This is the the book that changes everything. At last, we have a solid, intellectually sound understanding of where the church goes from here.
To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World challenges assumption after assumption, leaving the Dobsons, Wallises, and even the McLarens and the Hauerwases behind, urging a return to genuine Christianity, a kind of Christianity that we’ve very nearly forgotten how to live. I mean, this is a big, big deal. Required reading for all church leaders.
Now, it’s not written at a popular level. Hunter likes to use words like “dialectical” and, as a result, this is not an easy read. But that’s no criticism. The transformation of the church has to begin with a sound theology and philosophy, and so it’s only right that such a book be written in such intellectual terms. There will be books yet to come that popularize the ideas and help re-write the DNA of American Christianity. (Be in prayer that this happens!)
Despite not being an easy read, this book should be required reading for every Bible student at every level. No one should graduate with a degree in Bible, ministry, theology, or homiletics without having read this. And every preacher should be thinking about how to communicate these thoughts in the language of the ordinary church goer. We all need to hear Hunter’s lessons.
I’ll try to cover the book in more detail in future posts, but for now, let me give a broad outline. The book is written in three essays —
1. Christianity and World Changing
2. Rethinking Power
3. Toward a New City Commons: Reflections on a Theology of Faithful Presence
Essay 1 deals with the difficulties inherent in the “culture wars.” Culture doesn’t change just because we convert more people to Christianity. After all, we live in a nation that’s already 85% Christian, and yet culture continues to move away from Christian values. Rather, culture change is overwhelmingly influenced by culture-making centers — major universities, newspapers, media centers, etc. USA Today has a larger circulation than the New York Times, but the Times has a much larger influence on American culture. The University of Alabama has more students than Harvard, but Harvard’s influence on culture is vastly greater than Alabama’s.
Therefore, the church cannot change culture by forming parallel institutions. The Christian Chronicle will never have the cultural influence of the Times. Pepperdine University will not have the influence of Princeton. And it has nothing to do with numbers. It’s all about networks of influence. The fact is that far more Ivy League graduates wind up in positions of cultural influence than graduates of Pepperdine. Hunter explains in his Christianity Today interview —
By and large, American Christianity has produced a huge cultural economy, but it operates on the periphery of status rather than in the center. The importance of cultural capital is determined not by quantity but by quality. Quality is measured according to the kind of status it attracts, and status is almost always measured by exclusivity. As I note in my book, evangelicalism boasts a billion-dollar book publishing industry, yet the books produced are largely ignored by The New York Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The Washington Post Book World, and other key arbiters of public intellectual argument.
Populism underwrites American Christianity, especially within evangelicalism. That populism speaks to cherished values, but it also works against the dynamics of cultural change. The main reason Christian believers today lack influence in the culture, despite their aspirations, is not because they don’t believe enough or try hard enough or think Christianly enough. It’s because they’ve been absent from the arenas in which the greatest influence in the culture is exerted. The culture-producing institutions of Christianity are largely marginalized in the economy of culture formation in North America. Its cultural capital is greatest where leverage in the larger culture is weakest.
In short, by retreating from the centers of cultural formation, we’ve unilaterally disarmed and turned the culture over to those with an anti-Christian agenda.
Essay 2 deals with the three dominant views in American Christianity. The Christian Right is all about gaining political power to return the United States to being a Christian nation. The Christian Left is all about gaining political power to make the United States into the Christian nation it never was. Thus, both Dobson and Wallis, right and left, seek to use political power for Christian ends.
The third movement is the neo-Anabaptist movement, described by such writers as Stanley Hauerwas and John Howard Yoder. The neo-Anabaptists reject the use of power for Christian ends, as contrary to the nature of Jesus and scriptural teaching. But because the neo-Anabaptist perspective is defined as a reaction against the abuse of power by the first two, it’s still defined in terms of political power, and so not fully defined in terms of scripture.
As Hunter states in the Christianity Today interview,
The second essay argues that “the public witness of the church today has become a political witness.” Hunter critiques the political theologies of the Christian Right, Christian Left, and neo-Anabaptists, showing that unlikely bedfellows—James Dobson, Jim Wallis, and Stanley Hauerwas—are all “functional Nietzscheans” insofar as their resentment fuels a will to power, which perpetuates rather than heals “the dark nihilisms of the modern age.”
