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

To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern WorldTo Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book will need to gestate for a while. There’s no way I can write a review at the moment. I can only offer initial impressions as to its value: I simply found his analysis of major Christian ways to view culture more intuitive—and more immediately helpful—than Niebuhr or even Carson. If I were you, I’d actually read the last chapter first, then go back and read the book. I wish I had; I like to be oriented first before I read a substantive book. In any case, that last chapter carries this great orienting paragraph:

The three political theologies discussed in Essay II are, in fact, the leading public edge of more complex paradigms of cultural engagement that I call “defensive against,” “relevance to,” and “purity from.” In using this phrase, “paradigms of cultural engagement,” I do not mean to propose anything as ambitious and inclusive as a formal conceptual model, akin to the one proposed by H. Richard Niebuhr in his masterwork, Christ and Culture. I merely refer to relatively different understandings of the world, ways of being in the world, and ways of relating to the world. These are, in short, different ways of thinking about and pursuing faithfulness in the world.

“Defensive against” is the Religious Right (think Falwell and Robertson). “Relevance to” is the Religious Left (think Sojourners, Jim Wallis, Randall Balmer). “Purity from” is the contemporary Anabaptist tradition (think John Howard Yoder). Hunter proposes an alternative that recognizes value in all three of these approaches but argues that all three are implicitly endorsing a will-to-power mode of cultural change. Hunter’s proposal is “faithful presence.”

As I read the book, knowing that “faithful presence” was Hunter’s thing, I kept feeling that it was too vague—until I got to the final chapters. While it could be developed much more, especially in practical ways, Hunter’s vision does seem to me to bid fair to be an alternative to the other three visions he critiques. It calls for promoting faith, hope, and love in whatever cultural space you occupy. Whether or not Hunter’s “faithful presence” creates intellectual/theological space for other writers to fill will, I think, be an acid test of his vision.

A final, sort of scattered thought: I’m not sure how different Hunter is in practice from Andy Crouch. He explicitly disclaims any idea of “redeeming the culture,” but he himself writes that the practical examples of faithful presence he gives “are less a blueprint to be applied than a catalyst for thinking about other imaginative possibilities for the transformation of culture in business, the arts, medicine, housing, and the like.”

Mark Ward

PhD in NT; theological writer for Faithlife; former high school Bible textbook author for BJU Press; husband; father; ultimate frisbee player; member of the body of Christ.

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