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To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World [Hardcover]

James Davison Hunter
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Book Description

April 28 2010
The call to make the world a better place is inherent in the Christian belief and practice. But why have efforts to change the world by Christians so often failed or gone tragically awry? And how might Christians in the 21st century live in ways that have integrity with their traditions and are more truly transformative? In To Change the World, James Davison Hunter offers persuasive--and provocative--answers to these questions. Hunter begins with a penetrating appraisal of the most popular models of world-changing among Christians today, highlighting the ways they are inherently flawed and therefore incapable of generating the change to which they aspire. Because change implies power, all Christian eventually embrace strategies of political engagement. Hunter offers a trenchant critique of the political theologies of the Christian Right and Left and the Neo-Anabaptists, taking on many respected leaders, from Charles Colson to Jim Wallis and Stanley Hauerwas. Hunter argues that all too often these political theologies worsen the very problems they are designed to solve. What is really needed is a different paradigm of Christian engagement with the world, one that Hunter calls "faithful presence" - an ideal of Christian practice that is not only individual but institutional; a model that plays out not only in all relationships but in our work and all spheres of social life. He offers real-life examples, large and small, of what can be accomplished through the practice of "faithful presence." Such practices will be more fruitful, Hunter argues, more exemplary, and more deeply transfiguring than any more overtly ambitious attempts can ever be. Written with keen insight, deep faith, and profound historical grasp, To Change the World will forever change the way Christians view and talk about their role in the modern world.

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Review


"The most important book on religion in recent years." --Richmond Times-Dispatch


"Hunter's corrective argument for authentic Christian engagement with the world is refreshing, persuasive, and inspiring." --Publishers Weekly


"Hunter is a thoughtful man, measured in his comments and fair minded in his analysis."--Peter Wehner, Politics Daily


"James Davison Hunter's latest work, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World is a fascinating study of cultural transformation."--Jim Denison, Associated Baptist Press


"The year's most widely discussed Christian book." --David Skeel, The Wall Street Journal


"Hunter addresses important and relevant issues that all Christians in the U.S. need to consider. His ideas and analyses are frequently insightful and helpful, and his style is provocative and engaging."--Christian Century


"Brilliant."--John A. Coleman, America


"The structure of this book is quite simple....I found his three-fold typology to be useful at a desciptive level, but I was dissatisfied with the solution that he proposes"--Donald E. Miller, University of Southern California


"There's much in these pages to debate, but the church will be better for the conversation."--Winn Collier, Religious Herald


"Ambitious and impressive...Hunter's call for a more institutional and broadly public understanding of social change is a welcome and important insight. Readers of this journal will find his nuanced sociological arguments to be a rich resource in moving theological interpretations of culture from the narrow confines of political theology to the more open conceptual riches of public theology."--International Journal of Public Theology


"How should Christians act in the world? The dominant answer in America today seems to be: through politics. But the major model of Christian political action, visible most obviously but not exclusively in the Christian Right, has been a politics fuelled by resentment and a sense of victimization, actuated by a strong will to power, and a propensity to demonize its opponents. This politics is a capitulation to the worst elements of the contemporary culture it claims to be redeeming. Hunter offers an acute end penetrating analysis of this paradoxical and distressing phenomenon, and carefully charts an alternative course for contemporary Christians, a form of 'faithful presence' within culture and society. The book is brimful of insightful challenges to our conventional understanding of things, and of inspiring suggestions for a new departure." -- Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age


"For anyone interested in American Christianity, whether believer or observer, this is an extraordinarily important and valuable book. Hunter's analysis of culture and the capacity of Christians to influence it (or not) is the most sophisticated and subtle I have ever seen, explaining why most treatments of the subject are gravely inadequate. His treatment of religion and power in the American context is similarly illuminating. Finally his theology of faithful presence offers a promising alternative to most of the approaches on offer today whether from liberals or conservatives. The encounter of social science and theology has often been vapid; Hunter shows how vibrant it can be." -- Robert Bellah, co-author of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life


"Insightful, creative, refreshing, challenging, realistic, and calm but hard-hitting, To Change the World offers a sharp critical and constructive vision for American Christianity that simply must be engaged by all sides. Hunter gives us big-picture, alternative thinking at its bets. His deft interrogation of the Christian political left, right, and center in America nails it, just as his constructive, alternative vision rings true in its promise. A rare achievement and a must-read for people of faith in these times." -- Christian Smith, author of Soul Searching and Souls in Transition


