To Change The World, Week Thirteen

To Change The World by James Davison Hunter
To Change The World

I’ve very much enjoyed this book. Having said that, want to flag two reservations I have now that I’ve finished reading it.

First, Hunter has a certain quality I’ve noticed in other Christian scholars (N.T. Wright comes to mind). It’s a John The Baptist syndrome which manifests as the scholars conceiving of themselves as lone voices crying out in the wilderness, when in reality there is a broad conversation they are participating in — and there are many who substantially agree with them.

James. K. A. Smith’s review in The Other Journal How (Not) To Change The World highlights one example:

Indeed, one of the oddities of the book is the complete absence of Abraham Kuyper from the discussion. I note this, not as a failure to be comprehensive (I respect the “essay” genre), but only because where Hunter ends up is so close to Kuyper’s model (even if Hunter is rightly critical of Chuck Colson’s bastardization of Kuyper in How Now Shall We Live?).

And Andy Crouch gives several more in his Books and Culture review How Not To Change The World.

This leads to the one feature of this book that is troubling, and genuinely perplexing. Hunter is quite thorough in his documentation of both the sociological literature and primary sources from the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the neo-Anabaptists. What you are unlikely to ascertain from the text or the notes, however, is the existence of any Christian scholar or public actor who has pursued the course Hunter recommends other than Hunter himself, along with a few of his students and associates. D. Michael Lindsay’s study of 360 Christians “in the halls of power” is waved aside as a mere cataloguing of isolated individuals, even as Hunter goes on to critique their generally pietistic and ecclesiologically deficient approach to their faith in precisely the terms that Lindsay has used in interviews about his work. Lindsay’s February 2008 article in the American Sociological Review argues for the importance of overlapping networks and models of élite agency. Hunter does not reference it at all, nor John Schmalzbauer’s People of Faith: Religious Conviction in Journalism and Higher Education, nor, in a slightly different vein, Rodney Stark’s The Rise of Christianity. It would take nothing away from Hunter’s brilliant synthesis to acknowledge that others are doing similarly important and influential work.

When it comes to Christians attempting to do some good in the wider world, Hunter finds very few he can put in a good light. Charles Colson is dismissed as a quasi-Hegelian idealist based on his enthusiasm for worldview education, rather than recognized for his considerable network-convening savvy. Gabe Lyons’s Fermi Project comes in for sustained examination only for its sometimes glib promotional material, not for the work it is doing to build overlapping networks of young élites in some vital cultural centers. The patient and wide-ranging intelligence of Os Guinness is similarly passed over in the course of making a point about evangelical individualism. Hunter devotes several pages, rather than just an endnote, to dismissing my own book Culture Making, and some of his criticisms, as of the others mentioned, are fair as far as they go. But a reader of his summary would never guess how much my book and his overlap in their fundamental concerns and final vision

Second, at the end Hunter claims that we should not try to change the world. It seems to me he’s being a bit disingenuous. He wants Christians to be sent by the Church into every sphere of society (including the elite networks which generate cultural change) and take faith-based actions that lead to human flourishing. Hunter still believes Christians should change the world, he just likes talking about it in a more low-key way. His plan for transformation is humble, but it is nonetheless a plan for transformation.

It’s just something to bear in mind. No book is perfect, and as flaws go these are far from crippling. Hunter is generally a clear writer and is clearly a profound thinker. All in all an outstanding read.

Now a few thoughts from the closing chapters:


Hunter thinks that we should serve God in our generation by practicing what he calls “faithful presence.” Both words matter — we must be faithful to God and present in every sphere of society.

“But the great commission can also be interpreted in terms of social structure. The church is to go into all realms of social life: in volunteer and paid labor—skilled and unskilled labor, the crafts, engineering, commerce, art, law, architecture, teaching, health care, and service. Indeed, the church should be sending people out in these realms—not only discipling those in these fields by providing the theological resources to form them well, but in fact mentoring and providing financial support for young adults who are gifted and called into these vocations.” (page 257)

There is a particular peril for those who called into the high-status vocations:

Because Christianity has lost status in the institutional centers of the modern world, those believers who work and live in the higher echelons of culture, politics, business, and finance are under great pressure to carefully “manage their identities” in part by hiding this discrediting information about themselves. In this case, the consequence of disclosure is to be excluded themselves. The temptation to be deceptive or dishonest about one’s faith in these circles is enormous. (258–259)

This is a real thing that I have seen many times at Stanford. I recall one graduate student hyperventilating when her PI found out she was an evangelical Christian. Her concern that she might experience negative consequences was not imaginary, although in her case I recall things working out just fine. But there is definite animus against Christianity in some elite circles. Look at the Senate’s disgraceful grilling of judicial nominee Amy Barrett for her Catholic faith. She openly and carefully discussed the implications of her faith for public service and had her words turned into the literal opposite of what she said (you can read more about it in item six of last week’s Things Glen Found Interesting).

But even as we recognize that our faith might at times bring negative repercussions into our lives, we need to remember that we are not allowed to hide our light under a bushel. You don’t have to report to work wearing a Christian t‑shirt, but you must never pull a Peter and say, “I don’t know the man!”

In other words, don’t sacrifice faithfulness on the altar of presence. Gaining a seat at the table is not worth your soul.


In this final chapter Hunter summarizes his argument and then lays his cards on the table: he thinks changing the world is a foolish goal.

Will engaging the world in the way discussed here change the world? This, I believe, is the wrong question.… The question is wrong because, for Christians, it makes the primary subservient to the secondary. By making a certain understanding of the good in society the objective, the source of the good—God himself and the intimacy he offers—becomes nothing more than a tool to be used to achieve that objective.… To be sure, Christianity is not, first and foremost, about establishing righteousness or creating good values or securing justice or making peace in the world. Don’t get me wrong: these are goods we should care about and pursue with great passion. But for Christians, these are all secondary to the primary good of God himself and the primary task of worshipping him and honoring him in all they do. (285–286)

I appreciate so much of Hunter’s perspective throughout this book, and in particular am glad that he warns us away from focusing on what I have heard called “causes more worthy than holy.” We love God first and most and whatever social good we do (and it should be significant) flows out of that.

Hunter closes with this:

The fact is that Christ’s victory over the principalities and powers was a victory over the power of oppressive institutions—the sense that reality is what it is, that all is as it should be, that the ways of the world are established and cannot be changed; that the rules by which the world operates are ones we must accept and not challenge. We are not bound by the “necessities” of history and society but are free from them. He broke their sovereignty and, as a result, all things are possible. It is this reality that frees all Christians to actively, creatively, and constructively seek the good in their relationships, in their tasks, in their spheres of influence, and in their cities.

Against the present realities of our historical moment, it is impossible to say what can actually be accomplished. There are intractable uncertainties that cannot be avoided. 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. (page 286)

I hope you enjoyed the book as much as I did!

Here endeth the reading.

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