To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010, 368 pp.
By James Hunter
“’To change hearts and minds’ has been the goal of modern Christians seeking to correct a culture deemed fallen and morally lax. Hunter (Culture Wars), a distinguished professor of religion, culture, and social theory at the University of Virginia, finds this approach pervasive among Christians of all stripes and in every case deeply flawed. It can even ‘undermine the message of the very gospel they cherish and desire to advance.’ In three ‘essays’—groups of chapters developing a concept—Hunter charts the history of Christian assumptions and efforts, investigates the nature of power and politics in Christian life and thought, and then proposes a theologically sound alternative: what he calls the practice of ‘faithful presence.’ This practice has ‘benevolent consequences… precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world…but rather it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth.’ Well reasoned and thought provoking, Hunter’s corrective argument for authentic Christian engagement with the world is refreshing, persuasive, and inspiring.
Nicholas Wolterstorff, Noah Porter Professor Emeritus of Philosophical Theology at Yale University:
“To Change the World is a wonderful book in too many ways to tell. Hunter takes a topic that has become tired and weary from over-much talk and infuses it with new life, the topic of how Christians can change the world. He compellingly argues that all the main parties to the discussion assume that change will come about if laypeople just get the right thoughts in their heads and then apply them; change will ooze up from below. He argues, with a fascinating blend of social theory and historical examples, that cultural change rarely if ever comes about this way. It is cultural elites who spur cultural change. The model that he then proposes for how Christians should relate to culture, in place of the defensive, accomodationist, and isolationist models that fill the air, is what he calls ‘faithful presence.’ The book is a feat of great intellectual imagination, lucidly written, theoretically sophisticated, balanced and thorough, wide-ranging in its examples. No one who thinks about these matters can afford to ignore it.”
Charles Taylor, author of A Secular Age:
“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 and 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.”
Robert Bellah, co-author of Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life:
“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.”
Tim Keller, author of Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises of Money, Sex, and Power, and the Only Hope that Matters:
“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.”