In his book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, James Davison Hunter explains why Christians have failed to change the world for the better as they sincerely longed to do. Hunter offers a new paradigm that he calls ‘faithful presence’ as an ideal for how Christians are to engage the world in the 21st century.
Hunter believes that Christian activism has been ineffective because Christians have been approaching the problems from a wrong perspective. Hunter begins by affirming that changing the world is part of Christian mission (pp. 3-4). He then presents three essays that challenge the basic approaches of three broad categories of Christians – left/liberal, right/conservative, and neo-Anabaptists.
In the first essay, Hunter challenges the view that culture is changed from the bottom up. He believes that ordinary people have a place in the drama, but real change is caused by “overlapping networks of leaders and resources” – elites who “create space” for thinking about culture. Unless the ideas penetrate the center of the power circle, Christian efforts, especially politics, will be ineffective. (p. 78) And unfortunately large swaths of Christian leadership have been captured by the spirit of the age – consumerism, individualism, and a “moralistic, therapeutic deism”. Fragmentation and acculturation have come to characterize American culture. “And thus the idea that American Christianity could influence the larger culture in ways that are healthy and humane is, for the time being, doubtful.” (p. 92)
In his second essay Hunter challenges the three major Christian culture-changing movements of our day to rethink how they view the relationship of power to Christian ideals. In the United States the democratic state derives its power from the concept of ‘popular sovereignty’. Politicization, ressentiment (a form of political psychology grounded in a narrative of injury), and myth (much from Christian history) play a part in how the three Christian groups perceive culture and how they will interact with it. The Christian Right believes that the state has harmed the faith and reacts with fear and anger. Their action is characterized by “Defensive Against”. The Christian Left is informed by the myth of equality and community. Their engagement is characterized by “Relevance To”. The neo-Anabaptists have a commitment to an authentic Christian community, but withdraw from the world to have “Purity From”. Because of their misguided actions these groups have lost their witnessing power and influence.
In his third essay Hunter puts forth his vision for Christians in the Late Modern Age. It is called ‘faithful presence’. There will be two main challenges for Christians as they practice faithful presence – the challenge of difference (dealing with the reality of Pluralism) and dissolution (deconstruction of the most basic assumptions about reality observed especially in language).
So, how can one be authentically Christian in today’s culture? Does the Bible address pluralism and distinction? Hunter argues that “incarnation is the only adequate reply to the challenges of dissolution; …it is the way the Word became incarnate in Jesus Christ and the purposes to which the incarnation was directed that are the only adequate reply to challenge of difference.” (p 241)
Christians must also recognize that God is sovereign over all. The whole world is His and Christians are to live in it wherever God puts them, just as the Israelites had to do in captivity in Babylon. The Israelites practiced faithful presence even in exile. Their task was to seek the good in their relationships.
Can Christians change the world? Hunter concludes with, “Certainly Christians, at their best, will neither create a perfect world nor one that is altogether new; but by enacting shalom and seeking it on behalf of all others through the practice of faithful presence, it is possible, just possible, that they will help to make the world a little bit better.” (p. 286)
- The concept of Christians living faithfully in whatever circumstances they find themselves is not new. Christ is the example; from there we could mention martyrs throughout history. What is new is Hunter’s reflections on how we are to live as Christians in the 21st century. He also offers many good theological reminders as correctives to ‘faulty’ thinking. For example, all work is good. Christians should not think that a job at church is more spiritual than being a doctor or a (Heaven forbid!) artist. An example of how Christians have failed in this area is the recent article from Sojourners, – “’The Shack’ Is One More Disappointing Reminder that ‘Christian Art’ Is Often Bad” found at: https://sojo.net/articles/shack-one-more-disappointing-reminder-christian-art-often-bad
- Hunter seems overly-optimistic in his view that if Christians just start practicing ‘faithful presence’ they will get a ‘place at the table’. It’s been many years since Christians have been out of the public square. Hunter says that we will have to be faithful for a long time to build up enough respect to influence the culture. It took centuries to lose the ‘politically correct’ (my words) position that was in this country. Maybe it wasn’t founded as a Christian nation, but you had to be a church member to get elected or to publish a book in those days. Now secularization is the ‘political correctness’. Changing people’s minds is a lot harder than changing laws.
- I was a little confused about whether the ‘elite’ or the ‘woman who rang up and bagged groceries and whose sphere of influence was only six square feet’ (p. 268) made the most difference in society. I am thinking that this is a case of ‘both/and’ not ‘either/or’. Yes, we need good leaders. But they are few in number. Many of us are just farmers in Podunksville, Oregon. We all need to live and work “toward the well-being of others”. (p. 269)
- Making three very distinct Christian groups seemed a bit harsh. I understand that Hunter was generalizing to make his points but I really don’t know anyone who fits completely into just one category. I am an example of that myself. Because of my stance on justice for women the people at my church think I’m a leftist liberal. Because I go to a very conservative Reformed church my liberal friends think I’m a right-wing Nazi. I love my friends who live out in the Coast Range, but I don’t think escapism is right. I don’t fit in. (My husband says it’s the Irish in me.) I would like to think it’s because I am trying to live out what the Bible says about faith, work, love, and justice.
- But apart from these caricatures, I think that Hunter’s idea of ‘faithful presence’ spreads across all philosophies of changing the culture. So one can be a conservative without being hateful; one can be a liberal without forgetting the distinction of the Gospel; and one can be concerned about the egregious sin in our culture without withdrawing. We can celebrate our differences. We can practice faithful presence in our individual churches.
Word, Sacraments and Prayer will change the world one soul at a time. Each saved soul will then go out into the world to help fill the Great Commission. We all look forward to the day when Jesus will return and all things will be new and perfect.