Christ & Culture, II
To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy,
and Possibility of Christianity in
the Late Modern World
reviewed by J. Daryl Charles
Three essays form the backbone of this intriguing volume, in which the author, LaBrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia, offers a highly provocative critique of Christian faith in contemporary American culture. Hunter’s argument can be summed up in three theses.
Thesis number one, under the rubric “Christianity and World-Changing,” is that while a passion to engage, shape, and change the world for the better seems to be an enduring mark of Christians everywhere, their actual legacy—at least in the American context—leaves much to be desired. Hunter contends that our prevailing ways of thinking about culture and cultural change are fundamentally flawed.
Thesis number two (“Rethinking Power”), decidedly more nuanced than the first, follows: Christians should not concern themselves with holding onto power—read: political power—in the world to enact change. Rather, they should conceptualize issues of public life in a manner that resists the temptation toward politicization and ideological conflict.
Thesis number three (“Toward a New City Commons”) represents Hunter’s “answer” to the dilemma of American Christianity: we should aspire to a theology and practice of “faithful presence” in the world. This strategy and “alternative way” is said to prepare the groundwork for what Hunter describes as “a new city commons.” In this new communal context, Christians will faithfully cultivate, preserve, and make their peace with the necessary tension that arises from both working through cultural institutions (affirmation) and resisting accommodation to the world (antithesis).
(It should be noted that apart from several passing references to John Paul II and one mention of Benedict XVI and Mother Teresa each, Catholic voices are conspicuously absent; Hunter’s analysis is confined to Protestant witness—and Evangelicalism in particular—as it finds expression in American culture.)
Parts One, Two, and Three of the volume, accordingly, unpack the three theses in six or seven chapters apiece. In support of his initial thesis, Hunter considers the work of diverse and broadly Evangelical spokespersons, including the late Bill Bright, James Dobson, Christian politician Tom DeLay, and social critics Os Guinness and Don Eberly. A more protracted critique is reserved for Charles Colson and Andy Crouch, given their visibility and the trajectory of their cultural critiques. Despite their varying strategies, these sundry voices, along with the organizations they represent, are thought by Hunter to be united in their basic assumptions about cultural transformation that, in Hunter’s view, are “wholly mistaken” and rooted in a false “idealism.” Even figures as diverse as Princeton professor Robert P. George, John Paul II, Billy Graham, and Mother Teresa are said to mirror elements of this mindset.
Hunter’s objections are anchored in the fundamental conviction that cultures “simply do not change in these [Evangelically conceived] ways.” Hunter challenges several cherished assumptions among Evangelical types—namely, that “real change must proceed individually, one by one”; that “cultural change can be willed into being”; that this change is “democratic,” occurring “from the bottom up among ordinary citizens”; and that, therefore, “you too can be a [William] Wilberforce.”
Hunter is at pains to instruct his readers that culture is complex and undergirded by unspoken assumptions; consequently, it is not subject to change in ways we might wish. Furthermore, institutions and conferred cultural authority exact greater influence in society than ideas alone. Correlatively, cultural life expresses itself in the stratification of “center” and “periphery,” which implies a status structure that simply cannot be willed away or ignored.
Hunter’s conclusion is that authentic cultural change proceeds from the top down and not from the bottom up; because of this social reality, cultural transformation is likeliest when it infects “networks of elites” and the institutions they lead. In this light, therefore, a certain realism should govern our expectations to the extent that multiple generations are needed for profound cultural change to occur, as a survey of enduring social reforms throughout history will confirm.
Part Two, containing Hunter’s reflections on the politicization of public life, alone is worth the price of the book. With supreme evenhandedness, Hunter examines the perennial temptation toward political power among the religious. What surprises the reader is that not only the so-called religious right, but also the religious left, as well as the left’s second cousin, the neo-Anabaptists, come in for serious—and much needed—scrutinizing. While the religious right is everybody’s favorite punching bag and its storyline is quite familiar, the anatomy of the religious left, which has grown more noisy in recent years, cries out for much-needed exposure.
And Hunter’s telling of the tale is deft. One of the many ironies described in the book is that in their hostility toward—nay, their hatred of—the religious right, those on the religious left—and they quite prefer to be called “progressives”—end up committing the very same sins that they decry. They, too, wish to seize political power, and to “take back” the nation and the church—this, of course, in the name of “equality” and “social justice.” Alas, in the end, those on the Evangelical left “engage in the identical practice for which they criticize the Christian Right,” and Jim Wallis is every bit the power player as Pat Robertson—if not more.
