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.

To Change The World, Week Twelve

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

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2017. The reading schedule is online at

We’re almost done. One more week of reading and we finish out the book. Wow.

So now we come to chapter 4: Toward A Theology of Faithful Presence
The first few pages amused me, mostly because it sounded like something I would hear from a word-faith preacher. The word-faith movement (also known as the positive confession movement or the word of faith movement) is a charismatic movement that emphasizes the power of our words as expressions of our faith. Hunter has got nothing to do with them and may not even be aware that they exist, which I found tremendously entertaining.
And now Hunter comes to the main thesis of the entire book: the best response to the challenges of our world is faithful presence. As a reminder, Hunter thinks the two chief challenges we face are dissolution (pervasive uncertainty) and difference (pluralism). See my notes on week ten.
This, in short, is the foundation of a theology of faithful presence. It can be summarized in two essential lessons for our time. The first is that incarnation is the only adequate reply to the challenges of dissolution; the erosion of trust between word and world and the problems that attend it. From this follows the second: 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.  page 241, emphasis in original
In the rest of the chapter, Hunter advances his own theology of faithful presence while critiquing other theologies of work and vocation.
One common view Hunter rejects is that our work is only useful insofar as it directly advances the gospel:

To the extent that work had “kingdom significance,” it was as a platform for evangelism. The mark of true piety for a committed believer whether in skilled or manual labor or in the realms of business, law, education, public policy, and social welfare, was to lead a Bible study and evangelize their associates in their place of work. In this paradigm, work was instrumentalized—it was regarded as simply a means to spiritual ends.  page 249

Instead, Hunter contends that work (indeed, any task) can be done in a way that glorifies God:
“Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men” (Col. 3:22–24). What we do certainly would include our jobs, but the reality is that our tasks are many, and they range far beyond paid labor. They involve our work as parents, students, volunteers, citizens, and the like. But in the many capacities in which we operate, St. Paul’s instruction is that we pursue our tasks with all of our hearts. This not only suggests that we give our full attention to those tasks but that we pursue excellence in them.  page 246

And he gives a few examples of the way our work can express our devotion to God:

To manage a business in a way that grows out of a biblical view of (p.254) relationships, community, and human dignity before God has divine significance, irrespective of what else might be done from this platform. Policy pursued and law practiced in light of the justice of God is a witness to the right ordering of human affairs. Inquiry, scholarship, and learning with an awareness of the goodness of God’s created order is a discovery of what is truly higher in higher education. And, not least, reflecting the beauty of God’s creation in art or music is nothing less than an act of worship. (page 253–254)
So whatever your major, work at with all your heart!
Next week we finish up the book.

To Change The World, Week Eleven

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

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2017. The reading schedule is online at

I found chapter three much more engaging than chapter two. If you’re getting bogged down, it gets better.

Chapter Two: Old Cultural Wineskins

If sincerity were the same thing as faithfulness, then all would be well, for Christians, as a rule, are nothing if not sincere—not least in their desire to be “faithful in their own generation.” But if I am even partially correct about the nature and profundity of the changes of late modernity, then against these sincerity could never be enough by itself. At least a fragment of wisdom would be required as well. (page 213)

As a Protestant, I truly believe in sola fide (faith alone). But very often I find Christians in our culture treating faith as if it were a feeling or some mere sentiment. Faith encompasses so much more than that! Faith that lacks faithfulness is not the faith God requires — and faithfulness is a matter that springs from the convictions we have cultivated and the habits we have developed far more than it does from the emotional impulses we experience.

Chapter Three: The Groundwork for an Alternative Way

In a milieu where the church and its people are so quickly and roundly criticized for their shortcomings, it is easy to overlook a central theological truth; that is, that however inadequate or pitiful the church may seem at times (and may, in fact, be), where the scripture is proclaimed, the sacraments administered, and the people of God continue to seek to follow God in word and deed, God is at work; the Holy Spirit is still very much active. (page 225)

If I could have one truth tattooed on your generation’s arm, something like the above would be a strong contender. Always remember that you are not merely inviting people to follow Christ, you are inviting them to become part of the Body of Christ. You should love it and invite others to love it alongside you. Sadly, the Body of Christ is often slandered by believers who think only of her faults (often with shocking inaccuracy) and little of her strengths.

Be slow to assume you have a good read on how the church has acted in history. For that matter, be slow to assume you have a good read on how the church is acting today. Have you heard that Joel Osteen’s church has been callous during the flooding of Houston? Reddit, Twitter, and Facebook users sure got that impression. Before you apologize to your friends for Osteen’s alleged hypocrisy, read these articles: Flood him with criticism: Let him who is without sin cast the first stone at Joel Osteen and his church (Bobby Ross, Jr, GetReligion), Was Joel Osteen’s Houston ‘Megachurch’ Affected By Hurricane Harvey? (Snopes), The Joel Osteen Fiasco Says A Lot About American Christianity (Laura Turner, Buzzfeed). Based on the evidence I’ve seen, Lakewood Church not only acted defensibly  but actually acted wisely and helpfully. Acting in a manner unfamiliar to some of their critics, they were more concerned with actually doing good than with merely giving the appearance of doing good.

