvement, the first section of Hunter’s book attempts to dispel the common misunderstanding by most American Christians of how culture actually changes. The common view (shared by both Left and Right) is that “Cultures change when people change” (16, emphasis original). Thus cultural change is often attempted from ‘bottom-up,’ through the ‘hearts and minds’ of individuals. According to this view, as long as individual Christians do their part as good Christians, and enough of them are faithful at it, culture will eventually follow. Thus, this method of ‘culture-engagement’ sees America’s moral degradation to be a result of a lack of faithful Christians.
Yet, contrary to such a stance, Hunter demonstrates, from sociological and historical data, that cultural change does not come so simply or easily. Almost always culture shifts in ways unintended by those ‘responsible’ for the change; far from culture being dependent on any ‘moral majority,’ Hunter argues, “we find evidence that culture is in fact a much more complicated phenomenon than we normally imagine” (22).
Most Christian leaders have held a naïve view of cultural change; namely, culture changes largely through ideas. At the bottom of this ‘culture war,’ for most, is really a ‘cognitive war’ (25), a war of ideas, or, in more popular terms, a war of ‘worldviews.’ “Ideas do have consequences in history,” writes Hunter, “yet not because those ideas are inherently truthful or obviously correct but rather because of the way they are embedded in very powerful institutions networks, interests, and symbols” (44). In fact, “cultures are profoundly resistant to intentional change—period” (45). Hunter suggests that rather than a ‘hearts and minds’ approach as described above, cultural influence occurs through the elite and “larger structural changes” (46). Historically, “we find a rich source of patronage that provided resources for intellectuals and educators who, in the context of dense networks, imagine, theorize, and propagate an alternative culture” (78), and this accounts for cultural change more than individual conversions.
Given the central role of the elite in cultural change, Hunter highlights and reveals how so few Christians actually hold such roles in society today. The reason that Christians are ineffective today, then, is not because individual Christians are not doing enough, but that “they have been absent from the arenas in which the greatest influence in the culture is exerted” (89, emphasis original).
This leads to the problem of power. According to Hunter, a false perception of power is what is at the bottom of much cultural failure on the part of Christians. Hunter writes,
When faith and its culture flourish, they do so, in part, because it operates with an implicit view of power in its proper place. When faith and its cultures deteriorate, they do so, in part, because it operates with a view of power that is corrupt. (99)
The foundation for proper cultural change, then, is rooted in a proper view of power. The problem with cultural engagement of the Christian left and the right (as well as the Neo-Anabaptists) is that all three groups function within a pre-determined framework of power that is more political rather than biblical. By so doing, all three groups, “unwittingly embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry” (175). Under the illusion that moral problems, social problems, etc. can be solved through the State, many American Christians have adopted a faulty understanding of power. “At best,” writes Hunter, “politics can make life in this world a little more just and thus a little more bearable,” but that’s about it (186).
In order to avoid a non-Christian concept of power, it is important to properly distinguish the political from the public. According to Hunter, not all interaction with the public is political; therefore, the church needs to approach common problems in public rather than political ways. The problems that the three above-mentioned groups seek to solve politically can be boiled down to two issues: difference and dissolution. Difference “is rooted in the ever-present, indeed unavoidable realities of modern pluralism” (200). How do we as Christians respond to this difference between religions and cultures that we readily find in our everyday lives? Dissolution refers to “the deconstruction of the most basic assumptions about reality” (205). Basically, it refers to the separation between word and the world, where language itself is cast into doubt. In contrast to the three positions of relating to the world and the problems of difference and dissolution: ‘defensive against’ (Christian right), ‘relevance to’ (Christian left), and ‘purity from’ (Neo-anabaptists, and two-kingdoms folk), Hunter offers his alternative: “faithful presence within” (237). In this view, the Christian is to learn “to live the alternative reality of the kingdom of God within the present world order faithfully” (236). When Christians are involved at all levels of society, not simply as the ‘moral majority,’ but functioning among the elites, there is more hope for faithful cultural influence.
Hunter’s book has a lot of good to offer. His critique of the Christian right and left seem fair, yet he leaves something to be desired in his engagement with the neo-Anabaptists. Though he may be correct to criticize them for functioning in an overly political tone, much of his own ‘alternative’ does not seem to differ substantially from the neo-Anabaptist approach. For example, it is doubtful whether the neo-Anabaptists (best represented by John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas) can be understood as having a “world-hating theology” (174). Hunter criticizes the fact that “the collective identity of the neo-Anabaptists comes through their dissent from the State and the larger political economy and culture of late modernity” (164). He argues that this is because, “Their identity depends on the State and other powers being corrupt and the more unambiguously corrupt they are, the clearer the identity and mission of the church” (164, emphasis original). It is unclear, however, why the way in which neo-Anabaptists ‘depend’ on the State is really an argument against them. Christ’s redemptive work can, in a similar sense, be said to ‘depend’ on the Fall and Sin, but that does not invalidate or make bad the incarnation. A number of criticisms that Hunter posits against the neo-Anabaptist seem superficial and weak (he argues, for instance, that the neo-Anabaptist use of the term ‘powerlessness’ is naïve for thinking that power can be avoided, but a more charitable reading would simply be that ‘powerlessness’ is a form of using power—in a similar way to the kenosis of Christ can be said to be ‘powerlessness’).
In many places Hunter seems perhaps too optimistic about Christian engagement with culture; not enough attention is given to the fact that we live after the Fall. Thankfully Hunter does attempt to distinguish the cultural role of the church from an explicitly political role, but such a line seems thin indeed. Further, his notion of 'faithful presence' is often too vague to be meaningful. Frequently, Hunter makes distinctions which seem merely rhetorical than substantial. For example, Hunter pits mentoring against managing, calling against career, covenant against contract, and so on (cf. 268); but it is never really clear what these distinctions mean and how they result from a ‘faithful presence’ approach. The ‘vignettes’ he offers of those who are practicing ‘faithful presence within’ seem to be general anecdotes that do not particularly reflect what distinguishes a person practicing ‘faithful presence’ from one who is simply optimistic (266-69). Moreover the vignettes do not reflect the reality of sin and corruption that other views, including that of the neo-Anabaptists, seem to take more seriously.
In sum, the book is a welcome addition in its criticism of the Christian left and right but is certainly not perfect. Furthermore, Hunter’s own alternative to Christian engagement with culture adopts assumptions that proponents of the two-kingdoms doctrine would find problematic (namely that the cultural mandate means culture building for the church). It is unfair, however, to expect everything from a single book, especially one covering such a broad scope; Hunter makes clear throughout the book that much of what he says are suggestions to re-direct the conversation, and in this regard his book may, in fact, be a game changer. When all is said and done, Hunter’s sociological analysis of culture and of the Christian right and left renders the book worthwhile, even if one does not accept all of his theological assumptions and/or conclusions.