"No writer or thinker has taught me as much as James Hunter has about this all-important and complex subject of how culture is changed." --Tim Keller, author of Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters


"It is groundbreaking, it is comprehensive, and it is visionary. Above all, it is wise, both sociologically and theologically. No Christian entrusted with institutional leadership or cultural power should miss the chance to read it. It will be provoking better Christian conversations about culture for years to come, and may well help our secular neighbors understand what Christians really are, or should be, aiming for-even when we use slogans like 'to change the world.' Bravo."--Andy Crouch, Books and Culture


About the Author

James Davison Hunter is LaBrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory at the University of Virginia and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He is the author of Culture Wars and The Death of Character.

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5.0 out of 5 stars A fine analysis that deserves careful reading. March 24 2014
By Rodge TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
At a very basic level, Hunter critiques the evangelical views and engagements with culture and power, before turning to propose a new model which he calls "faithful presence within". He sets this up against what he outlines as the prevailing models, "defending against", "purity from" and "relevance to". The nature of the subject matter guarantees that some of his insights will generate debate and disagreement. Nevertheless, Hunter's careful outlining of the positions he opposes and the position he advocates merits this book at least one careful reading, if not more. I'll definitely be picking this book up again to look at what Hunter has to say.
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Amazon.com: 4.4 out of 5 stars  48 reviews
159 of 173 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars An interesting read... Sept. 3 2010
By Brett A. Bonecutter - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I appreciated much of Hunter's project and am intrigued by his assessment of three contemporary Christian styles of cultural engagement, but feel his conclusions are a bit thin. I'll try to explain...

One of his central theses is that "culture" is not usually changed in a populist-pietist-peripheral / bottoms-up manner. In fact, culture is generally most impacted by small networks of elites with central-symbolic power to create and change the institutions we all live within. I wholeheartedly agree with this and think that Christians in America need to wake up to this reality. I almost wish Hunter would have done more to illustrate this point in light of the fact that American Christianity has relegated itself to another populist movement on the peripheral margins - simply another subcultural ghetto among many. If his book would have simply stopped at this point I would have bought about 100 books and given a copy to every Christian I thought would read it.

What follows, however, is somewhat puzzling to me. After critiquing American conservatives, liberals, and Anabaptists, he concludes that each movement is over-politicized because each defines itself almost primarily through its relation to political power. Fair enough. This is a hugely important observation. He moves on to suggest that it might be wise for Christians to pull away from politics for a season to rediscover other ways of engaging the culture. One of the ways he builds this case is by conflating power and authority with "coercion." By doing so, he unwittingly adopts part of the Anabaptist view he was critiquing. Authority and power are not anti-Christian per se - and Hunter pays a certain amount of lip service to this truth. Nevertheless, I would contend that not all coercion is negative either. Coercion has a role to play in God's world. To negatively confuse these concepts with each other and with politics in general is too simplistic and unworthy of Hunter's erudition.

In light of Hunter's belief that Christians are over-politicized in their understanding of cultural engagement, he suggests a posture of "faithful presence." Christians must move beyond mere negation and should positively demonstrate / model the new creation within their vocational and institutional contexts. We must not engage in a shouting match over hot-button issues with a world that won't listen. Instead we should work as relatively quiet servants wherever we find ourselves in God's world, albeit with an eye towards institutions in place of mere pietism.

I am left with a few thoughts as I meditate on Hunter's rather vague conclusions about "faithful presence." First, he is a better sociologist than theologian. Second, he is a better sociologist than philosopher. Third, he is a better sociologist than historian.

As a theologian, his eschatology is either underdeveloped or he is not as self-aware of his convictions as he should be. He is implicitly dismissive of negative dispensationalism (thankfully), but embraces a brand of amillenialism that ends up being dispensationalism's kissing cousin. I won't take the time to exegete his book, but his conception of God's kingdom is largely future - with most of its manifestation only happening at the consummation of time. That is a very popular and valid point-of-view within Christianity, but to uncritically foist this on his thesis is hugely unhelpful, in my opinion. To portray more immanent understandings of the kingdom as "triumphalism" is totally inadequate for a work of this nature - and it certainly does no justice to the struggle the church universal has had for two millenia. His theological weakness hampers his ability to promote his thesis.

