To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, by James Davison Hunter. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, x + 358 pages, $27.95.
This work adds to the burgeoning collection of books to be placed in the category marked "Christianity and culture." Unlike most of them which come and go, however, this book is likely to stimulate a good deal of discussion, and its arguments may be debated for some time to come. James Davison Hunter offers both a descriptive account of how Christians are faring in the contemporary American context and a constructive proposal for how Christians ought to conduct themselves in the world. Though I judge his constructive case to be less successful than his descriptive case, the whole book is worth reading, and its arguments are most worthy of reflection.
The book consists of three lengthy essays, each of which makes a discrete case, though they are integrally related to one another. The first two essays largely constitute Hunter's construal of the contemporary American landscape. He begins Essay 1 with the acknowledgement that Christians have long desired to change the world for the better. He asks the important question: how does the world actually change? According to Hunter, much of American Christianity has assumed that the world changes as the hearts and minds of ordinary people change. Thus Christian leaders have focused upon educating believers with a proper worldview and inspiring them to live their faith boldly and consistently in their cultural activities. Hunter claims that this view of cultural change is simply wrong. He provides an alternative understanding of what culture is and how it changes, arguing 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" (274). Culture is very resistant to change, and when it changes it usually does so slowly, with resistance, and from the center out to the periphery. Hunter recognizes that Christians in America have had certain success and developed strong institutions, but only at the lower and peripheral ends of cultural production. Christians have failed to be culturally influential not because they have been lax in promoting the right worldview, but because they have been absent from the elite centers of influence.
Essay 2 continues Hunter's description of the current American scene. According to Hunter, changing the world implies power, and a great many American Christians think of power in terms of political conquest and domination. Thus they have politicized most areas of life, equated culture-changing with winning political battles, and suffused their political activities with anger and resentment for wrongs they believe they have suffered. They have thereby undermined the gospel they purport to promote. Hunter identifies three prominent positions in contemporary American Christianity: the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the neo-Anabaptists. Significant differences in political agenda divide the first two groups. The Christian Right seeks the right-ordering of society against the threat of secularization while the Christian Left seeks equality and community against the threat of social forces that harm the disadvantaged. Yet Hunter identifies vast similarities that unite them. Both are motivated by mythical ideals, use Scripture selectively to promote their agenda, are driven by resentment about perceived injustices, engage in highly partisan political activity (the Christian Right for the Republican Party and the Christian Left for the Democratic Party), and yet are used by these respective political parties for their own ends. Hunter offers a somewhat different analysis of the neo-Anabaptists, whose most prominent representative is Stanley Hauerwas. The neo-Anabaptists idealize the authentic Christianity of the early church, promote pacifism as fundamental for the Christian life, and emphasize the church as an alternative polis. Though the neo-Anabaptists do not seek political domination as do the Christian Right and Left, Hunter concludes that, ironically, their language and frame of reference are highly political (as in "the politics of Jesus"). Hunter concludes this essay with a call to Christians to re-think their cultural engagement in less politically charged ways. Though the exercise of power is at some level inevitable, he calls attention to the different sort of power that Jesus exhibited and calls upon Christians today to follow suit.
In my judgment these first two essays are quite successful and compelling, and are timely for the Reformed community to consider. The inculcation of a Christian worldview, often conjoined with high expectations for the transformation of society if enough believers will pursue it earnestly, has formed a crucial part of Christian piety in many sectors of the American Reformed community in recent generations, especially among its liberal-arts colleges. Whether or not cultural transformation ought to be our goal, it is salutary to hear an alternative and learned account of how cultures change and how Christians have actually effected such change at certain points in history. Given how much effort the Christian community invests in various educational and political endeavors, Hunter's study helpfully encourages us to ask why and for what goals we are expending our resources in this way. Hunter's analysis of power and of how three prominent strands of American Christianity envision power is also incisive. The vast majority of members of the OPC would likely either identify with the Christian Right or at least sympathize with their positions on most political issues, and for understandable reasons. Hunter's comparison of the Christian Right with the Christian Left should provoke sober reflection among us about both the centrality of politics and the methods with which "Christian" political action is often carried out. Hunter is also to be commended for identifying the neo-Anabaptists as a distinct and important segment of the contemporary Christian scene in America. Though crucially mistaken at key points, these neo-Anabaptists offer insightful (and much-needed) critique of both conservative and liberal Christianity and helpfully highlight the distinctiveness and centrality of the church. We ignore their voice to our own spiritual loss.