This, incidentally, is a useful reminder that the Bible isn’t kidding when it tells us there will be those who “those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ” (1 Peter 3:16, NIV). I often meet young Christians who believe that if we just act nicely enough that the world will love us. You’re not going to be a better representative of Jesus than Jesus Himself was, and He was tortured to death. Temper your expectations.

I say all that to say this: if you hear a negative report about a church, do your homework before you assume the criticisms you are hearing are accurate. A surprising amount of the time the criticism will be false or will be misleadingly true.

But when a criticism of the Church is true we need to take it seriously.

Nowhere is the task of critical resistance more urgent than in the church itself for the ways that it too has accommodated to the spirit of the late modern age. St. Peter is right to say, “judgment begins with the household of God” (1 Pet. 4:17). Antithesis, then, means that the church’s own structures and its own engagement with the world must be continually scrutinized. Here especially, critical resistance must always be creative and constructive; guided by devotion to the beloved community. (page 236)

Moving on, Hunter identifies a problem that I think is particularly strong at Stanford:

In contemporary America, Christians have faith in God and, by and large, they believe and hold fast to the central truths of the Christian tradition. But while they have faith, they have also been formed by the larger post-Christian culture, a culture whose habits of life less and less resemble anything like the vision of human flourishing provided by the life of Christ and witness of scripture. The problem, in other words, is that Christians have not been formed “in all wisdom” that they might rise to the demands of faithfulness in a time such as ours, “bearing fruit in every good work.” (page 227)

We need to recognize that our culture is always trying to create unchristian convictions within us. Stanford does it more aggressively than American society because the campus is a much less free environment.

But that doesn’t mean that we give up and reject our society. Far from it.

When people are saved by God through faith in Christ they are not only being saved from their sins, they are saved in order to resume the tasks mandated at creation, the task of caring for and cultivating a world that honors God and reflects his character and glory. (page 236)

And so we participate in our society and seek to make it better, recognizing that there is goodness everywhere because of God’s common grace. But even when we find an area of alignment of our values with society’s, we recognize that there will be tension.

It is important to emphasize that the realm of “common grace” is, by no means, a neutral space. It is God’s grace after all—it emanates from him and its purpose is to give him glory. To make strong and active affirmations about the present world, then, in no way implies the autonomy of knowledge, morality, desire, justice, or beauty. The idea that there are common or objective standards for these things independent of the created order is an illusion. In the contemporary world, neutrality is the pretence of all secular establishments; a myth concealed by its hegemony. (page 233)

As a result, we need to have a level of skepticism about the structures of our fallen society.

In the present historical context, this means that Christians recognize that all social organizations exist as parodies of eschatological hope. And so it is that the city is a poor imitation of heavenly community; the modern state, a deformed version of the ecclesia; the market, a distortion of consummation; modern entertainment, a caricature of joy; schooling, a misrepresentation of true formation; liberalism, a crass simulacrum of freedom; and the sovereignty we accord to the self, a parody of God himself. As these institutions and ideals become ends in themselves, they become the objects of idolatry. (pages 234–235)

And now we’re getting close to what I take to be Hunter’s ultimate point: we don’t participate in society primarily to change the world. We do it simply to bless those around us.

If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, in other words, it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor. (page 234, the original has emphasis that I don’t think is being reproduced here)

I’m eager to see where his argument goes from here.

To Change The World, Week Ten

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

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2017. The reading schedule is online at

This week’s reading was an interesting start to Hunter’s final essay. I’m curious to see where he goes with it.

His overall point is pretty simple: modern culture undermines faith. He frames the challenge in two terms: difference and dissolution, which seem to roughly correspond to pluralism and pervasive uncertainty (the sense that no source of information is thoroughly trustworthy).

The challenge of pluralism is that it causes any given belief to seem arbitrary.

In [pluralistic] circumstances, one is no longer enveloped by a unified and integrated normative universe but confronted by multiple and fragmented perspectives, any or all of which may seem, on their own terms, eminently credible. This social situation obligates one to choose, but once the choice is made—given the ubiquitous presence of alternatives in a market culture oriented toward consumer choice—one must reaffirm that choice again and again. These are social conditions that make faithfulness difficult and faithlessness almost natural. (page 203)


It is true that there are religious virtuosi who maintain strong beliefs on their own with little or no social support but these individuals are rare. Most of us, however, need the reinforcement that social institutions provide to believe coherently and live with integrity. There is a sociological truth, then, to the statement extra ecclesiam nulla salus; that “there is no salvation outside of the church.” Strong and coherent beliefs require strong institutions enveloping those who aspire to believe. These are the conditions that turn belief into settled convictions. (page 202)

The challenge of pervasive uncertainty is that it undermines all meaning, including religious meaning. Hunter spends some time talking about modern technology and media and how disconnected and superficial they cause our perception of the world to be.