Second, at one point he states something along the lines of... the kingdom of God "is not about politics." I find such a statement utterly bewildering. Isn't the very word "kingdom" inherently political? The last time I checked, "polis" and "king" reside in the same conceptual category. Isn't this what makes the American constitutional experiment so interesting in light of history - that our founders would try to divorce the state from any specifically religious moorings or institutional relationships? Isn't it interesting that for most of world history, cultures have assumed that government and religion are absolutely intertwined? Are we so intellectually superior as post-Enlightenment people to assume that such a divorce is a philosophical given? If Hunter wants to get at the root of the conservative / liberal / Anbaptist orientation towards politics, he needed to go deeper into the relationship between church and state philosophically. But alas, he is not a political philosopher.

Finally, his historical treatment of "Constantianism" is just outright... Anabaptist. His handling of Calvin's Geneva and the execution of Servetus is nothing more than a superficial gloss. Even if one were to see this as a low-point in Calvin's Geneva, such an example goes to show that this work is not one of historical depth. At points, it reduces itself to thin rhetoric.

I think my two cups of coffee this morning may be manifesting a little too harshly. I'm thankful for this book. Hunter is a man who needs to be heard. There is some gold to mined here. Nevertheless, it should not be uncritically received. There are deeper issues theologically, philosophically, and historically that are missed and mishandled. The church cannot abandon its prophetic role and cannot assume that politics and the kingdom of God live in separate spheres. Yes, we live in a prescriptively pluralistic world, but it does not therefore follow that this should always be - or will always be the case. The church can confirm a descriptive pluralism that acknowledges and affirms differences without assuming that this is our destiny.
60 of 69 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars To Change the World: The Good and Bad Aug. 10 2010
By David Bahnsen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
There is no subject that invokes as much passion in me as that of a Christian's interaction with culture. I was raised to believe that "God is in the universe business" (thank you, dad), and I spend the bulk of my extra-curricular time exploring ways that men and women of the Christian faith may have a more meaningful impact on the culture around them. James Davison Hunter has written some extraordinary material on this subject (Culture Wars particularly comes to mind, along with some privately distributed materials I read several years ago that forced a bit of a paradigm shift in the way I view meaningful impact on society coming about). His latest book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, was to be the culmination of a decade's worth of work from Dr. Hunter. I am extremely grateful that I patiently waited for the book, feel that I am a better person for having read it, and believe it contains a plethora of thought that is sorely needed in the community of believers I belong to. Sadly, I also think the book falls short in a number of areas. My objective in this review is to highlight both the strong points and not-so-strong points in Hunter's latest work.

There is a sense in which I believe the initial notion that attracted me to Hunter shines through as the most important part of the book - and that is the idea of cultural change coming from the "top down" - specifically, when elites with a great deal of cultural capital network together in common pursuit of change. Interestingly, Hunter's conclusion (that people merely possessing the right belief system will be inadequate to effect lasting cultural change) is one I wholeheartedly agree with, though I find the major premise by which he gets to that conclusion tragically flawed. Hunter argues that despite the claims of culture warriors like Chuck Colson and James Dobson, a possession of Christian faith has proven inadequate to change the world, evidenced by the 85% of Americans who have "some faith commitment" yet who have only an "intensely materialistic and secular" culture to show for it. I am not familiar with anyone - anyone - in this conversation who believes that a merely nominal and superficial faith is sufficient to effect cultural change. The failure of American Christianity to have produced anything remotely close to the type of culture Hunter and I share a desire to see can better be explained by the modern failure of American Christianity to look, feel, and act like Christianity. Nevertheless, I would agree with Hunter that "the history of the conservative faith tradition over the last 175 years has been one of declining influence", and I am intrigued by much of what Hunter has to offer to counter this trend (and would like to interact more with Hunter on Nancy Pearsey's remarkable book Total Truth, as Hunter seems to find Pearsey's idea that post-enlightement Christians became intellectually incapable of resisting the social revolution of Darwinism to be incomplete). What we do know is that today's body of believers - even those who want to engage the culture - are failing miserably. Hunter seeks to tell us why and provide a counter proposal for what can be done differently.