In admonishing us toward a “post-political” witness in the world, Hunter views two tasks as imperative. The first is to “disentangle the life and identity of the church . . . from American society.” The second is for the church and Christian believers to “decouple the ‘public’ from the ‘political,’” in the understanding that politics is but one way by which to engage the world. It is for Hunter a “tragedy” that Christians do not invest greater energy and resources in cultural endeavors other than politics—for example, in education, social service, spiritual formation, and artistic expression.
In Part Three Hunter delineates the “alternative way”—that is, constructing and embodying a “faithful presence” in the culture that, based on the divine model of incarnation and covenantal faithfulness, should identify the church as a new community, and thus, a catalyst of progressive cultural transformation. This “faithful presence,” according to Hunter, will be seen at several levels. It will manifest itself within the covenant community; it will result in renewed commitment to our vocations and spheres of work; and it will not shy aware from conspicuous spheres of social influence.
Wisely, Hunter concludes by recalling the cultural dissonance that attended Jeremiah’s prophetic pronouncement to the Jews living in Babylonian exile. These “resident aliens” were commanded to settle down, build houses and families, and multiply in both size and influence.
Most shockingly, however, they were to “seek the welfare” of—and pray for—the city to which the Lord Almighty had banished them. Doubtless this instruction came as bad news to those who wished to call down fire from heaven on their cultural tormentors. But this counter-religious exhortation squares with biblical wisdom: we are to be committed to the welfare of those cities, locations, and cultures in which and to which God has called us. Therein we are to practice “faithful presence.”
Dissenting Second Thoughts
To Change the World is an important book, not only because Professor Hunter is a thoughtful writer and social critic. It reiterates what are enduring truths for Christians of any era and any social location. This reviewer’s hunch is that the message of Jeremiah would offend both political rightists and political leftists (and for the record, there are no “centrists,” notwithstanding the shrill cries of not a few “Evangelical progressives”). Hunter’s conclusion pays homage to the obvious, namely, the imperative of practicing faithful living, whatever form that may take. Which brings us to acknowledge several related potential weaknesses of the book.
In Part One, Hunter appears greatly exercised over the “wholly mistaken” tactics and strategies advanced by leading Evangelical spokespersons. After reading To Change the World, I am not at all convinced that much distance is to be found between those whom he critiques and Hunter himself. My suspicion is that they all would agree with much of his critique. And surely they would posit an “Amen” to his reiteration of what is a central biblical theme, that is, faithful presence in the world. And in the book’s conclusion, Hunter himself concedes that regarding strategy for cultural engagement, “perhaps there is no single model for all times and places.” Indeed this is the case. Hence, it may well be that those individuals and ministries receiving the brunt of his criticisms are in fact simply utilizing different tactics, in accordance with their particular callings.
More substantively, it is not clear whether we should, with Hunter, expect enduring cultural transformation merely from the top down rather than from the bottom up. Conspicuously absent from Hunter’s survey of social and cultural reform are instances such as the church’s witness in Poland in the 1970s and 1980s, or the persecuted church’s witness in the face of totalitarianism, or democratic uprisings around the world in the modern era.
Relatedly, the ease with which Hunter dismisses the efficacy of ideas (over against cultural institutions) is puzzling. After all, social scientists should appreciate the power of bad ideas in contributing to social-political revolutions around the world, at least in recent history. Consider alone the roughly 100–170 million lives sacrificed to communist ideology in the twentieth century.
One final criticism. While Hunter’s critique of Anabaptism is prescient, Hunter would appear to imbibe the Anabaptist critique of so-called Constantinianism with few qualifications. This historical and hermeneutical deficiency will doubtless disappoint some readers, and historians in particular, who would prefer a more nuanced account of the fourth century and the social conditions that attended a ferocious period of Christian persecution hitherto unequalled. A good antidote to the standard “radical critique of Constantinianism” that people such as John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas—and other unsuspecting types—tend to advance is Peter Leithart’s recent volume, Defending Constantine. Leithart is assiduous in his examination of the historical record, balanced in his assessment of the complexities of the fourth century, and discerning of the distortions embedded in the “radical critique of Constantinianism,” along with their implications. •
J. Daryl Charles teaches in the Honors Program and the Department of Religion & Philosophy at Berry College. He is a contributing editor of Touchstone.
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“Christ & Culture, II” first appeared in the July/August 2011 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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