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.