An environment that is constituted by surface images and simulations and that is fragmented and flattened out cannot help but undermine the reality to which Christian belief and faith point. The words we use simply fail to have the same kind of traction they once did. In such a context, it is difficult to imagine that there is a spiritual reality more real than the material world we live in. Neither is such an environment conducive to depth in reflection, relationships, or commitments. It is difficult to discover the quality of intimacy in a friendship or in love that is nurtured through time and attentiveness to the subtleties of need, memory, joy, and hurt. So too, it is difficult to forge moral commitments capable of enduring the vagaries of hardship, boredom, failure, and even triumph. A world created by these technologies may not occlude depth in these ways but it will war against it. (page 210)

In summary:

It is critical to note that [the effect of pluralism, pervasive uncertainty, and related trends] is primarily manifested not as problems that can be seen, objectified, analyzed, and responded to but as a complex array of assumptions so deeply taken for granted that they cannot be fully grasped much less questioned. Culture is most powerful, as I have argued, when it is perceived as self-evident. (211)

If you resonate with these observations, I recommend you take a look at one of our recent summer reading projects, How (Not) To Be Secular by James K. A. Smith. It’s a helpful (and short) book that deals with the nature of faith in modern secular contexts. A good summary of it is at The Gospel Coalition.

Finally, something worth remembering at Stanford:

But radical skepticism leading to radical nihilism is, of course, rare. Apart from a few celebrity nihilists and a few disaffected graduate students, there are actually few consistent relativists or committed postmodernists for the simple reason that it is not livable. (page 207)

Some things that look good on paper simply don’t function in a real-world setting. Nihilism is one example. In the political realm, socialism and communism are clear examples — anywhere they appear to work it is because someone has kept the label but changed the content. Whenever you hear a fellow student (or a professor) advocating a theory you suspect is wonky, examine how it works in practice. Life is the laboratory of philosophy.

To Change The World, Week Nine

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

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2017. The reading schedule is online at

After being so descriptive in the last three chapters it’s nice to see Hunter getting prescriptive in this week’s readings. He puts the religious right, the religious left, and the neo-Anabaptist tradition on blast. I really enjoyed these closing chapters of his essay on power.

Most people think that what matters is the ideological direction of one’s politics. Are you conservative? Are you liberal? These differences occupy most of our attention and argument. What is never challenged is the proclivity to think of the Christian faith and its engagement with the culture around it in political terms. (page 168)
This is tragic because politics promises far more than it is able to deliver. Hunter observes:
There are no comprehensive political solutions to the deterioration of “family values,” the desire for equity, or the challenge of achieving consensus and solidarity in a cultural context of fragmentation and polarization. There are no real political solutions to the absence of decency or the spread of vulgarity. But because the state is a clumsy instrument and finally rooted in coercion, it will always fail to adequately or directly address the human elements of these problems; the elements that make them poignant in the first place. As a rule, when the state does become involved in such matters, its actions can often create more problems through unintended consequences, not fewer. (page 171)
This reminds me of something my dad used to tell me: some of the scariest words in the English language are, “I’m from the government and I’m here to help you.” Unintended consequences abound for both the policy preferences of the left (minimum wage, family leave policy, zoning regulations) and the right (the war on drugs, tough-on-crime laws, immigration reform). It’s actually kind of fun to google. If you have some time I highly recommend it.


Hunter continues:

At best, the state’s role addressing human problems is partial and limited. It is not nearly as influential as the expectations most people have of it. It is true that laws are not neutral. They do reflect values. But laws cannot generate values, or instill values, or settle the conflict over values. (page 171)
The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. made a similar but more powerfully worded observation highlighting the other side of this dynamic at Western Michigan University back in 1963:
…while it may be true that morality cannot be legislated, behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot change the heart but it can restrain the heartless. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me but it can keep him from lynching me and I think that is pretty important, also. (pdf source)
That’s one of my favorite quotes on religion and politics, so I’m glad I finally found a chance to drop it in. 😉


With that extremely important point in mind, Hunter’s reservation still stands:

Values cannot be achieved politically because politics is invariably about power—not only power, but finally about power. For politics to be about more than power, it depends on a realm that is independent of the political sphere. It depends on moral criteria, institutionalized and practiced in the social order, that are autonomous from the realm of politics. The problem is that the impulse toward politicization extends to the politicization of values. This means that the autonomy of moral criteria on which a higher practice of politics depends is increasingly lost. Today, most of the ideals and values that are discussed in public have acquired political content and connotation. Fairness? Equity? Justice? Liberty? These have come to have little or no meaning outside of the realm of politics. (page 172, emphasis in original)

And now he loads up the howitzers and launches a barrage on modern American Christianity. He gets positively sermonic in this section and I want you to know I am proud of myself for quoting so little of it. It took tremendous restraint to limit myself to three bombshells.

