In Thinking about Critical Thinking
Early on in our DMin program, Jason proclaimed that we would become better critical thinkers. As critical thinkers, we have the capacity to understand the obvious and nuances that books, lectures, sermons, and research provide us. James Davison Hunter’s book To Change the World, ironic and provocative at the same time, speaks to thinking more critically about how the world actually changes. His thesis: it’s not about us changing the world. As followers of Christ, it’s about God doing the changing as we offer our faithful presence in this world at all levels, particularly in institutions at the cultural “center.” According to Hunter, Christians have either acquiesced to the sidelines wherein we’ve forfeited our voice to be in the center or taken such a defensive posture in so as to be ineffectual. As a result, articulated in Hunter’s 2nd essay, our influence no longer seeks the flourishing of the common good, but rather an entrenching posture that leads to little change for anyone. Finally, Hunter closes in his 3rd essay with a new charge, almost contradicting his first essay, that we are to continue practicing God’s presence wherever we might be, whether we on the outside, inside or somewhere in the middle.
Not sure what motivated me about three years ago to buy this book, perhaps I was intrigued by the title, wanting like everyone else to be part of the movement to change the world. I read it voraciously, soaking up his fresh expression of what it means to be a Christian in today’s society. The book served to remind me of God’s transformative nature over our individualistic assumptions to make God’s Kingdom Come. Handing out my copy to various friends, I considered it the best read of the year from my repertoire (in fact, I can’t find my original copy). The freedom in recognizing how “faithful presence” is the way of participating in the work of God’s witness beckons all of us, conservative, liberal, or somewhere in the middle. Hunter’s work offers a sociological-theological paradigm shift from the American philosophy of Manifest Destiny – conquering the world for God. So to the degree that Hunter spoke this truth, I heartily support the theological understanding that God brings transformation to our world, wherein God invites our participation but not required to do His work.
With that said, I have a different sort of question. My enthusiasm in recommending the book came to a halt about a year after reading it when a well-read theological friend said, “James Davison Hunter, huh? I find him difficult to read because of the manner in which he treats people.” Her words surprised me, but even more they struck a personal chord as I was in the midst of a situation whereby a well respected public figure, similar to Hunter, had a private side that was mean spirited and narcissistic in my encounters with him. It gave me cause to consider Jason’s earlier words of becoming a critical thinker. Is it possible to read an author, gleaning valuable insights, whose character is not consistent with the words he’s put on paper?
Please keep in mind, this opinion of Hunter comes from one friend who perhaps had one bad encounter. I intend no throwing-of-stones as I’m sure I too have offended people in different encounters. My post is not to disparage a man who perhaps is nothing of the sort. But in my effort to develop more critical thinking skills, acknowledging that I tend to accept people somewhat naively, I decided to approach my read this time of Hunter’s work through the eyes of others who challenge some of Hunter’s approach.
Andy Crouch wrote a book on culture, Culture Making, a short time prior to Hunter’s book. In fact, Hunter used Crouch’s book as a means for a “push-back” on how we get caught up in trying to change culture, when in fact we cannot. Crouch wrote a favorable review on Hunter’s book, calling it a “trenchant analysis of the three most coherent Christian social movements of our time.” But he does ask a few “perplexing” questions about Hunter’s work. In particulate he asks one about Hunter’s lack of other sources, essentially promoting only his own and follower’s work, but no others (i.e. Rodney Stark’s rise of Christianity and others). With my new lens of questioning Hunter’s motives, I began to see an arrogance in his writing. Does Hunter really have the only fresh perspective? In reality, most ideas are based on others’ ideas. As a comparison to Hunter’s approach, Crouch seems to honor Hunter, even his negative critique of Culture Making, by bringing to mind other authors who are also speaking to what it means to be a contributing Christian in our culture today. While I appreciate the type of articulate writing from Hunter over Crouch’s book, I think I’d prefer to meet Crouch personally as a result of his posture in writing.
Yet, I have to confess that my perceived arrogance from Hunter doesn’t take away from the contribution of his work. In fact, Crouch’s review as well as other critiques reflect valuable truths from the three essays. So back to Jason’s critical thinking proclamation: am I a better thinker for knowing more about Hunter’s personality as I re-read his book? Perhaps. But I’m not sure.
Maybe it boils down to being a “faithful presence” with those I agree and those I do not, with those I enjoy and respect their character and with those I do not, with God and others by trusting and participating in God’s transformative work.
 Andy Crouch, “How Not to Change the World: A Call to Faithful Presence,” Books and Culture, May/June 2010, 1, accessed April 11, 2015, http://www.booksandculture.com/articles/2010/mayjun/hownotchangetheworld.html.
12 responses to “In Thinking about Critical Thinking”
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Mary, thanks for bringing a more critical perspective.
It is interesting how we read someone’s work differently depending on what we know of the person. That is a great reminder that it is not just about having a voice, but it is about having a life in Christ that is evident to those around us. It really speaks to the need to be faithfully present with God so that he can be present with and in us as we interact with others.
Mary, thanks for this. Really helpful reflections… As I was reading this book this week (maybe “reading AT it” is a better way to say it… I have been SWAMPED!) I was struck by the lack of citation or recognition of other opinions. I even went online and researched the author and his accomplishments, I even looked at pictures of him… Weird I know but I found myself (even while agreeing with a lot of his assertions) a bit put off just because he looked and seemed a bit arrogant and snarky.