Though Hunter continues some of his perceptive description of American Christianity in Essay 3, this final section of the book primarily takes up his constructive task. Hunter proposes a model of "faithful presence" as an alternative to the prevailing paradigms among contemporary Christians. His proposal is attractive and, in my judgment, clearly superior to what is offered in the typical smorgasbord of American Christianity. Yet I believe it suffers from a few theological weaknessesor, perhaps more accurately, from some underdeveloped theological foundations that are nevertheless significant for his project as a whole. It may be that such a conclusion is inevitable when a professional theologian (like myself) reads a professional sociologist (like Hunter) doing theology. Davison would undoubtedly be far unhappier with any attempt of mine to do sociology than I am with his theological work, but his third essay does provide a good opportunity to consider some crucial and enduring matters.
Before offering my evaluative comments, I briefly describe the case that Hunter prosecutes in Essay 3. He identifies key challenges facing Christians today: difference and dissolution. Difference refers to the pluralism characterizing contemporary society, which requires us to interact with those who are different from ourselves. Dissolution refers to the deconstruction of fundamental assumptions about reality in today's society. In response to such challenges the Christian Right's paradigm is "defensive against," the Christian Left's is "relevance to," and the neo-Anabaptist's is "purity from." (Interestingly, Hunter mentions the OPC and the "truly Reformed" among the PCA, with their "two-kingdoms" view, as having an odd affinity to the neo-Anabaptists at this point. Though Hunter's passing comments suggest something of a caricature of the two-kingdoms idea, I find it intriguing to see a non-OP writer associate the OPC with a two-kingdoms perspective and thus distinguish the OPC from the mindset of the Christian Right. Insofar as the OPC has traditionally prioritized the church's biblical fidelity over its cultural relevance, I believe Hunter makes a sound observation.) For Hunter, each paradigm identifies legitimate problems but cannot fully cope with the challenges of difference and dissolution. He calls for a new paradigm which both affirms the God-given legitimacy of culture-making and stands antithetically opposed to the sin that pervades society.
Hunter refers to this paradigm as "faithful presence within." God himself has acted in time and place, climactically in the incarnation. God demonstrates his faithful presence in pursuing us, identifying with us, offering us life, and doing all of this through sacrificial love. We in turn are to be faithfully present toward him and to each other in our worshiping communities, our daily tasks, and our spheres of influence. Faithful presence should result in a new kind of selfless leadership and should spawn relationships and institutions that are covenantal in character. Such relationships and institutions would seek the well-being of all as the shalom of the new creation bursts forth from them (though Christians should not seek to "redeem" culture, "build" the kingdom, or aspire to a "Christian culture"). Hunter concludes by asking whether his proposal will serve to "change the world." Since the world cannot be controlled and managed, and especially since God and his worship should be our primary goals, he thinks that this is the wrong question. He does suggest, however, that through the practice of faithful presence Christians might possibly help to make the world a little better.
Hunter does not undergird his case with much biblical exegesis or even work explicitly from any particular confessional tradition. It may have been easier to engage in a critical assessment of Essay 3 if he had. Nevertheless, Hunter's theological instincts and proposals are, in a great many respects, on target and offer a very helpful corrective to most other options. His advocacy of both affirmation and antithesis in the Christian's stance toward the world, for example, should resonate with Reformed readers who confess both common grace and total depravity. Such a perspective allows Hunter to speak of genuine commonality among Christians and non-Christians in the world, even while denying neutrality in any area of life. It allows him to see Christians' activities providing a foretaste of the coming kingdom even while such activities themselves do not redeem the world or build the kingdom. It also allows him to affirm that our cultural tasks can have "spiritual significance" without having "ultimate significance." This perspective also helps to explain why, toward the end of the book, he turns to Jeremiah's letter to the exiles in Jeremiah 29 to find a biblical model for his view. His basic idea of loving service to others, without seeking political domination in any usual sense of the term, captures the perspective of the New Testament, despite the relative paucity of biblical references.
Yet the book ends with some disappointments, perhaps largely because most of the book is so good and raises high expectations. In order to capture a sense of my disappointment I will make a few comments that revolve around two key theological doctrines, eschatology and ecclesiology.
In my judgment, one key issue with which any theology of Christianity and culture must wrestle revolves around the new creation and what relation it bears to the activities and institutions of this world. Is the new creation in some sense realized in the Christian's cultural activity? Do Christians in some way build the kingdom of Christ in their political, economic, and artistic endeavors? Will our cultural artifacts be preserved into the age to come and adorn the New Jerusalem? The question is not whether we should undertake the activities of human culture and not whether we should do them in faithful obedience to Christ (few would think of denying such things), but whether we should seek the redemption of cultural activities and institutions or seek instead to honor God's providential preservation of the cultural life of this present world. Should we seek to conform political and economic life (for example) to the pattern of life of the age to come or should we treat politics and economics as activities that God ordained for the temporary and provisional purposes of this present age?