  1. For conservatives and progressives alike, Christianity far too comfortably legitimates the dominant political ideologies and far too uncritically justifies the prevailing macroeconomic structures and practices of our time. What is wrong with their critique is that it doesn’t go far enough, for the moral life and everyday social practices of the church are also far too entwined with the prevailing normative assumptions of American culture. Courtship and marriage, the formation and education of children, the mutual relationships and  obligations between the individual and community, vocation, leadership, consumption, leisure, “retirement” and the use of time in the final chapters of life—on these and other matters, Christianity has uncritically assimilated to the dominant ways of life in a manner dubious at the least.” (pages 184–185)
  2. …Christian believers [must] decouple the “public” from the “political.” Politics is always a crude simplification of public life and the common good is always more than its political expression. As we have seen, the expectations that people place on politics are unrealistic for most of the problems we face today are not resolvable through politics. That, however, is not the most serious problem. Far more grave is the way politicization has delimited the imaginative horizon through which the church and Christian believers think about engaging the world and the range of possibilities within which they actually act. Politics is just one way to engage the world and, arguably, not the highest, best, most effective, nor most humane way to do so. This does not mean that Christians shouldn’t “vote their values” or be active in political affairs. It is essential, however, to demythologize politics, to see politics for what it is and what it can and (p.186) cannot do and not place on it unrealistic expectations. It cannot realize the various mythic ideals that inspire different Christian communities, it cannot even reduce the tension that exists between the concrete realities of everyday life and the moral and spiritual ideals of the Kingdom of God. At best, politics can make life in this world a little more just and thus a little more bearable. (pages 185–186)
  3. Everything about [Jesus’] life, his teaching, and his death was a demonstration of a different kind of power—not just in relation to the spiritual realm and not just in relation to the ruling political authorities, but in the ordinary social dynamics of everyday life. It operated in complete obedience to God the Father, it repudiated the symbolic trappings of elitism, it manifested compassion concretely out of calling and vocation, and it served the good of all and not just the good of the community of faith. In short, in contrast to the kingdoms of this world, his kingdom manifests the power to bless, unburden, serve, heal, mend, restore, and liberate. (page 193)
Finally, some snippets that have special resonance for us in light of recent history (all things that happened after Hunter’s book was written):

First, one of Hunter’s observations illustrates why Brexit happened — the bureaucratic state is fundamentally non-democratic. That is hard to handle when it is constrained by your democratic elections. How much harder must it be when the bureaucracy stands above your electoral process as it does in the EU?

The state, by contrast, is where the real power resides. The state is a massive, relatively autonomous bureaucratic organization whose purpose is to administer innumerable discrete tasks that make the regime function. Decisions made are filtered through numerous, often unrelated bureaus staffed by professionals who have their own autonomous (and nondemocratic) decision-making authority. The tasks the state undertakes may be influenced by ideals or values provided by the political class, but those tasks do not embody those ideals.  (page 170)
And I thought this was a timely insight in light of the events in Charlottesville:
There is a basis in fact for the claims made by each of these groups. Yet an identity rooted in resentment and hostility is an inherently weak identity precisely because it is established negatively, by accentuating the boundaries between insiders and outsiders and the wrongs done by those outsiders. (page 173)
This also is germane:
The capacity to define reality varies extensively and those individuals and institutions that have more engage in a kind of “symbolic violence” (or forms of coercion that are effected without physical force) against those who have less. The ultimate expression of this symbolic violence is to so thoroughly define a situation that dissent or opposition becomes unimaginable. (page 178)

The public reaction to the president’s speech on Charlottesville is a good illustration of this. The following argument, by the way, is independent of my reaction to the events in Charlottesville — it is an attempt to show that the stuff Hunter is talking about is in the news constantly. In case you’re wondering, I preached against Nazi ideology and white supremacy in a church just this Sunday and I have said publicly since before the election I do not think Trump is fit to be president. Perhaps you agree with me, perhaps not. In either case, set your own feelings aside for a moment and consider the reaction to Trump’s statements as a sociological phenomenon. What made his perspective so outrageous? The symbolic violence Hunter describes. We live in a culture that has defined reality in such a way that his statements were outside the realm of acceptable public discourse. There is no acceptable reaction to neo-Nazis other than immediate denunciation. Anything else is literally unimaginable. Even to say something factually true — there is hate and violence on both sides — is incomprehensible to many Americans, especially those who have been the most formed by elite institutions. If you doubt “the violence on both sides” statement, by the way, consider this article from CNN:

Finally, one that is relevant to you as Stanford students. Always remember that Stanford’s highest value is Stanford. I have seen the university do absolutely outrageous things to students when the administration perceived a conflict between the good of the student and the good of the university. Hunter nails it:

Studies have shown that even voluntary organizations protect their organizational interests against the interests and needs of the very members they are supposed to serve. (page 179)
Good stuff. I can’t wait to begin reading Hunter’s final essay!

To Change The World, Week Eight

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


This week’s chapter focuses on the neo-Anabaptist strand in American Christianity.

When people are speaking about neo-Anabaptists, they generally have in mind people strongly influenced by theologians like John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwaus. They are best known for their commitment to pacifism, their focus on the problem of poverty and the need for justice, and their skepticism of non-church entities such as the state and the market — sort of a baptized blend of socialist and libertarian thought.