BUT, his opinions resonated with mine, so……. Mary, your thoughts have caused me to put myself in the shoes of another who might NOT share these opinions. How might a person’s aspirations to change culture by changing lives be squashed by the weight of this collection of essays? I have a tendency to proof-text. I found this book to provide proof-text style ammunition for my future arguments about “just being the church” (that’s one of my own favorite snarky remarks), so because I agree with him, I like it! What does that say about me?
Jon and Mary,
I struggled with some of the same conclusions, although I didn’t perceive him to be arrogant or snarky – just without as much support as I would have expected. I’ve found myself thinking lately about my approach to research and information. Sometimes I read something that is supported by a ton of research and reviewed highly by peers, but know that the work won’t stand up to the test of reality in a working, day-to-day environment. On the other hand, I’ve read seemingly simple works without little support, but based on grounded experience and wisdom gained in the real world. I felt that Hunter’s book stands somewhere between. The point of what he was saying could have been done in a much simpler and effective format. At the end, I came away with a simple reminder that we must have faithful presence to enact positive change for Christ. I felt as if the author was trying to convince the reader of this. He was harsh in his critique surrounding activism and those that seek greater change.
I am reminded of people, such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who clearly exhibits faithful presence and a humble spirit through work to change the world. Hunter left little room for the fact that sometimes God does call individuals to become activists to make great and positive change in the world. In it’s reminder on faithful presence, the book did seem to fall a little short as it neglected to acknowledge the power that comes with faithful presence. I agree with the author that the world will never be perfect, but that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t call some to make significant changes in specific areas. He uses our passions and dreams, and gives us vision.
You bring to light a good point about how we do research and the value of what we bring in our writing. I’m such an anecdotal practitioner that I have to work really hard at letting my research speak, rather than proving a point by “proof-texting” with my research. It’s trusting the process of research, but remember always how it can be relevant.
What does that say about you, Jon? It simply says that you want us to “just be the church.” And I’m with you on that. I too thoroughly enjoyed and appreciated how Hunter put words to ideas that I couldn’t quite pinpoint, but felt in my gut.
I guess I’m trying to assess what happens when I don’t like the author, how do I interact with the material? Or the flip side, if I don’t like a book – does that mean I personalize it and don’t like the person? Random thoughts as I procrastinate on writing my Academic Essay 🙂
Mary…Great question. Just last week Krish posted an article in which he was interviewed on regarding very serious offenses committed by popular theologian Howard Yoder. The title of the article Krish references is called, “Great theologians and serious sin: Does John Howard Yoder’s history of sexual abuse discredit his work?” One of the quotes in the article is, “There’s always a huge gap between our aspirations and behaviour.” While I agree that is true, I also think “who we are” and “how we live” must be taken into account with the lasting words of our writing. No easy answer but what know about the authors we read should definitely be a factor in how we think about what they wrote.
Krish’s article: http://www.christiantoday.com/article/great.theologians.and.serious.sin.does.john.howard.yoders.history.of.sexual.abuse.discount.his.work/51968.htm
Thanks Nick for the resource. I wonder if it’s easier to read folks who have some distance from us, either through time or geography. But then I think, what if I came upon Mein Kampf and didn’t know the author, would I realize the heinous crimes committed by Hitler, as an extreme example?
How do we separate out one’s character from his/her writing, while keeping in mind that none of us are perfect?
Appreciate the article – gives me food for thought.
Mary, I love the critical analysis! Your thought on Hunter are provoking. I would agree with Crouch in that some of the most profound statements are quite presumptuous and I wonder about the sources Hunter is gathering his thoughts. I think one of the weaknesses of being a pastor is it seems to me pastors say a lot of things they think and hear and siting becomes a pretty low standard. We tend to communicate a lot of thoughts that people put a lot of weight in. I wonder in light of Hunter’s writing, if I am pretty susceptible to buying into his thinking weather it is researched based or just his thinking. I think I read most books giving a similar weight of the contents and I need better categories for academic, conceptual, theory, praxis-based books. I think in determining how we use a book, it is important to consider which category or perspective it is written from. Again, thanks for sharpening our critical thinking, thinking!!!
I’d much prefer reading Hunter’s book to many of the academic pieces I’m reading right now. He offers pithy statements, elicits some emotional investment, and persuades through articulated language. Who wouldn’t want to be able to do that?
But I am finding in the academic writings that I appreciate when the wealth of knowledge is shared and acknowledged for what it was built upon. I can see the investment of the researcher for what he/she has done. Interestingly, Hunter is a social researcher. So it’s curious to me.
Mary, Wow, thought provoking. Does one’s sin discredit their work. I’m pretty sure if you asked the Mars Hill family of churches that they would lean towards it does. For me I’m well aware of my own sins and find myself regularly wrestling with my heart before the Lord. I know nothing of Hunter’s personal life and I could imagine a number of things that would fully discredit one to speak Jesus’ name – at least for a time…. Anyway. You said something else I wanted to comment on:
“The book served to remind me of God’s transformative nature over our individualistic assumptions to make God’s Kingdom Come.”
I also found myself agreeing that culture doesn’t change the way many have evangelicals have positioned, ‘win a convert and change the world’ on the other hand I’m inclined to think of this as a ‘both/and’ not an ‘either/or’. A.B. Simpson, a leader from a previous century had advocated the doctrine of ‘bringing back the king’. That our evangelism isn’t necessarily focused on culture reform but kingdom completion. Which is the ultimate culture reform.
Mary good take on the book. I don’t think we should shy from the center stage if God wills it. I think people feel like they have to prove things more often than not. Like standing on a corner with a bull horn or passing out tracks, many people do these things without God giving them this to do. It is more like they just dont want to feel guilty.