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To Change The World by James Davison Hunter: Five Years Later

Five years have passed since James Davison Hunter published To Change the World. It had significant influence on evangelical intellectuals. Over these years, many people have inquired of me as to what I think of the book expecting a positive (if not effusive) response from me. But I’ve always had mixed feelings about the book. There’s much I align with in it. But ultimately the book leaves me unsatisfied with both its take on Anabaptism and the alternative approach it offers for the church’s engagement with the world, what Hunter calls “faithful presence.” In a few weeks, I’ll be (finally) submitting my own manuscript (IVP 2016) entitled “Faithful Presence’ which, in an indirect way, is a response to To Change the World. In lieu of this forthcoming book, I’d like to revisit where I’m at with the book and get some feedback. Give me some feedback? Tell me where I’m off? Help me out here?

HUNTER’S GENERAL CRITIQUE OF THE AMERICAN CHURCH’S ENGAGEMENT WITH CULTURE

Hunter’s diagnosis on the American church’s engagement with culture still holds in my view. Hunter says conservatives (“defensive against”) and liberals (relevance to”) alike have tried to play the power game in trying to influence American culture. They both have sought to win the culture through political (which means nation-state politics for Hunter) means. In the process one side (conservatives) has become isolated from the broader culture in their defensiveness. The other side has become absorbed into the culture and lost its voice. They both in effect ended up losing. Neither has effected much change.

Hunter says American Christians have operated under the illusion they could change culture through changing the hearts and minds of individuals. Hunter says this ignores how culture works. People are not so much changed by believing in ideas as to how they have been shaped by a culture. Culture, for Hunter, is shaped by the powerful institutions, networks and producers of culture run by elites. Therefore, as much good work as local churches might do by teaching individuals about world view and campaigning for culture change, ultimately they shall be absorbed by the culture surrounding them if the culture is not changed at the production level.

In this regard, evangelicalism has been woefully inadequate at forming culture-making institutions. We have mimicked the broader culture with “parallel institutions” that produce inferior cultural products that mimick the larger culture. In this process however, all we’ve done is create a new market niche that gets absorbed into the wider culture. We end up with no counter cultural impact. Worse, our own culture-making bridges Christians into further absorption into the larger culture.

All this reveals the woeful inadequacy of a church’s engagement (both evangelical and mainline protestant Christians) with our existing culture and why so little impact has been made. This is all helpful analysis. The first essay in To Change the World is a superb foundational essay for teaching the problem of church and culture. I endorse most if not all of it.  

ANABAPTISM?

Hunter, however, in my opinion, does less than stellar work in the next essay in his engagement with Neo-Anabaptism (I distinguish Neo-Anabaptist from historical Anabaptism). Over against the conservative right (“defensive from” – Dobson) and liberal left (“relevance to” – Wallis) engagements with culture, Hunter says there is a third option (“purity from”- Yoder/Hauerwas) in Neo-Anabaptism. In his account of Neo-Anabaptism however, he gives what I call the standard account of Anabaptism. In other words, he chastises Neo-Anabaptists for their sectarian refusal to engage the world. He specifically chastises their allergy to engaging ‘power’ on the world’s terms. Hunter argues power is pervasive and unavoidable. It is the way the world works and even the church cannot be immune from the exercise of power (there are echos here of a Reinhold Niebuhrianism). Yet, for Hunter, the Neo-Anabaptists neuter themselves. They see ‘powerlessness’ as the Christian posture in the world (181-183). Neo-Anabaptists refuse to become complicit with the structures of power that rule the present age. Therefore, in their purity, Neo-Anabaptists end up withdrawing from any meaningful engagement in culture.

This, for me, is a misunderstanding of Yoder and Hauerwas if there ever was one. For these two thinkers, there will be times when the church must refuse to cooperate with the powers when such powers are in rebellion towards God. This will be an activist withdrawal drawing attention to the injustice by refusing participation. But there will be times we also will cooperate. The difference between Hauerwas/Yoder and Hunter is for Hauerwas and Yoder this must be discerned each time, for Hunter this cooperation is (in some ways) assumed.

Hunter argues that it is inevitable that power will be wielded wherever we go. But then he says “But the means of influence and the ends of influence must conform to the exercise of power modeled by Christ.” (p. 254) Here he sounds strangely neo-Anabaptist (again). But in the end a dose of (H. Richard) Niebuhrianism hangs over Hunters’ analysis such that he cannot ultimately go the Anabaptist way. By this I mean he refuses to see the church as a political entity unto itself with its own cultural integrity and way of living in power. For Hunter, politics seems to be entirely the arena of the nation-state. The church itself does not embody a politics. The church therefore is persona non-gratis as a political reality for Hunter. This is seen for instance in his ways of talking about the church’s “post-political Witness” in the world (p. 184-186) as if politics itself is something the church can’t engage in. For Hunter “Politics is just one way to engage the world, and arguably, not the highest, best, most effective, most human way to do so.”(185).  At this point, what Hunter has said about the Anabaptist’s antiseptic attitude towards worldy power has somehow become true of him in regard to his attitude toward politics. He sees politics purely in terms of nation-state processes and doesn’t see how the church itself can provide an alternative politic and by so doing become the incubator for new ways to see and engage the world that the world has not yet encountered. And although there are numerous overtures by Hunter that this indeed is what he wants to see, he seems to neuter the church’s wherewithal to be such a body by refusing its political nature because he cannot escape the Niebuhurian frame (described most clearly in Yoder’s essay on Niebuhr found in Authentic Transformation).

FAITHFUL PRESENCE

This then leaves me with my final thought. Hunter proposes an alternative way called “faithful presence within” the culture. It is that “exercise of power modeled by Christ” mentioned earlier. Christians, shaped by an alternative covenant community of the Kingdom, should humbly inhabit the places where we live and work with a Kingdom on-the-ground cultural dynamic that dialogues and interacts with those around us and the institutions we are a part of. In describing this faithful presence, Hunter talks of the importance of formation in a community, its worship and discipleship, the rejection of Constantinian posture, covenantal communities, incarnational direct relational engagement, the placement of Jer 29:4-7 at the core of its self-understanding (could anything be more Yoderian?). It is almost in every way an articulation of Anabaptist ideas.

But because of Hunter’s li
ngering Niebuhrianism, the church is reduced to an organization that calls/shapes/challenges individuals to take up a role of Christ in the world. It is reduced to an instrumentality as opposed to social reality of faithful presence itself from which all other engagement can flow. It is almost as if the church is doomed to the same strategy that Hunter criticizes vehemently at the outset of the book. The one difference is that Hunter is more focused on the church community as the place where individuals are formed and then sent out. But what’s to keep these individuals from meeting the same fate as before: being absorbed into the dominant culture?

Contra Hunter, the church is not merely to be the instrumentality of faithful presence, it is to be faithful presence. To be such a community, the church requires practices that shape such a community. Without such practices, I fear the church is left without the means to discern the world that drives so much of Hunters critique of current church practice. Without such a community, I fear Hunter’s “faithful presence” will default into the very thing he wishes to work against – that we end up being a church as a training ground to send ‘top’ individuals into their respective elite places of influence in the world only to be absorbed by the power structures they seek to change. And they dissappear. And the world is left without witnesses. The culture is left without the church’s ‘faithful presence.’

It is this lack that I seek to address in my upcoming book (IVP) Faithful Presence.  I try to show how communities are formed into His presence as reigning King, and then from this presence we make his presence visible in the world. In the practice of tending to His presence among us and in the world, His Kingdom becomes visible, we participate, and the world in invited to join in.

OK, one more time, Give me some feedback? Tell me where I’m off? Help me out here?

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