Hunter summarizes their basic critique of the church’s relation to culture like so:

“The problem today is that the American church is caught up in a dual allegiance to both Christ and the political economy of liberal democracy and consumer capitalism. Loyalty to this political economy is nothing less than idolatry.” (page 155)

And their pacifism is not just about non-warfare. It is usually much broader than that.

“For neo-Anabaptists, pacifism is the fundamental mark of Christian discipleship and the central ethical teaching of the gospel.… Anabaptists, of course, are perhaps best known historically for their pacifism in wartime. Yet war is not the central problematic but violence itself—broadly defined. This is why the state figures so prominently within the Anabaptist imagination. The state is the locus of self-legitimating violence and its very existence is defined by the exercise (or the threat of exercise) of coercion. Its power is always manifestly or latently coercive.” (pages 158, 159)

If that sounds awesome to you, you’re probably wondering why you’ve never heard of this perspective before. There’s a good reason:

[Neo-Anabaptism] is mainly known through its intellectual apologias; it plays out more in theology than in practice, more in political sensibilities than in institutional structures.” (page 150)

This seems almost inevitable given the instincts of neo-Anabaptist Christians. In Neo-Anabaptists and the Benedict Option, Jake Meador summarizes the predicament well:

To begin, the obvious problem for any religious tradition that defines itself in such essential opposition to the government but also, increasingly out of necessity, the modern market, is that if you preach repentance to Caesar (or the Wolf of Wall Street) and they say “OK, I repent,” you don’t know what to tell them.

I once read an essay which claimed you could understand most of the problems in the modern world if you simply grasped that Muslims do not know how to exist as a minority and Christians do not know how to exist as a majority. This latter point is what Meador is driving at. The neo-Anabaptists are good at critiquing existing structures but less skilled at crafting superior structures.

The neo-Anabaptists claim their message is prophetic but in its net effect (that is, in what people both inside and outside of the tradition hear), it is overwhelmingly a message of anger, disparagement, and negation. (page 165)

As a Pentecostal, I found this bit interesting:

The concept of “principalities and powers” bears some further reflection because of its importance to the neo-Anabaptist tradition. The concept refers to the institutional or systemic patterns of thought, behavior, and relationship that govern our lives and the spiritual realm that animates them. They were originally part of the created order and as such, were good. They were intended to mediate the creative purposes of God in the world, but like us they are now fallen. Rather than reflecting truth, they became adversaries of the truth. Rather than serving the aim of human flourishing, they came to dominate, coerce, and enslave humankind by claiming for themselves absolute power. They are “the rulers of this age” (1 Cor. 2:6). The power they wield is, at its source and in its consequences, demonic in character. (page 157)

Whether you consider yourself conservative or liberal, I encourage you to carefully reflect on these last three chapters (on the religious right, the religious left, and the neo-Anabaptists), seeking to gain sympathy for the positions you shy away from.

Which reminds me: I forgot to send the Christian critique of liberalism with last week’s readings. Sorry! Read the linked essay “The Problem With Liberalism” by J. Budziszewski, a Christian political philosopher at the University of Texas. In case you missed it, I sent his companion essay on conservatism with the chapter notes two weeks ago. My hope is that these critiques by Budziszewski will complement the readings from Hunter so that whether you lean left or right you’ll both find a chapter that describes your views fairly while also encountering a thoughtful critique of your tribe.

To Change The World, Week Seven

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

I thought Hunter’s chapter on the religious left wasn’t as strong as his chapter on the religious right, although I appreciated that he highlighted the long history of a politically-engaged religious left. I am baffled when people act as though the politicization of the faith is exclusively a problem of the right. The religious left is FAR more political than the religious right. It’s not even close. It is not unusual to hear overtly political sermons in religious left congregations whereas it is vanishingly rare to hear political sermons in a religious right congregation.

Something to keep in mind is that neither the religious left nor the religious right are above the partisanship that dominates America.

Given the resources of the Democratic Party and the special interests that drive it, there is little question that progressive Christianity is instrumentalized (or used as a means to an end) by the Democratic Party in its quest for power, just as conservative Christianity has been used for quite some time by the Republican Party. (page 148)

Hunter explain what he considers to be the driving force of progressive politics: a particular conception of justice illustrated by the French Revolution’s call for liberty, equality, and fraternity.