The strongest portions of the book lay out Hunter's vision for effecting cultural change in the modern context. He views "the dominant actor in history as a network of elites and the institutions that created these networks". Hunter's emphasis on cultural power is an important one and rather contrary to the consensus view, which I believe (at least operationally) is that Christians most try to impact culture by creating substitute sub-cultures. I believe that the Christian church is divided up into three categories: (1) People who do not believe we ought to impact culture (the pietists, the separatists, the tribalists, etc.), (2) Those who believe we ought to impact culture but do no such thing in real life endeavors (the ghettoists who think that the institutions at the center of society should be avoided so that substitute institutions and sub-cultures can be built up on the periphery of society), and then finally, (3) Those who embrace the idea of cultural impact, but see that happening in a multi-generational context in the spheres of society where real cultural capital exists. This last category is a dying breed, and to the extent that Hunter has breathed life into it he has done a remarkable deed. Hunter's notion of "cultural and symbolic capital overlapping with social and economic capital" is valuable work, and ought to be required reading for ministers who claim intellectual ascent to the Kuyperian notion of Jesus as Lord. Chapter 4 is the strongest chapter of the book, and in it one finds a blueprint for cultural change that is incremental, covenantal, multi-generational, sustainable, and structural. It alone made the price of the book well worth it.

I am unable as of the time that I am drafting this review to claim resolution regarding the exclusivity claims Hunter makes, though. Is "top-down" change the only way in which Christians can impact the culture they live in? Does history really provide no examples at all of "bottom-up" change? I find that a little hard to believe, and have yet to understand why this conversation must be an "either-or" versus a "both-and". I do not know if this caveat puts me at total odds with the underlying thesis Hunter is proposing or not, but nothing in his book convinced me that we ought not be excited at bottom-up efforts in society as well. However, if his major point was simply that Christians are not likely to demonstrate a comprehensive model for society without top-down, institutional transformation, then his point is indisputable as far as this reviewer is concerned. Hunter's observation that much of what passes for Christian culture these days is nothing more than "defensive actions by small communities that do not have the resources to go up against the behemoth institutions of modern secular culture" is a haunting one, and painfully true.

The other extremely strong component of Hunter's work is the high value he puts on vocation in discussing a Christian's interaction with culture. Hunter addresses the subject theologically, and does so quite well. My own belief is that if one is looking to an actual "sphere" of society where the most opportunity exists for demonstrating the incarnational truths of the Christian faith, it is in the marketplace. I suspect Hunter agrees ("fidelity to the highest practices of vocation before God is consecrated and itself transformational in its effects"). I do not agree with all Hunter has to say about the ideal of Christians backing off from success in political endeavors, but I certainly agree that politics as a priority is dramatically off track. Should believers find the inspiration to rediscover dignity in their work, to practice their craft with excellence, and to use their vocation as a means of living in "faithful presence", I suspect the foundation would quickly be built for longstanding cultural change. While I do not see it as necessary for believers to withdraw for the civic sphere, I concur with Hunter that political successes will be a result of cultural impact, and not a cause of cultural impact. This distinction is sadly lost on many believers, and while I will not accuse them of a Hegelian Idealism, I will accuse them of pursuing an incomplete strategy. Whether or the not the James Dobson's of the world are merely advocating a certain "division of labor", devoid of a comprehensive understanding of engagement with the world (as I suspect), or they are actually leading the cause astray through a malignant idolatry of politics (as Hunter seems to suggest), we can agree that the Christian Right is not presently engaged in the task of changing the culture. I do not share Hunter's obvious animosity for many of the God-fearing men and women in this camp who perhaps lack the depth and nuance that I wish they would possess, but I do share Hunter's view that their perspective is inadequate. What Hunter promises in the final act of his book is the missing ingredients in this conversation - the proper tactic for a lasting cultural transformation - is where I sadly feel the book comes up most short.

Hunter is a true non-dualist, and the American church needs more non-dualists as much as it needs anything. He operates outside of Evangelicalism and Fundamentalism, so it packs a punch when Hunter says that the "dualism they embrace is cut from the same fabric" (noting that they seem to have merely ecclesiastical differences). I wonder if part of my attraction to Hunter is that he shares the same degree of jaded cynicism towards the institutional church that I do, particularly when it is in the context of effecting cultural change.