The third essay speaks to the necessity of the church returning to the biblical strategy of “faithful presence.” The first step is to stop thinking in political terms. You can’t save the world through politics.
The problem here is not just the historical question—was America ever a Christian nation?—but the theological question, should America be a Christian nation? If you don’t believe that America was ever or should ever be a Christian nation, you will evaluate cultural changes from a different vantage point. Some changes might be destructive, but you will not feel obliged to save America or to save the West. That’s not the burden of faithful presence in the world. …
All Americans think about power primarily in political terms. We tend to conflate our understanding of public life with political life; they occupy the same symbolic space. Politics involves the mechanisms of the state. Over the course of the 20th century, all Americans—and Christians, not the least—have turned more and more to the state to solve their problems. That’s true for the Left as well as the Right. Since law is the language of the state, we should note that law increases as cultural consensus decreases.
The church is trying to use the power of the state to create a Christian nation, because we assume that “public life” and “political life” are the same. Hunter urges us to remain very much public but not at all political.
The state is the sole legitimate source of coercion and violence. When Christians turn to law, public policy, and politics as the last resort, they have essentially given up on a desire to persuade their opponents. They want the patronage of the state and its coercive power to rule the day.
True, isn’t it? The church pushes for the government to make the world a better place, rather than looking to God. It’s a form of idolatry. It’s not that there’s no role for government; rather, the mistake is in seeing the government as the battleground and the goal — as though gaining control of the US Supreme Court will bring the Rapture.
What makes this problematic, in my view, is that the dominant public witness of the church is political, rooted in narratives of injury and discourses of negation. The sense of deprivation among Christians leads to an ethic of revenge, or what Nietzsche called ressentiment. In different ways and to different degrees, the prevailing political theologies in American society today—the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and even the neo-Anabaptists—partake in that ressentiment and consequent will to power. And here’s the tragic irony: Whenever Christian churches and organizations partake in the will to power, they partake in the very thing they decry in society.
Amen. The church is working hard to gain victim status and so gain political and legal power to protect itself. We are following the identical strategy as the gay rights movement, making us just another special interest coming to Congress for legal protection.
The alternative is faithful presence —
By focusing too much on political power, we overlook how social power plays out in everyday relationships and institutions. There are four characteristics to the social power that Jesus exercised. First, his power was derivative—originating from intimacy and submission to his Father. Second, his power was humble—rejecting the privileges of status and reputation, suffering indignities with joy. Third, his power was compassionate—serving the good of all and not just the good of the community of faith. And fourth, his power was noncoercive—blessing rather than cursing “the other,” as we can see from his encounters with Samaritans and Romans.
Our modern strategies just won’t work —
All the paradigms speak to authentic biblical concerns. Yet the desire to be relevant to the world has come at the cost of abandoning distinctiveness. The desire to be defensive against the world is rooted in a desire to retain distinctiveness, but this has been manifested in ways that are, on one hand, aggressive and confrontational, and, on the other, culturally trivial and inconsequential. And the desire to be pure from the world entails a withdrawal from active presence in huge areas of social life. In contrast to these paradigms, the desire for faithful presence in the world calls on the entire laity, in all vocations—ordinary and extraordinary, “common” and rarefied—to enact the shalom of God in the world.
If there is a possibility for human flourishing in our world, it does not begin when we win the culture wars but when God’s word of love becomes flesh in us, reaching every sphere of social life. When faithful presence existed in church history, it manifested itself in the creation of hospitals and the flourishing of art, the best scholarship, the most profound and world-changing kind of service and care—again, not only for the household of faith but for everyone. Faithful presence isn’t new; it’s just something we need to recover.
These are not easy thoughts, and so I’m going to try to sort through them in future posts. I’m not sure about the timing; it may take a while. But as I have time and energy, I’ll sort through these ideas in greater detail. In the mean time, take the book with you on your next vacation and spend a few hours having your world turned upside down.