[This series of posts won’t be a traditional book review. Rather, I’ll summarize parts of To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, and then I’ll add my own thoughts. I may criticize the book here and there, but I don’t have much to criticize.]
The third and final essay in the book is “Toward a New City Commons: Reflections on a Theology of Faithful Presence.” This is where Hunter moves from critique to prescription.
I’m going to backtrack a bit. Hutson ends Essay 2 with a discussion of “Jesus and ‘Social’ Power,” which forms much of the basis for Essay 3. Hutson reviews the life and teachings of Jesus and concludes —
[T]he spirit that animates worldly power — whether held by individuals, social groups, communities, institutions, or social structures — naturally tends toward manipulation, domination, and control. Rooted in the deceptions of misdirected desire, it is a power that in its most coarse expressions would exploit, subjugate, and even enslave. …
It is this power and the spirit that animates it whose sovereignty Christ came to break.
Jesus broke the monopoly of this kind of power, demonstrating the possibility of a new kind of power, having at least these four characteristics —
First, his power was derived from his complete intimacy with and submission to his Father. …
[Second is] his rejection of status and reputation and the privilege that accompanies them. …
[Third,] he endured [those degradations] willingly because of his love for fallen humanity and for his creation more broadly. ..
[Fourth] the social power exercised by Christ was the noncoercive way in which he dealt with those outside the community of faith.
One of the consequence of framing discussion of power in political terms is that it removes the discussion from the power that operates in everyday life. It is perhaps an unintentional strategy of avoidance of what most people deal with day in and day out. Discussions of political power focus attention on those people and structures with whom the average person has little to do.
And, again, amen. Voter registration drives and lobbying efforts don’t have much to do with how to treat our neighbor across the street or on the other side of the tracks. And they are easier than dealing with those other people. And this brings us to Essay 3.
Hunter believes that the two biggest cultural challenges to the church are what he calls “difference” and “dissolution.” The problem of “difference” is the challenge of the church dealing with those outside our God-given community. The problem of “dissolution” deals with the nature of the Christian witness. How do we teach truth to a world that denies the existence of truth?
The modern world is different from even the recent past in the degree of pluralism the ordinary person experiences daily. We used to live in fairly homogenous communities with shared values and culture. This is no longer true for most of us. My youngest son brings home Hindus, Muslims, Catholics, lapsed Buddhists, nominal Communists, and atheists from school — right here in West Alabama. He doesn’t live in the world I grew up in!
In such a world, it’s hard to be a Christian, because there are few “plausibility structures” that continually affirm the rightness of the choice. When the papers, TV, and teachers rarely speak well of Christianity, it’s hard to feel assured of one’s opinions. This makes “faithfulness difficult and faithlessness almost natural.”
We live in an age where all truth is questioned and there is no final arbiter of which truth is true. Scholars have come to pursue doubt for its own sake. For example, when the President speaks, half the country doubts him no matter what he says. We don’t trust the government, the media, big business, the political parties, or major personalities. “Trust no one” is the mood of the times.
In such a context, it is difficult to imagine that there is a spiritual reality more real than the material world we live in.
Hunter next considers three possible approaches to cultural engagement: “defensive against,” “relevance to,” and “purity from.” Now, there is truth in all three — but none is enough. A Christianity defined by defensiveness will fail to truly seek and save the lost, but will rather seek to transform the world around it into a safe place for Christians. Worse yet, defensiveness turns the world and the lost into the enemy — rather than Satan and worldliness. And as in true in politics and sports, defense is all about seeking power over the other.
“Relevance to” is found both in theological liberalism, the seeker-church movement, and some within the emerging church. Relevance to modern needs is, of course, legitimate, provided the solution is a Bible-based theology rather than the pragmatism of the marketplace. You see, the need may not be for slicker brochures in the church lobby and coffee bars in the church building. It may just be a return to true Christianity.
“Purity from” is also a scriptural concern — unless we consider the world so fallen that we need to flee the world. Of course, some aspects of the world should be fled from, but we aren’t allowed to leave the world — not yet, not ever. Rather, the story of the Bible is preparation for God coming to the world, not our leaving the world.
An alternative way
[H]owever inadequate or pitiful the church may seem at times (and may, in fact, be), where the scripture is proclaimed, the sacraments administered, and the people of God continue to seek to follow God in word and deed, God is at work; the Holy Spirit is still very much active.