Hunter does set the final act up very well rhetorically, as the very title of his "counter proposal" has a nice ring to it: Faithful presence. I have read the last fifty pages of Hunter's 300-page book at least four times, and I continue to feel that a tremendous opportunity was missed. The final section is chalk-full of brilliant rhetorical devices, contains nuggets of extraordinary truth and beauty, and provides a series of individual propositions that I believe are powerful (and in some cases profound). However, I am convinced that it is not just me, but in fact nearly every single person I have discussed this book with, who finds the book's flowery rhetoric regarding "faithful presence" to be at best a sort of "begging the question", and at worst a mixed and confusing bag of ideals and applications that do not seem to provide any real conhesive substance to the subject Hunter is seeking to address. I am firmly convinced that Hunter is right when he says: "The practice of faithful presence generates relationships and institutions that are fundamentally covenantal in character, the ends of which are the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth, beauty, belonging, and fairness ..." But Hunter's attempts to reconcile this with pluralism - a task that I think can be done without sacrificing the truth claims of the Christian worldview - convulutes his message (despite his own warnings), and leaves readers scratching their heads as to exactly what Hunter is saying. He is certainly right in the civic sphere that the competing truth claims of other religions and faiths deserve the freedom of speech. But the idea that "the viablity of the Christian faith depends on a social environment in which any faith is plausible" is an unnecessarily confusing introduction to the conversation. Should Hunter have contented himself with the indisputable fact that Christians, while possessing exclusive claims of truth and salvation, do not have a right to suppress their unbelieving neighbors, or deny them courtesy, charity, and fairness, I doubt anyone would be so alarmed. But Hunter has to know that the real issue comes when worlds collide. When that antithesis gets smacked upside our head, is the highest ethic then to be the equalizing of all worldviews as "equally plausible"? Societal etiquette can be maintained without diluting the creedal claims of the orthodox faith. I suspect Hunter would say he agrees with me. I do not believe anyone reading the last 25 pages of the book could honestly say that Hunter was sufficiently clear in making these distinctions.

I referenced earlier the various nuggets that exist throughout the concluding chapters, and some of them are truly outstanding. "Employees and customers have a greater intrinsic value than their tangible contribution as economic actors". This is important to say and important to understand. On the other hand, Hunter seems to bring a bias against free market capitalism to the table that serves as a wild contradiction to much of what Hunter says he is seeking to accomplish in the book. Saying that "capitalism transforms the nature of work in ways that can be profoundly dehumanizing") seems to be a rank political jab, a strategy Hunter himself condemns. But the bigger problem with it is the fact that it is demonstrably false. Capitalism as a system of private property rights and allocation of resources does nothing (intrinsically) to profoundly dehumanize. I could walk through each page of the final 50 pages and produce excerpts from the book that are incompatible with his underlying thesis, and I could produce excerpts that deserve to be taped on to our computer monitors. What I can not do (and Hunter could not do without better editing) was see this chapter coalesce around his vast body of work. Ultimately, I think he made a couple major mistakes that take away from the drama of the book's final act. He implores Christians to quit using language like "building the Kingdom", "transforming the world", and "changing the world" (that last exhortation being particularly confusing since the name of the book was To Change the World). I want to respect where Hunter is coming from in making this charitable request, but I do not believe the case was argued persusasivly. He additionally calls for Christians to bind together "for a season and agree to just sit and listen." Shockingly, he wishes to claim that this suggestion is not marinating in dripping pietism, but alas, it is. Impractical, impossible, token pietism is the very worst kind. I suspect the aesthetic of this approach will seem attractive to a certain brand of readers, but they are not the leaders to whom Hunter is speaking.

I wanted to take from the portions of the book that I disagreed with a firmer set of counter-propositions to what Hunter is proposing. Ultimately I am afraid Hunter's own propositions (for now) lack the clarity, specificity, and "denseness" to which he often speaks. Very little is said about "faithful presence" that is in any way disagreeable - in fact, much is positively beautiful. But if the intent was to sort of serve as a counter-direction, he disappoints. I do not see how one reads the last 50 pages of the book with any clearer idea as to what he ought to be doing in his Christian life than he had before.

Hunter is at a huge disadvantage in writing a book of this nature that has such a compelling objective. One suspects that Hunter would find far more clarity, specificity, consistency, and depth in his vision for cultural engagement if it could be accompanied by a particular belief system in the eschaton. Hunter lays out brilliantly in this book why believers have a duty to demonstrate Christ in the culture, and explains this theological concept remarkably well, capabaly delving into a theology and history of creation, of the fall, of redemption, of incarnation, and of restoration. Without self-conscious eschatological commitments he is purposely playing with only one arm. An improvement in this could lead to a dramatically improved-upon revised book.