The key word in the progressive lexicon, and arguably the paramount virtue, is justice. Justice, though, is defined as economic equity — the equality component. Within the contemporary left, there is a tension between the communitarian wing and the social libertarian wing, and the dividing line is far from clearcut. Over the course of the last two centuries, liberalism has had less to say about “fraternity,” though socialism has made this a central part of its agenda. In (p.133) contemporary America, most secular progressives define the “liberty” component in terms of individual autonomy and the freedom to choose one’s own lifestyle; that is, in terms of sexual identity and practice, relationships, entertainment, and so on. But religiously oriented progressives, Christians among them, tend to lean toward the communitarian side of this divide. For these, liberty is understood largely as liberation; often enough this means freedom for individuals and communities from poverty caused by economic domination and exploitation of the wealthy. As to community itself (the “fraternity” component), it is the idea of solidarity among equals — across the boundaries of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and social class. (page 132–133)


Hunter mentions that the religious left has less visibility now than in the past, but I think his description doesn’t do justice to the extent of the mainline collapse. These denominations are imploding at a crazy rate. Researcher Ed Stetzer puts it this way, “If the data continues along the same pattern, mainline Protestants have an expiration date when both trend lines cross zero in 2039. If the trend line continues, they have 23 Easters left.” (source)

Read that last sentence again. It’s stunning.

Those on the left and the right disagree about the reasons for the demise of the once-strong denominations. I think Rodney Stark put it well:

“The wreckage of the former Mainline denominations is strewn upon the shoal of a modernist theology that began to dominate the Mainline seminaries early in the nineteenth century. This theology presumed that advances in human knowledge had made faith outmoded… Eventually, Mainline theologians discarded nearly every doctrinal aspect of traditional Christianity.” (from America’s Blessings)

So due to their weakness, organizations on the religious left were not taken seriously by politicians and academics as they had once been.

Their political advocacy was also mostly ignored until the Republican presidential win in 2004. It was only then that the Democratic Party, for many decades tone-deaf to faith, recognized that it would not mobilize the American public and win elections until it learned to use the language and grammar of faith that has always informed the values and beliefs of most Americans. The problem was that most Democrats have been uncomfortable using the language of faith. From across the Democratic Party, many called for “soul-searching” and internal reform that would address the so-called God-gap.

I am sure at the time Hunter wrote this it seemed that the Democrats had learned the importance of welcoming people of faith, but although Barack Obama’s campaign did this very well Hilary Clinton’s campaign did this outrageously poorly. This is ironic because I believe Hilary Clinton to be far more personally pious than Barack Obama.

Emma Green interviewed Michael Wear about this in the Atlantic “Democrats Have A Religion Problem

“Barack Obama was the perfect transitional president from the old party to the new. He could speak in religious terms in a way that most white, secular liberals were not willing to confront him on. He “got away with” religious language and outreach that would get other Democratic politicians more robust critiques from the left. He was able to paper over a lot of the religious tensions in the party that other, less skilled politicians will not be able to paper over.”

An even more illuminating read is by Ruth Graham at Slate: “Why Hillary Clinton Bombed With White Evangelical Voters” -

This election cycle, Christianity Today made multiple attempts to request an interview with Hillary Clinton, according to Kate Shellnutt, an editor there. The campaign never responded. Of course, campaigns turn down interview requests all the time. But the Clinton campaign was the only one that didn’t reply at all. And this wasn’t the only sign this year that the Democratic candidate had no interest in speaking to evangelical Christians. She spent little energy explaining her views on abortion to them and little time talking about religious freedom. She didn’t hire a full-time faith outreach director until June and had no one focused specifically on evangelical outreach. She didn’t give a major speech to the evangelical community and never met publicly with evangelical leaders. Religious publications reaching out to her campaign with questions were frequently met with silence. Some evangelical insiders are now asking: Why didn’t Hillary Clinton even try to get us to vote for her?

And in a candidate for understatement of the decade:

“For all of the diversity one can find among progressives, one of the central catalysts of solidarity over the years has been their hostility to the leaders, organizations, ideology, and agenda of the Christian Right.” (page 139)

This is true of my friends on the religious left. Their anger at the religious right is a thing to behold. From afar. I am convinced that some of them are quite prepared to punch you in the name of tolerance.

Again, I thought this chapter was less strong (although I imagine the information in it was newer to many of you).


To Change The World, Week Six

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

Today’s reading is about the religious right. I know some of you are conservative and some of you are liberal. Whichever camp you align with, I encourage you to read both this chapter and the next chapter (on the religious left) carefully, seeking to gain sympathy for the side you oppose. I also encourage you to read the attached essay “The Problem With Conservatism” by J. Budziszewski, a Christian political philosopher at the University of Texas. He has a companion essay about liberalism which I’ll send next week — so whether you are liberal or conservative you’ll find a chapter that describes your views fairly while also encountering a thoughtful critique of your tribe.

Anyway, on to today’s insights. Hunter is fair and insightful in describing the Christian right:

“In the present world order, many if not most of the principles [politically conservative Christians] most esteem have come under fundamental challenge. There has been a challenge to heterosexuality, to monogamy, to marriage as a life-long commitment, to the sacred responsibility of parenting, to the authority and autonomy of the family. There has been a challenge to the sanctity of human life, most clearly in the earliest stages of life but also life at its most vulnerable and at its end. Not only has there been a challenge to the truths of the Christian faith and the traditions and scripture that express them, but there has been a challenge to the very concept of truth as well. And there has been a challenge to the moral authority of the church. These challenges have been expressed intellectually, educationally, and artistically, but also commercially, through advertising, and in the range of entertainment media. Not least, all of these challenges have also been expressed legally and politically.” (page 111)

I would be surprised if you have not heard similar sentiments in the lobby after church. In response,

Conservative Christians “defend a prominent role for religion in public life, a traditional nuclear family, and traditional morality.” (page 122)

Hunter deeply understands the perspective of conservative Christians. It makes me wonder what churches he has attended. Even in small things he gets their self-understanding. I think it would surprise many at Stanford to learn that most politically-engaged conservative evangelicals consider themselves to be the true activists who pursue human flourishing in the face of an unjust culture.

