By far the most thought-provoking book I’ve read so far this year is James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. I finished this book about a month ago and have been ruminating on it ever since, trying to discern how exactly to pen an adequate review/summary. So if you’re not going to read on, I’ll just tell you now: you should buy this book and read it. Everyday readers will benefit from Hunter’s penetrating insights into evangelical Christianity’s interaction with modern culture. And spiritual leaders will gain a litany of reasons to question their assumptions about Christian mission and spiritual formation.
If you didn’t discern from the publishing house (Oxford University Press) that Hunter’s book is an intellectually weighty work, his aggressive thesis ought to get your attention – and leave you hoping for some substantive argumentation. Hunter’s contention is that though Christians far and wide are united in their desire to change the world, “the dominant ways of thinking about culture and cultural change are flawed.” The Christian/populist idea that cultural change results from “change to the heart and mind of the person, through the values and ideas that people live by… is almost wholly mistaken… [E]very tactic for changing the world that is based on this working theory of culture and cultural change will fail.” Thus, says Hunter, “If one is serious about changing the world, the first step is to discard the prevailing view of culture and cultural change and start from scratch.”
Starting from scratch is exactly what Hunter is attempting to do. His book is a massive work of deconstruction and reconstruction. He labors to tear down, bit by bit, the dominant Christian paradigm of cultural change and to replace it with a new and better way of thinking. Does he succeed? You’ll have to answer that question for yourself.
Hunter is a very cautious and charitable interlocutor. He is writing as a thoughtful Christian, and he is surprisingly warm and gracious even in his deconstruction. He does not denigrate the efforts of Christians to change the culture through evangelism, political activism, or social renewal. He is simply arguing that these methods do not work. It’s not that Christians lack good intentions or adequate will; it’s that they’re starting from wrong assumptions.
Hunter’s thesis is relatively straightforward. But it’s the robust argumentation he pursues to defend that thesis that makes this book compelling. As a professor of religion and culture at the University of Virginia, he clearly has the research horsepower to deliver the goods. To whet your appetite, I’ll quote Hunter’s own summary of his argument near the end of the book:
I note in Essay I that Christians have long had a healthy desire to change the world for the better, a desire with roots in sound biblical and theological reasoning. In the past, however, they have done so with mixed effect…
The first problem is that the implicit social theory that guides so much of their efforts is deeply flawed. Christians… tend to believe that cultures are shaped from the cumulative values and beliefs that reside in the hearts and minds of ordinary people… This is why Christians often pursue social change through evangelism (and conversion), civic renewal through populist social movements, and democratic political action (where every vote reflects values). The evidence of history and sociology demonstrates that this theory of culture and cultural change is simply wrong and for this reason, every initiative based on this perspective will fail to achieve the goals it hopes to meet. This is not to say that the hearts and minds of ordinary people are unimportant. To the contrary. Rather, the hearts and minds of ordinary people are only relatively insignificant if the goal is to change cultures at their deepest levels.
Against this view I have argued that cultural change at its most profound level occurs through dense networks of elites operating in common purpose within institutions at high-prestige centers of cultural production… Thus, for all the talk of world-changing and all of the good intentions that motivate it, the Christian community is not, on the whole, remotely close to a position where it could actually change the world in any significant way.
Were Christians to be in a position to exert enduring cultural influence, the results would likely be disastrous or perhaps mostly so. The reason, I argue in Essay II, is that world-changing implies power and the implicit theories of power that have long guided their exercise of power are also deeply problematic… In conformity to the spirit of the modern age, Christians conceive of power as political power… they mistakenly imagine that to pass a referendum, elect a candidate, pass a law, or change a policy is to change culture… In so doing, Christians undermine the message of the very gospel they cherish and desire to advance.
Finally, I argued in the present essay, the political agendas of the Christian Right, Christian Left, and the neo-Anabaptists are just the leading edge of larger paradigms of cultural engagement that I call, respectively, ‘defensive against,’ ‘relevance to,’ and ‘purity from.’ Each of these paradigms operates with different understandings of what it is that most needs changing within the contemporary world… In opposition to [these paradigms], I have suggested a model of engagement called ‘faithful presence within.’
As you can see from this excerpt, Hunter’s book offers much to digest. He takes to task all forms of Christian political engagement (not just the Christian Right). He examines wrong ideas about power and counters with what a biblical approach to power might look like. He offers thoughtful support for his contention that culture is shaped by institutions, not individuals. Along the way, he makes complex sociological principles accessible to the average person. For instance: does symbolic power seem like an abstract concept? Well, just think of it this way: an editorial in the New York Times carries more ‘clout’ than one in the Lincoln Journal-Star. That’s because the Times has greater symbolic power – which makes it more culturally influential. It’s those kinds of insights that make Hunter’s arguments plausible not just to sociologists, but to thoughtful Christians everywhere.
Hunter’s book isn’t without weaknesses, and others have offered valid critiques. But for all Christians seeking to thoughtfully engage culture – and especially for Coram Deo members seeking to live on mission and bring renewal within the city – this book is a must-read.
For those who will be called to lead the church either now or in the future: it would be wise not to say or write anything about cultural engagement until you’ve read this book. Why? Because according to Hunter, Christians need to “abandon altogether talk of ‘redeeming the culture,’ ‘advancing the kingdom,’ ‘building the kingdom,’ ‘transforming the world,’ ‘reclaiming the culture,’ ‘reforming the culture,’ and ‘changing the world.’” You may end up disagreeing with Hunter on this point. But you shouldn’t do so until you’ve weighed his argument.