Ecclesiology is a crucial corollary to such a question. Beyond issues of what it might mean to be a Christian dentist or to play Christian basketball is the crucial issue of what relation the church ought to have to the world's cultural activities and institutions. By "church" I mean what is sometimes referred to as the institutional or visible church: the fellowship of professing believers and their children who gather for worship on the Lord's Day and are governed by ordained officers. Among the important questions here that a theology of Christianity and culture needs to address are whether the church bears any unique relationship to the new creation (in comparison to other institutions, like the state or a business corporation) and whether the church's identity and ministry are to be determined by Christ alone speaking in the Scriptures alone or also by the goal of being relevant and influential in the broader culture.
Hunter's book does not provide a clear answer to the eschatology question posed above. Hunter takes an explicit stand against notions of redeeming the culture and building the kingdom through cultural activity, which he sees as impinging on divine sovereignty and carrying connotations of a Constantinian takeover of society (see 233). Yet he also wishes Christians' cultural work to proclaim the shalom of the age to come and thus to embody the values of the coming kingdom (234). Elsewhere he speaks of "a lived-vision of the shalom of God within every place and every sphere where Christians are present" (248). Does he mean by this simply that Christians themselves, as united to Christ and citizens of heaven, are to manifest the new life of the kingdom in all they do? Or does he mean that cultural institutions themselves, when inhabited by faithfully present Christians, may come to enjoy a shalom-like state of existence? If the latter, it becomes difficult to see how such institutions are not in fact being redeemed or how the kingdom is not being realized in them.
Whether or not Hunter clearly wishes to affirm the latter, some things he writes indicate that this is the direction in which his thought tends. Here questions of ecclesiology become relevant. For example, Hunter calls for the church to be subversive "of all frameworks of social life that are incompatible with the shalom for which we were made," though it should be subversive in a constructive rather than a nihilistic way. The church should "offer an alternative vision and direction" for prevailing cultural institutions and seek "to retrieve the good to which modern institutions and ideas implicitly or explicitly aspire" (235-36). I assume we would agree that the church experiences Christ's redemptive work and was instituted by Christ to manifest and embody the life of the new creation here and now. How then can the church offer a vision and direction for other cultural institutions which are not being redeemed? Christians certainly have an interest in seeing cultural institutions pursue "the good" for which they exist, but can the church provide a model for them? The good of the state, for example, is the pursuit of justice enforced by the sword; but the church, with its uniquely merciful and restorative discipline, cannot provide a vision for that. The good of economic institutions is the production and distribution of wealth through labor and exchange; but the church, with its distinctive practices of sharing that result in Christians' giving "beyond their means" (2 Cor. 8:3), provides no direction for that. Political, economic, and many other kinds of institutions have God-ordained goods. To me it seems important to recognize, however, that their goods are the goods of this world, not those of the shalom of the new creation embodied in the church.
I close with a few more comments about Hunter's view of the church. Hunter makes many salutary comments about the continuing importance of the institutional church and its primary task of worshipping God. As much as this is to be appreciated, it also seems important to note for readers in the OPC and other confessionally Reformed churches that Hunter's vision is very ecumenical. This comes out most explicitly at the end (e.g., 281), but it is evident in hindsight that this perspective guides the book throughout. Hunter apparently believes that his model of faithful presence should work for Protestants, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox alike. He acknowledges that some differences among Christians are inevitable, yet sees confessional differences and the historic schisms that generated them (such as the Reformation) as mattering less "in a context of exile." Matters of formation and public engagement depend upon the core beliefs that all Christians share rather than upon "particularities on the periphery." While I would not disagree that Reformed believers are more likely to find common ground with Roman Catholics on issues of public ethics than on, say, soteriology, I fear that Hunter underestimates the importance that a broader theological system at least should have for directing one's approach to Christianity and culture. Distinctive Reformed doctrines of the covenants, of Christ's kingship and kingdom, and of the church are matters that Hunter would presumably place on the periphery of Christian belief, yet I would argue they have been and should continue to be crucially determinative for how Reformed believers view and conduct themselves within the larger culture.
Hunter's constructive account is ultimately a bit thin theologically. Yet I recommend this book highly and hope to see its masterful analysis of so many issues help Reformed theologians to develop a thicker theology of Christianity and culture.
Westminster Seminary California
Ordained Servant Online, August-September 2010.