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In a culture where evangelicals are at odds as to how to relate to culture, James Davidson Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, has set off a perfect storm, and I highly recommend you pick up a copy and read for yourself.

See Christianity Today’s Interview with Hunter.

See Chuck Colson’s Response.

See Andy Crouch’s Response.

See Hunter’s Counter-Response to Both.

Hunter’s work comes to us in three essays.  You may see abstracts of each chapter on Hunter’s website.  In Essay I, Hunter argues that the way Christians have gone about engaging culture is all wrong.  Wrong approaches include both the idealism of Christians who believe that if we simply change the hearts and minds of people (through evangelism, politics, social reform), then we will re-Christianize culture (a la Chuck Colson) AND the cultural materialism of Christians who believe that if we simply produce enough “new cultural goods, concrete, tangible artifacts, whether books or tools or buildings” (28), then we will change culture (a la Andy Crouch).  Instead, Hunter argues that cultural change is more complex than either just changing ideas 0r producing new artifacts.  Culture includes both ideas and artifacts, to be sure, but what both approaches fail to account for is the institutional nature of culture.  Hunter argues that “cultural change at its most profound level occurs through dense networks of elites operating in common purpose within institutions at the high-prestige centers of cultural production” (274).  Of course, this is an oversimplification of his argument in Essay I; however, it provides the big idea that underlies his argument: culture change does not occur at the grass roots as Christians have thought; it happens from the top down.

In Essay II, Hunter argues that “world-changing implies power and the implicit theories of power that have long guided their exercise of power are also deeply problematic” (274), for “the working theory of power (whether from religious right or left) is still influenced by Constantinian tendencies toward conquest and domination” (274).  All one has to do is see how both the religious right and left have approached contemporary politics t0 see how both seek power to impose their particular brand of evangelicalism on culture.

Finally, in Essay III, Hunter argues against the paradigms of cultural engagement of the Christian right (“defensive against” – i.e., cultural secularism), the Christian left (“relevance to” – i.e., contemporary culture) and the Neo-Anabaptists (“purity from” – i.e., the world), and instead proposes what he calls the idea of “faithful presence within” this world in which we are exiles and sojourners.  In other words, Hunter argues that our calling is not to change the world, but to be faithfully present in this world in every sphere of life, as the incarnate people of God who point to the God who became faithfully present into this world through Jesus Christ, who forever remains faithfully present with His people.

It is essential, in my view, to abandon altogether talk of “redeeming the culture,” “advancing the kingdom,” “building the kingdom,” “transforming the world,” “reclaiming the culture,” and “changing the world.”  Christians need to leave such language behind them because it carries too much weight.  It implies conquest, take-over, or dominion, which in my view is precisely what God does not call us to pursue — at least not in any conventional, twentieth- or twenty-first century way of understanding these terms (280).

We are not to change culture, for this world is not our home; we are to be faithfully present in this world as Israel was faithfully present in Babylon: as exiles who were seeking the welfare of that culture.  For, like Israel who was looking to be restored to the land, the earthly Jerusalem, we are exiles in this foreign land looking for the new heavens and earth where righteousness dwells.  Until then, we are to live out the Shalom of God in every sphere of life, pointing to the promise of future Shalom at the consummation of the kingdom.

I think Hunter helps us greatly in advancing the discussion concerning culture in that he exposes and critiques historically faulty approaches, yet he does not merely leave us with a critique.  Hunter provides a helpful proposal that hopefully will propel the conversation forward in the right directions.

Be sure to check out Justin Taylor’s site for helpful chapter summaries on To Change the World.

Finally, here is Greg Gilbert on To Change the World.

Categories : Church, Commentary, Politics

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