I’ve recently read two books that have, unknowingly, had a very interesting conversation with each other. That conversation has given me a lot to think about and I hope you’ll find it interesting if I share it with you. I don’t want my posts to be too long so in this first one I’ll look at the book that has lent itself to the blog title (and lends itself to a fuller review), then in my next post I’ll look at the second book and give my thoughts.
JD Hunter’s, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, has become a much-quoted (and hopefully much-read) book in ‘thinking’ Evangelical circles, tackling, as he does, how American Evangelicals approach contemporary culture. He does this in three ways.
Firstly, Hunter looks at American Evangelicalism’s obsession with the rhetoric of ‘changing the world’: a rhetoric that has come in as they have grown increasingly concerned with the lack of influence they have on American culture and the increase of the perceived evils of secularism and liberalism. (Although Hunter’s focus is on American Evangelicals, I’m sure many of us reading this post from other countries will feel very familiar with the language of ‘changing the world’ too.) However, for all the good intentions, Hunter’s contention is that they are wholly wrong: they will never ‘change the world’ because they do not understand that cultural change does not come through changing the hearts and minds of individuals and focussing on the political sphere. Instead, cultural change is much more complex: it is difficult to change; one cannot really guess what will work and what will not, and culture is changed by what he describes as ‘peripheral elites’, rather than by a bottom-up approach. (This is only a snap-shot of a very lengthy discussion which really deserves much more attention than I’m giving it here.)
Secondly, Hunter looks at three major approaches to cultural engagement in American Evangelicalism, classifying those as ‘defensive against’, ‘relevant to’, and, ‘purity from’. The ‘defensive against’ model relates to the Christian Right who see the secular liberal American culture – with its divorce, abortion on demand, illiteracy, out-of-wedlock births, crime, drugs, family breakup, gay rights and violence – as attacking traditional Christian values and hence the moral framework of the country. The ‘relevant to’ model represents the politically progressive Christian Left. Sharply antagonistic to the ‘defensive against’ people, they wish to stand up politically for all that the Christian Right have neglected, issues of social equality and environmental care. Key figures here include Ron Sider and Jim Wallis. Standing slightly apart from the ‘defensive against’ and the ‘relevant to’ categories are those that Hunter defines as ‘purity from’. These are the Neo-Anabaptists; sharing similar concerns with the Christian Left, but operating within a more separatist model.
Thirdly, Hunter puts forward his own paradigm of Christian engagement; that of ‘faithful presence’, based on a reading of Jeremiah 29. In doing so he aims to counteract his perception of the key weakness of the Christian Right and Left in their search for a Constantinian political power, and also the key weakness of the Neo-Anabaptists in their withdrawal from the world. ‘Faithful presence’, for Hunter, is about living as God’s people in the culture in which we find ourselves, living distinctively as a community, but in ways that ‘serve the common good’, seeking ways to be a blessing to our world. The focus is not on changing the world but on worshipping God and honouring him in all that we do.
To sum up, James Hunter’s book is very, very good and repays indepth reading. I have a couple of major frustrations with it, but they will have to wait till my next post…