Book Review: To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World - James Davidson Hunter (2010)
In his book, Hunter gives Christians who want to change the world the bad news before the good. For Hunter, Christians (however well-intentioned) cannot change the world, and more to the point, shouldn’t seek to. Our notions of redeeming or reclaiming the culture, of advancing the Kingdom, are actually mistaken. How, then, are we to make sense of what it means to be Christian and engage meaningfully in politics and culture?
Hunter sets about adjusting our ambitions and redirecting our focus through three essays, broad in their range of content from sociological explanations of culture-forming to observations of the American political climate, yet deep in their theological reflections on the incarnation, life and teachings of Jesus. This book throws up more questions than it seeks to answer but is a vital read for any Christian seeking to bring Jesus into the public square and asking how we can change the world.
Can Christians Change the World?
The first essay is entitled 'Christianity and World-Changing.' Hunter lays out the prevailing argument in many Christian circles, namely that the key to changing the world is to have more individuals with the right worldview in positions of power. It follows that if the number of people whose hearts and minds have been won to Jesus increases, so too will the Kingdom of God in any one culture. Hunter somewhat cruelly waits until the end of the chapter to describe this approach as almost wholly mistaken.
For Hunter, Christians (particularly in America) have misread the times and by focusing so much energy on politics, they have fixed their attention on secondary problems and come up with false solutions. Instead, Hunter advocates for a better understanding of how worlds are changed/cultures are formed. Rather than our own idealism and good intentions, engaging the world well requires an understanding that cultural change occurs through institutions, not individuals. More specifically, through dense networks of elites operating in common purpose within institutions at the high-prestige centres of cultural production. Culture is complex and is made centrally, top-down and this stands in contrast to the Church, which operates at the periphery, changing the hearts and minds of many through evangelism.
It is for this reason that Hunter views our ambitions to change the world as unrealistic and strategically impossible. Ouch.
A right view of political power
So are we to abandon all aspirations to live for Jesus in the political arena? Absolutely not. In his second essay, “Rethinking Power” Hunter analyses the current political climate and sets limits on what Christians should hope to achieve through politics. Citing the effect of pluralism in fragmenting our societies, he notes how we can no longer assume God to be a starting point and the values we share are shrinking. With fewer beliefs, ideals, commitments and hopes held deeply in common, we are held together by our economic and social interdependence. Crucially, Hunter identifies the threat of coercion (power) as the key component that binds our fragmented culture together. As our cultural consensus decreases, Hunter observes our increased reliance on law and politics as solutions to public problems - almost everything has become politicised. To illustrate this, Hunter notes that our times demonstrate that 'it is far easier to force our will on others through legal and political means than it is to persuade them or negotiate compromise with them.' [p.107]
Should Christians then withdraw from politics because of its inextricable link with coercive power? Should we pursue powerlessness to avoid coercing others? Hunter rejects this stance, arguing that we cannot avoid power but can exercise it faithfully. To be made in the image of God is to possess social and relational power, it is inherent to our nature as humans and so avoidance is not an option. Instead, we are to steward our power in the world in ways that reflect God’s intentions. To further make this point, Hunter analyses the life of Jesus and his interactions with power during his ministry which makes for challenging reading.
But what does Hunter conclude? He is swift in his rebuke that we must not idolise or put too much expectation on what politics can achieve and notes our tendency to wrongly view all public problems as political ones. However, Hunter focuses his argument on politics and the activity of culture-making as valid, but not redemptive or salvific [p.233]. Whilst affirming the good creational mandate that was not nullified by the fall, Hunter cautions us against thinking that the Kingdom of God, in any real sense, is brought about by our political efforts to that end.
Faithfulness over Domination
The third essay, 'Toward a New City Commons: Reflection on a theology of faithful presence' summarises the benefits and pitfalls of three major prominent approaches of Christian circles to engage with culture in the US (defensive against, relevance to, and purity from).
In response to the inadequacies Hunter finds in these approaches, he sets out his position on Christian cultural and political engagement, and the main thesis of this book, namely the call to pursue a ‘faithful presence.' Recognising the tension of pursuing faithfulness to God whilst seeking to influence the culture politically, Hunter proposes this disarmingly simple solution.
Christians should, where and to the extent that they are able, do what they can to create conditions in the structures of social life we inhabit that are conducive to the flourishing of all. The emphasis is on presence and place here - the call to be faithfully present goes beyond politics and into all spheres and all levels of life. Hunter traces examples of this method of cultural engagement throughout history and urges us to enact and seek ‘Shalom’ (peace, prosperity, wholeness) on behalf of others wherever we are.
So… we just keep being Christians?
Your initial reaction may be one of frustration, that the conclusion ‘just be a Christian’ is anticlimactic. To be sure, Hunter does not give us a list of neat action points which we can check off to become ‘faithfully present’ in any given situation. Instead, Hunter provides us with a critical lens through which to view cultural engagement, and an antidote to our poisonous tendency to believe that political power and coercion are the means with which we advance the Kingdom of God.
This book humbles our aspirations to be world changers, challenging that aspiration and commending to us the path of faithfulness to God above all. Through this, we may indeed change the world for the better, but our ultimate hope is in He who created the world to usher in His Kingdom and the New Creation. I think we can all agree that the world is in better hands that way.