Parts of the book are truly exceptional, and I expect that my ongoing collection of thought-provoking quotes will be added to soon. I wish that a great number of believers would read the important contributions of this book, and re-examine what really needs to take place to see Christ proclaimed in the centers of cultural capital, and not merely on the periphery. Hunter has much to say to this cause, and he does so with a passionate heart for fidelity and authenticity in the process. This is not a power grab for Hunter, and Christian "conquest" is not his end-run. But seeing our society being led in its primary institutions by leaders of faith is an obtainable goal. With few exceptions, the church is not making this call, and wholly unprepared to bring about this result. Hunter has given us a lot to discuss, even if the book did not end the discussion.

In the meantime, I believe Christians ought to resist political tyranny (from either psrty), and do so not because they believe it is the full essence of Christian dominion. They should do so because God called them to do such - period. One day perhaps a "master plan" will be more apparent. For now, I join the pietists in praying for families whose children actually do love the Lord. And I join the activists in believing that there is work to be done in the political square (and others). Ultimately, the doctrine of moral proximity tells me that turning a generation of young people into dynamic vocational passionates will go a long way. These things are just a few theological abstractions away from being understood. In reading Hunter's book, I get to benefit in greater ways than the readers he was writing the book to: I recognize that God's purposes in culture will most certainly come about, and they will come about as we live in faithful presence day by day. It need not be so difficult.

I close with vintage Hunter.

"The new creation he speaks of is a reference to the Kingdom of God working in us and in the world; a different people and an alternative culture that is, nevertheless, integrated within the present culture. 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 distrinction 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."
67 of 88 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Buying the book because of the review... May 7 2010
By D. Harvey - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Hunter was interviewed about this book by Christopher Benson in Christianity Today, May 2010, pp.33-36. The quote that sold me on buying the book was at the end of the interview: "Christians need to abandon talk about 'redeeming the culture', 'advancing the kingdom', and 'changing the world'. Such talk carries too much weight, implying conquest and domination. If there is a possibility for human flourishing in our world, it does not begin when we win the culture wars but when God's word of love becomes flesh in us, reaching every sphere of social life. When faithful presence existed in church history, it manifested itself in the creation of hospitals and the flourishing of art, the best scholarship, the most profound and world-changing kind of service and care - again, not only for the household of faith but for everyone. Faithful presence isn't new; it's just something we need to recover [p.36]."

Hunter hopes that "faithful presence" does not get reduced to simple, individual pietism, "Faithful presence is not the work of the individual alone but also the individual in concert with the community [p.35]."

If the title leads the reader to think that this is another treatise on how evangelicals can conquer the world for Christ, Hunter clarifies, "...the title of my book is ironic, because I'm trying to disabuse people of changing the world. We cannot control history - God alone is its author. We're accountable for our actions as individual believers and as a body of believers.... The point is NOT to change the world but to serve faithfully in our relationships, tasks, and spheres of social influence [p.35]."

I am particularly looking forward to the second essay in which Hunter, according to CT reviewer Benson, lumps James Dobson, Jim Wallis and Stanley Hauerwas (!!!) together as "'functional Nietzsheans' insofar as their resentment fuels a will to power, which perpetuates rather than heals 'the dark nihilisms of the modern age'[p.33]."

The CT review was great. I am betting that the book is better.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Excellent Analysis of Culture April 27 2013
By Dave Ainsworth - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Kindle Edition
This book is excellent and deserves all the accolades it's received. If you're interested in how culture changes or the culture wars, it's a great book. I'm also a pastor, and found it a really helpful guide in how to think and talk about politics, culture, etc.

Divided into three substantially argued "essays," I found the first two essays particularly helpful. The first one argued against a traditional democratic view of cultural change (i.e., if only we could win enough people to our side, we could change culture), and showed that culture is changed in mostly unpredictable ways. Only God controls history. But, in as much as you can see it, cultural change does follow a pattern. Primarily, culture is affected through the influence of cultural centers and the elites who inhabit them. I.e., what happens at the New York Times is more influential than the Orlando Sentinel, which is more influential than the small-town gazette. This is not only true of present-day, as he illustrates through a quick retelling of church history. Hunter helpfully compares this to evangelical efforts at cultural change, which has typically believed in the democratic model, and explains why they have been far from effective at their effort to "take back America."