“In this view, the Tocquevillian legacy that celebrates the active role of religion in public extended into the modern age through the abolitionist movement, prohibition, and with the civil rights movement of the 1960s and it extends to the present in the movement against abortion, homosexuality, and the like. In their own view, conservative Christian activists are anything but strange. They are, rather, the “rightful heirs” of progressive Christianity.” (page 114)

Having said all of that, Hunter addresses something that I hear often: many conservative Christians are fed up with the Republican party because they feel taken for granted.

This is the problem with electoral politics in our time. Politicians cannot get nominated without the support of the grassroots activists, but they cannot get elected and govern without moving to the political center. It is inevitable that politicians who do get elected betray their most ardent supporters by moderating (p.126) their positions. Needless to say, this comes as a source of terrible frustration to the movement leaders. Movement leaders regularly and probably rightly accuse Republican politicians and officials of “just ignoring those that put them in office.” (page 125–126)

Having said that, as long as the Democratic party continues on their current trajectory it is difficult to imagine a large-scale drift of conservative Christians from Republican to Democrat. As I said in the runup to the election, I could not in good conscience vote for either Trump or Clinton and so I cast my ballot for a third party candidate. But I know many of my friends who voted for Trump as a way of preventing a Clinton victory. I think if I was to ask them why they would say something like this. “Sure, Trump is crazy and personally immoral, but Clinton is disciplined and devoted to promoting wickedness. I think America will be better off under the crazy sleazebag.”

It is difficult to overstate the centrality of the Supreme Court to the thinking of most of my conservative Christian friends. Hunter nails it with this paragraph:

If there is an epicenter of the problem, though, it is seen in the judicial system—“the last great bastion for liberalism.” Some have called “the secular-liberal takeover” of the judiciary the greatest assault representative self-government has ever faced; an assault that is “more dangerous and successful because it comes from within and aims to destroy not just our physical defenses, but the moral ideas, habits and practices that sustain our character as a free people.” The principal instrument for their assault has been “an abuse of the judicial system,” and in particular the Federal judiciary’s assertion of supreme and unchecked constitutional power. In particular, the U.S. Supreme Court has arrogated to itself governmental power that the Tenth Amendment unambiguously reserves to the States, arbitrarily withdrawn the protection of the community from generations to come, interfered with the public celebration of religious festivals and observances determined by the people, and now seeks to remove all references to the Creator, God, (p.117) from public declarations adopted by the people. The campaign of “liberals and progressive forces” has been nothing less than “insidious.” The problem, then, is not just the fact that the courts are complicit in “trying to erase our Judeo- Christian heritage.” “The courts have also imposed immoral decisions on the American people.” The courts’ decisions liberalizing the practice of abortion and homosexuality are particularly galling since the majority of Americans oppose them. Cumulatively, these actions amount to “judicial tyranny.” (pages 116–117)

My friends who voted for Trump felt a huge sense of vindication when Neil Gorsuch was confirmed to the Supreme Court. Trump could do everything else wrong and get the Supreme Court right and my friends would say, “I made a good call. Thank God Hilary Clinton is not president.”

I am very eager to see how he portrays the religious left in next week’s reading and then how he critiques them both afterwards.

To Change The World, Week Five

To Change The World by James Davison HunterBlog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2017. The reading schedule is online at

Earlier this week I saw an essay that illustrates many of the ideas from our reading so far: Why Didn’t the Planned Parenthood Videos Change the Abortion Debate? (Joe Carter, Gospel Coalition). Carter makes many points, but two stand out — the video makers failed to coordinate with institutions and they also were attacked by elite networks. To use Hunter’s terminology, Planned Parenthood is an institution on the center and the Center for Medical Progress is an institution on the periphery — they had an uphill battle for which they were unprepared because they apparently held to the naive view of culture Hunter critiqued. I encourage you to read the article and reflect upon the readings so far in light of it.

Hunter is now moving onto the second theme of his book — rethinking power in light of faith. He’s going to focus “on the conservative, progressive, and neo-Anabaptist positions — because in contemporary America, these are the most prominent” (page 109). As Hunter hints, there are more theological options than these. Perhaps we will discuss them as we move through this second essay.

His main point in this week’s reading is that in modern societies discussions of power are inevitably political.

“Politics has become so central in our time that institutions, groups, and issues are now defined relative to the state, its laws and procedures. Institutions such as popular and higher education, philanthropy, science, the arts, and even the family understand their identity and function according to what the state does or does not permit. Groups (women, minorities, gays, Christians, etc.) have validity not only but increasingly through the rights conferred by the state.” (page 103)

Hunter says this tendency is evidence of a weak social fabric.

