To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World
James Davison Hunter
Oxford University Press, 2010
368 pp., $31.95
How Not to Change the World
When it comes to Christians attempting to do some good in the wider world, Hunter finds very few he can put in a good light. Charles Colson is dismissed as a quasi-Hegelian idealist based on his enthusiasm for worldview education, rather than recognized for his considerable network-convening savvy. Gabe Lyons's Fermi Project comes in for sustained examination only for its sometimes glib promotional material, not for the work it is doing to build overlapping networks of young élites in some vital cultural centers. The patient and wide-ranging intelligence of Os Guinness is similarly passed over in the course of making a point about evangelical individualism. Hunter devotes several pages, rather than just an endnote, to dismissing my own book Culture Making, and some of his criticisms, as of the others mentioned, are fair as far as they go. But a reader of his summary would never guess how much my book and his overlap in their fundamental concerns and final vision.
A truly cultural agenda, putting our power to deeper and better use than the rehearsal of ressentiment, is one of the most important callings Christians could possibly embrace. Hunter offers a crucial alternative to the political and anti-political camps of Right, Left, and Yoder. But such a movement will require partners. Dismissing most of your potential allies is no way to build a movement. And there is a deeper concern as well. To his credit, Hunter is keenly aware that cultural power brings with it the corrosive quest for status. "The social dynamics of status," he observes in a brief but penetrating section, "are really fundamentally about the dynamics of exclusion." It is hard not to sense these dynamics at work in Hunter's selective sketch of the scholarly and cultural landscape. If there is any difference between the élite-driven world he sketches in essay one and the beloved community he describes in essay three, it must involve generosity even toward those one sees as mistaken. One can only hope that whatever cultural power Hunter gains from this book will lead to the kind of intentional and sacrificial friendship that he so eloquently commends as elements of faithful presence.
That said, I celebrate the possibilities opened up by this book. It is groundbreaking, it is comprehensive, and it is visionary. Above all, it is wise, both sociologically and theologically. No Christian entrusted with institutional leadership or cultural power should miss the chance to read it. It will be provoking better Christian conversations about culture for years to come, and may well help our secular neighbors understand what Christians really are, or should be, aiming for—even when we use slogans like "to change the world." Bravo.
Andy Crouch is a senior editor at Christianity Today International. He is working on a book on cultural power.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
Click here for reprint information on Books & Culture.