The second essay examines that aspiration in evangelicalism and in the broader culture -- to take back or take over the culture. To do this, he looks at the idea of power and will in late modern culture. This was the best part of the book for me. You will see culture differently, and see yourself differently after reading it. Basically, as Western culture has deteriorated and broken into many subcultures, people have little to share in terms of tradition, ideas, morality, etc. When this happens, the only thing left to hold us together is power, or the threat of power. I can't get you to agree with me through persuasion or compromise, but maybe I can get the government to make you agree with me -- through laws, policies, or litigation. This results in the politicization of everything and the growth of state influence in all of life. It also results in an overall hostility between groups, since politics is about winners and losers. This creates a spirit of "ressentiment" between parties, with each side demonizing the other. Unfortunately, Christians have taken up this posture as well, and have engaged our opponents in a power struggle. But in so doing, Hunter argues that we seriously damage the gospel we are trying to represent and share. He makes this clear by looking at the three main streams of Christian political thinking: conservative evangelicalism, progressive liberalism, and neo-Anabaptist thinking.

In the third essay, Hunter puts forward a positive alternative to these three, which he calls "a theology of faithful presence." I need to think more about this essay, especially his "problems of difference and dissolution" and the answer of the Incarnation. It was a little harder to translate these ideas into my experience. I also wasn't sure how much the three streams he criticized would disagree with "faithful presence" in principle, but I can see how in practice, faithful presence is not where they expend most of their efforts. I really appreciate how he calls for Christians to engage culture in a pattern of "affirmation and antithesis," not just through negation. In this essay, he's also really critical of "kingdom language," believing that it is too close to the power language which is so destructive in our culture today. But I don't know that it should be abandoned altogether, because it is biblical. And part of the witness of the church is in its re-orientation of kingdom and power. Jesus used kingdom language in a culture that misunderstood it, and in so doing challenged it. Don't we also need to use the language of kingdom and power as we seek to challenge our culture?

Since I enjoyed the first two essays so much, I'm tempted to blame the difficulty of the third essay on my fatigue. It is very clear and well-written with lots of helpful examples, but it is a thickly-argued book. He isn't afraid to take detours for a couple pages or chapters to examine or support his thesis. Towards the end, I wished that I wasn't reading it on my iPad, so I could have quickly thumbed through in review or to examine an argument more carefully. That said, he regularly restates his main points to help the reader.

All in all, it's worth the effort. I will come back to his analysis and idea of faithful presence often.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Necessary message for an over-politicized world Sept. 1 2010
By Timothy C. Archer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
Excellent book. Not a simple read, but a thought-provoking one. The message needs to be heard in today's over-politicized world.

The title is intended as a bit of irony, mainly because Hunter will argue that Christians can't change the world without being changed by the world in the process. He contends that the world is changed not only through ideas (worldview) but also through elites, networks, technology, and new institutions. World-changing implies power, power that typically is defined in terms of conquest and domination. When power is seen primarily in terms of political domination, it becomes the opposite of what Christians are called to be.

Hunter analyzes three types of Christian politics: the Christian right, the Christian left and the neo-Anabaptists. He calls these views toward culture, respectively, "defensive against," "relevance to," and "purity from." He sees these groups as utilizing ineffective means for engaging culture.

Hunter argues that the principal issues to be addressed are difference and dissolution: how do we relate to a world that is not our world and how do we deal with the "deconstruction of the most basic assumptions about reality." (p. 205) The solution that Hunter proposes is "faithful presence." Using Jeremiah 29:4-7 as his textual base, Hunter says that Christians should maintain their distinctiveness but do it in a way that serves the common good. He observes,

"In short, commitment to the new city commons is a commitment of the community of faith to the highest ideals and practices of human flourishing in a pluralistic world." (p. 279)

In the end, Hunter says that Christians shouldn't worry about changing the world, because the world, and history, cannot be controlled and managed. He states,

"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. ... 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." (pp.285-286)

Hunter says that Christians won't create a perfect world, but will help to make the world a little bit better.

Chapter abstracts of the book can be found on Hunter's website [...]
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