“…the amount of law that exists in any society is always inversely related to the coherence and stability of its common culture: law increases as cultural consensus decreases. By these lights, the fabric of the common culture in modern America has worn even more thin in the last several decades and the extraordinary amount of litigation we have seen in recent decades is just one place we see it.” (page 102)

Given that laws will multiply, the reach of the state will become ever more encompassing, and so interest groups feel it is imperative to get the state to act in alignment with their values. The state cannot simply remain neutral, as Hunter explains:

“There is a tradition in political theory that claims that in a liberal democracy, the state is or should be neutral when it comes to questions of the good. This is wrong mainly because it is impossible. Law infers a moral judgment; policy implies a worldview.” (page 103)

There is, of course, the caveat that this ressentiment-driven impulse toward power-seizing is not always true of individuals — even influential ones — but as Hunter demonstrated in the previous essay the attitudes of individuals prove less significant than the attitudes of institutions.

“I don’t want to overstate the case—clearly what I describe here are not fully and comprehensively established realities; all is not power and ressentiment. What makes it more complicated (and interesting) is that there are genuinely public-spirited people on all sides of all issues. Indeed most people are not resentment-filled and power hungry. But consistent with my view all along is the fact that the motives of individuals and the structures of culture are not the same thing.” (page 109)

This essay is off to a promising start. I’m eager to see how he summarizes the three theological options he mentioned.

To Change The World, Week Four

Blog readers: Chi Alpha @ Stanford is engaging in our annual summer reading project. As we read through To Change The World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, I’ll post my thoughts here (which will largely consist of excerpts I found insightful). They are all tagged summer-reading-project-2017. The reading schedule is online at
The first part of this week’s reading is a straightforward extension of Hunter’s thought so far, perhaps best summed up by this observation:
Against the prevailing view, the main reason why Christian believers today (from various communities) have not had the influence in the culture to which they have aspired is not that they don’t believe enough, or try hard enough, or care enough, or think Christianly enough, or have the right worldview, but rather because they have been absent from the arenas in which the greatest influence in the culture is exerted. (page 89, emphasis in original)
A book he mentions in the footnotes, Faith In The Halls Of Power by D. Michael Lindsay, is definitely worth reading in conjunction with this one. The book is available online through the Stanford library. I posted some excerpts from it a few years ago: Notes from Faith in the Halls of Power.
What I was most pleased by in this week’s readings were Hunter’s reflections about the perils of elitism.
The significance of every person before God irrespective of worldly stature or accomplishment and the care for the least are the ethical hallmarks of Christianity.… This is why elitism—a disposition and relationality of superiority, condescension, and entitlement by social elites—is so abhorrent for the Christian. Its foundation is exclusion on the implicit (and sometimes explicit) view that people are not equal in love and dignity before God. Thus, by its very nature, elitism is exploitative. So far as I can tell, elitism for believers is despicable and utterly anathema to the gospel they cherish. (page 94)
Whatever its larger influence in the world may be, a culture that is genuinely alternative cannot emerge without faithful presence in all areas of life. This will include networks (and more, communities) of counter-leaders operating within the upper echelons of cultural production and social life generally. These are realms of performance and distinction that may be rare and inaccessible to the average person, but they are still critically important to both the renewal of the church and its engagement with the culture. (page 96)
Here is my challenge to you, someone who is being conditioned by Stanford to serve in elite roles. Whatever you wind up doing, learn to love what you do without disdaining less elite believers. This is harder than you think it will be. A part of elite culture you must remain vigilant against is ostentatiously despising people who relish popular culture. One key marker will be whether you truly view believers who have never heard the word intersectionality and who view Denny’s as the pinnacle of cuisine as brothers and sisters worthy of celebrating and defending. In other words, be elite without being elitist.
Worth reading in this regard is the recent David Brooks New York Times column and its frenzied responses.
How We Are Ruining America (David Brooks, NYT): “To feel at home in opportunity-rich areas, you’ve got to understand the right barre techniques, sport the right baby carrier, have the right podcast, food truck, tea, wine and Pilates tastes, not to mention possess the right attitudes about David Foster Wallace, child-rearing, gender norms and intersectionality.” This column spawned much derision on social media, but I strongly agree with Brooks. Here are two sympathetic reactions from Freddie deBoer on the left and from Rod Dreher on the right. Dan Drezner takes it in a different direction.
The above snippet will be featured in today’s Friday email.
Given our summer reading, I supposed I should highlight that this is from a New York Times columnist. I don’t know if you’ve noticed this, but I deliberately choose articles from high-status institutions and individuals that are either directly relevant to the Christian life or are germane to a Christian view of human flourishing. I don’t hold to this rigidly, but it’s something I am very aware of when composing each Friday email. It’s one small step towards helping our community interact with the most influential parts of culture.
Incidentally, if you don’t get those Friday emails and are interested in them, you can sign up at