Book Reviews

To Change The World? #2

July 8, 2012

Scott Todd’s, Fast Living: How The Church Will End Extreme Poverty, is pretty much the antithesis of Hunter’s book that we looked at in my last post, and is a great illustration of the ‘to change the world’ rhetoric that he so decries. Written from his senior position within Compassion International, Todd’s aim is to convince Christians that, ‘with God’s grace and power, we will bring an end to poverty within the next twenty-five years’. In the same way that Hunter is seeking to expose the fallacy behind those who want to change the world, Todd is seeking to do exactly the same (but at a much more popular level) to those who don’t think the world can be changed. I hope it’s immediately obvious why reading this book alongside Hunter’s makes for such an interesting dialogue!

The problem, for him, comes from setting our expectations too low: as he says, ‘expectations sit in a little control center beneath the earth of the mind. They operate the levers of interpretation and assumption that unleash or choke our hopes. When low expectation sits on that seat and pulls those levers, he is a little tyrant closing the valves of vision, dialing down the voltage of hope, and cutting off the power of action’.

The book, therefore, is a passionate exploration of the theme of poverty in the Bible (not least of what Jesus meant when he uttered those infamous words, ‘the poor will always be with you’) and of how we can respond to it today, mixed in with lots of inspiring stories, both from Todd’s work with Compassion and from others in history.

So what’s going on in this conversation between Hunter’s model of ‘faithful presence’ and Todd’s model of ‘we can end poverty’? I think we can uncover this by looking at some of their weaknesses:

1. Hunter’s three categories make for very interesting reading and contain good insights, yet they do not quite work. The Christian Right category is good, but he runs into trouble when he attempts to maintain a clear distinction between the ‘relevant to’ and the ‘purity from’ categories. Hunter’s characterisation of the Christian Left is accurate so far as it goes, but when one reads his account of the Neo-Anabaptists it becomes clear that the rigid boundary lines that he tries to establish simply do not work. Knowing some of the names Hunter places within the Christian Left as I do, I know that they would find their identity also in the Neo-Anabaptist depiction. In particular, they would read his description of ‘faithful presence’ and say, ‘yeah and? Isn’t that exactly what we’re doing?’

2. There is much that I like about Hunter’s model of ‘faithful presence’. I really couldn’t do it justice in my last post and there is no substitute for reading what he says himself. However, I struggle with his presentation of this model as his ‘big idea’, having rubbished practically everybody else within Evangelicalism. I read his description and think, ‘but isn’t this what we’ve been doing for years, in our communities, at work, in our families?’

There is also something in me that struggles with the quietist nature of the ‘faithful presence’ model. When I think of what Greg has achieved in his fight for ethical jewellery and fairtrade gold, and is still working towards, that has not come about out of a desire to be faithfully present: but out of a deep rage and sense of injustice and a desire, dare I say it, to change the world.

3. It might be surprising, therefore, that one of my biggest problems with Todd’s book is precisely his assertion that it is possible to change the world and that we can end poverty in twenty-five years. I hesitate to vocalise this, because I know this then makes me exactly the person Todd is trying to target! I am also deeply touched by his work and by his call: he has seen desperate poverty and is determined to give his life to seeing it ended. He is right to do so and we should ‘spend ourselves’ similarly.

I hate to say it, though, but the reality is that poverty is not going to be ended. And the danger for many people is that if that is the expectation then they will struggle to maintain their passion without reaching burn-out. Maybe I would tell Todd that it is not that I have low expectations: simply that my expectations are aimed at a different target to his. And this is where all that is good within Hunter’s ‘faithful presence’ comes back in.

So where does this leave us: can we change the world or not, and should we even be trying? As with all good conversations, each partner needs the other. I think a good place to finish is in a quote from To Change the World, which Hunter himself italicises: ‘If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, 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 honour the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfilment of God’s command to love our neighbour’.

What I want to know though is, do the two have to be mutually incompatible?

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  • Reply Ben Niblett July 8, 2012 at 9:59 pm

    I don’t think we can end poverty because I read Deuteronomy 15:1-11 as saying that we should do, but will never manage it. But we certainly can reduce poverty massively. There will always be poor people among us, but there’s a lot we can do about how many people are poor and how poor they will be.

    And indeed the number of people in absolute poverty – living on the equivalent of less than $1.25 a day – roughly halved from 1990 to 2010, nicely summed up in this Economist article though it’s worth noting that most of that’s down to economic growth in China and poor people elsewhere are much likelier to have remained poor. (That’s absolute poverty, not having enough to eat, rather than relative poverty and inequality which seem more completely biblical measures of poverty to me – but it’s still good news).

    How on earth can loving God not make you itch to change the world? Beats me.

  • Reply mattcurrey July 9, 2012 at 9:46 pm

    Thanks for the 2 blog posts contrasting the 2 differing perspectives. I think its an important debate and a debate that need to lead to even better action and engagement. As Dr Scott Todd says, we are not there yet!

    I agree with both you and Ben in that both biblical theology and history would suggest to us that eradication of poverty is perhaps quite arguably an impossible dream. But absolutely that this should not in anyway equate to inaction, indifference and a lack of hope. The biblical and again historical/societal perspectives show us that engagement is vital.

    I wonder if some of this comes down to seeing the wider perspective of what is poverty and whilst it is economic it is also a lot more complex than this.

    I love the italicised quote and that needs to be held up along with the outrage and passion that is righteous and prophetic and fires the head and heart to play a part in making a difference!

  • Reply Colin Bell July 10, 2012 at 8:15 am

    Thanks for these thoughts, Ruth. A big debate as you note. I’ve not read either book so these thoughts are a bit tentative, but hopefully helpful.

    I wonder if there are two different ideas of change. Todd seems to be suggesting that a permanent end to poverty is possible, whereas the “faithful presence” idea would lead to the idea that we do what we can to deal with poverty in our own time and/or location but that the fundamental problem (sin, leading to greed and corrupted institutions, etc) can never be dealt with, and it’s in this sense that the poor will always be with us.

    A picture to put this in context: we can “change” a garden by weeding it, watering it, pruning and so on, but this doesn’t mean that the same things are going to need doing again next week or next year. (And the fact they do, doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing those things now.)

    Should be helpful to think of this in terms of eschatology, the kingdom of God and hope as well. What Richard Bauckham said about hope at the Communicating Hope conference partly underlies what I’ve written above, but seeing the ultimate principles of the Kingdom as something to aim for and hope for while also knowing that they cannot be achieved this side of the Second Coming should provide a motivation for realistic action.

    Having said that, I’ve also been looking a bit at postmillenial theology, which seems to argue that a human-led transformation of the world _is_ possible, although I’m not sure how it works. I wonder if Todd et al are motivated by that line of thinking.

    • Reply ruthvalerio July 10, 2012 at 8:26 pm

      That’s helpful, Colin. Post-millenial theology may well be a factor here: I’d be interested to discover whether or not that is the case.

  • Reply ruthvalerio July 10, 2012 at 8:28 pm

    I wonder how much of this ‘theology’ doesn’t actually come down to personality type, in that some of us naturally get fired up and want to change the world, and some of us naturally want to settle down to be faithfully present?

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