Hunter then gives examples of some astonishingly good and sacrificial works by Christian. But if such great things are happening, what’s the problem?
The problem is that these initiatives represent just a fraction of the potential within the church to bear witness to the love, grace, mercy, and truth of Christ. … What has been missing is a leadership that comprehends the nature of these challenges and offers a vision of formation adequate to the task of discipling the church and its members for a time such as ours.
Amen. If half the energy expended on politics had been converted to serving others — through food banks, environmental restoration efforts, missions, church plants, reaching out the neediest in society — the church would be vastly more effective at changing the culture. And Hunter is exactly right to blame the leaders.
Both evangelism and the practice of spiritual disciplines are, of course, central to the Christian life, but Scripture suggests that there is more to formation than those things. In Christ’s own words, making disciples entails “teaching them to observe all things that [he] commanded [them]. … Formation — the task of making disciples — is oriented toward the cultivation of faithfulness in the totality of life.
True formation, Hunter argues, renews all of life, and this requires a certain kind of church community —
In formation, it is the culture and the community that gives shape and expression to it that is the key. Healthy formation is impossible without a healthy culture embedded within the warp and woof of community.
Therefore, churches must be much more intentional about community formation than was necessary in the past — because we face a culture that is not supportive of what Jesus wants from us.
Hunter sees shalom — Hebrew for “peace” — as the natural order of things God always intended, a return to Eden, and the purpose of God’s redemptive work throughout history — especially in Jesus. God not only condemns opposition to shalom, he works in history to produce shalom. He cites —
(1Pe 2:1 ESV) 9 But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 10 Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy.
11 Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. 12 Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation.
Regular readers know that I bring this passage up every few days. We are to live as resident aliens — but not in ghettos, hidden away from the locals, but doing such good works in the name of God that the natives — the world — glorify God.
Therefore, we need to offer the world affirmation — that is, recognize that there is good in the world, despite its brokenness. It’s not utterly black and evil. Some of God’s image remains. God’s image is cracked but not obliterated. Some call this “common grace.” God offers gifts to the lost as well as the saved. The good that exists in the world is from God — and the church, of all people, should recognize it.
Therefore, Christians can, in honor of God, do culture making within the world. If a Christian architect builds a beautiful building for secular purposes, he’s participating in God’s common grace — indeed, he is God’s instrument. Although the Christian is not directly kingdom building, he still glorifies God in the secular world simply by being a part God’s common grace within the secular world.
Hunter then declares,
Let me finally stress that any good that is generated by Christians is only the net effect of caring for something more than the good created. If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, in other words, 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 honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.
This one requires some chewing. You see, if I compose a great pop tune to change the world for the better, well, that’s a bit much to ask from a pop tune. But if I compose a great pop tune out of love for the world and to honor God, then I’m no longer being manipulative and seeking to use my power as a great pop tune composer to change people. Rather, I’m acting out of a selfless love — which is the only kind of love that will change the world.
I see it this way. The idea is to not change the pop music industry into a means of manipulating people into the baptistery. Rather, it’s to express love for God and love for people in whatever we do — without regard to whether it produces baptisms. After all, if our true motivation is baptisms, rather than love, we’ve narrowed God’s love so much that we exclude God’s common grace in us. God makes in rain on the just and the unjust. We must do good for the just and the unjust.
Although Christians should affirm the image of God, despite the brokenness of the image, even among the lost, and even though Christians should participate in God’s common grace, the church must always be a “community of resistance.” Resistance is no mere abstraction. Rather, the church must offer an alternative way of life — not just as the church lives as the church but as Christians live in the world. Therefore, “the church and its people will challenge all structures that dishonor God, dehumanize people, and neglect or do harm to the creation.”
This life isn’t negative. Rather,
the objective is to retrieve the good to which modern institutions and ideas implicitly or explicitly aspire; to oppose those ideals and structures that undermine human flourishing, and to offer constructive alternatives for the realization of a better way.
Hunter expresses this in terms of the creation mandate —
When people are saved by God through faith in Christ they are not only being saved from their sins, they are saved in order to resume the tasks mandated at creation, the task of caring for and cultivating a world that honors God and reflects his character and glory. …
Formation is about learning to live the alternative reality of the kingdom of God within the present world faithfully. … Christians must renounce the dominant script of the world and embrace the alternative script that is rooted in the Bible and enacted through the tradition of the church.