Uncategorized

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

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

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?

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Tip the Author & Support Our Ministry!

Thank you for supporting this author and Missio Alliance’s ministry of online publishing! All our authors graciously volunteer their time and expertise in creating resourceful articles such as this. Your generosity makes it possible for their voices and perspectives to reach and influence Christian leaders all around the world.
 
From #GivingTuesday (Nov. 27) through the end of the year, half of any donation you make will go directly to this author while the other half will support Missio Alliance and our Writing Collective platform in particular. 
 
Donations in any amount are greatly appreciated! 
Print Friendly, PDF & Email
$
Select Payment Method
Personal Info

Credit Card Info
This is a secure SSL encrypted payment.

Billing Details

Donation Total: $5

By commenting below, you agree to abide by the Missio Alliance Comment Policy.

25 responses to “To Change The World by James Davison Hunter: Five Years Later

  1. Can’t wait for the book Dave. How would you define "faithful presence"? I know you’ll spend an entire book filling it out, but would you be for giving us a little teaser?

    Here’s how we define it in the New Parish, a book we probably could have called "faithful presence" because we used it so much 🙂
    "Entering into your present circumstance responsive to both your limitations and responsibilities for relating to God, to others, and to the created world"

    1. David, Very excited for the coming of this book! Really appreciate your engagement with Hunter and the distinction that you are making: "Contra Hunter, the church is not merely to be the instrumentality of faithful presence, it is to be faithful presence."

      Tim, it seems like one key question that David is asking, which also could be asked of your def. of FP from The New Parish, is WHO is being faithfully present. David seems to be saying that it is primarily the church, not individuals, who are called to be faithfully present. I love the concise way that you define FP, and even reference it in my coming book READING FOR THE COMMON GOOD (also IVP 2016), but it does seem to have a degree of ambiguity on who the "you" is.

    2. Tim,
      I hesitate to offer this definition. Because without the seven practices as I flesh them out, this definition sounds too confining, maybe even pietistic. But I believe I show how this form of faitful presence is anything but those things. Indeed, the practice of Christ’s presence in the neighborhood both gives definition to what we are doing and empowers it with limitation defying power. So here goes (let me know what you think)
      Faithful presence names wherever a people gather to become present to Christ. In becoming present to Christ we in turn are enabled to be present to His presence in the world. We are able to participate in His work. It is in and through this faithful presence that His Kingdom breaks in to our lives. It is out of this faithful presence that we invite the world into God’s Kingdom in Christ. This is the nature of all true witness: faithful presence.

    3. Tim,
      I hesitate to offer this definition. Because without the seven practices as I flesh them out, this definition sounds too confining, maybe even pietistic. But I believe I show how this form of ‘faithful presence’ is anything but those things. Indeed, the practice of Christ’s presence in the neighborhood both gives definition to what we are doing and empowers it with limitation-defying power. So here goes (let me know what you think!)
      Faithful presence names wherever a people gather to become present to Christ. In becoming present to Christ we in turn are enabled to be present to His presence in the world. We are able to participate in His work. It is in and through this faithful presence that His Kingdom breaks in to our lives. It is out of this faithful presence that we invite the world into God’s Kingdom in Christ. This is the nature of all true witness: faithful presence.

  2. To build on the old adage, "all politics is local" – this has ramifications for a local church (you have done well to highlight how a local church is political) in a local community (which lives and dies by the local political practices of citizens and elected officials. I think a local church needs to focus on tangible realities of their community, not abstract cultural ones. You offer tangible political practices for a local church (Eucharist, proclamation of gospel, being w the poor, etc); what does this mean for that local church in its local community in regard to the existing political realities their? Corruption? Infrastructure neglect? Unfair housing? Local churches would influence elites in a community, not to change culture but to move policies in a direction of power that also benefits the vulnerable and marginalized. But that requires a local church to be attuned to its own political power under reign of Christ – in contrast to yet in collaboration with the realities of a local political community within which the local church lives, loves, serves (aka Jesus and the Centurion, Paul and Agrippa, James as Bishop of Jerusalem). What’s the way for faithful presence of a local church to engage in local community politics – not for culture change but for tangible change?

  3. This is great. I’m anxious to read about the practices that shape a faithful presence. I do see how we call people to go out, scatter, be present… but we become thin, weak, unattractive, corruptible vessels trying to be Jesus without Jesus.
    We can’t do this on our own strength or with our own limited vision – but must be shaped by Christ, within community, by the power of his Spirit to reflect his Kingdom in all spheres of culture.

  4. David,

    I might be more of a biblicist than I realize by asking this question: Does scant examples of the Apostle Paul commissioning N.T churches to engage in nation-state politics to overturn unrighteousness or injustice in culture factor into how we should understand the Apostle Paul’s thick imagination for local church bodies as highly political in subversive ways in-and-of themselves? Additionally Paul appeared before numerous "powers and principalities" and never personally advocated for change in governance. Maybe I’ve missed something in the N.T narrative.

  5. Great summary, thanks David!

    I teach at a Mennonite college (Columbia Bible College) in the area of theology and culture and have found Hunter’s critique of the world-changing impulse very helpful as I help students develop a posture towards culture. And his articulation of faithful presence, as you suggest, fits very well with Anabaptism.

    What do you think of Hunter’s connection of faithful presence to the language of covenant (261-66)? His perspective on covenant appears broader than an Anabaptist commitment to covenant community (i.e. the church) and relates more to a general approach Christians should take towards culture. My initial reaction was how can you have covenant without community? Is this what your pushing into? I look forward to hearing more!

  6. 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.

    You nailed it here bro’. The problem with an organizational approach to the faithful presence is that it puts new wine into old wineskins. If the Church is those called out from society to represent Christ, we should focus on discipleship, worship, and sacramental practice around the table that forms individuals, communities, families, etc. into missionaries who engage faithfully with culture when they are scattered from the gathering of the body. To funnel faithful presence through formal structures is a mistake.

  7. Hey David, finally! I know we have talked about this at various points. So it is good to have your review/critique.

    One thing I remember from reading the book (way too long ago now) was his sideways blow to the way Neo-Anabaptists/Hauerwasian/Radical Orthodoxy folks shift the terms. So as you critique his narrow definition of politics, his retort in the book if I remember right, was that this group proffers an alternate definition that skirts the issues. When we invoke politics, and alternative politics, we are talking in another category. Rather than this being a debate among academic definitions, I have experienced this problem in several settings in church work. I often find myself distinguishing between partisan politics and politics in general. Culturally, the term "politics" is now the same as the partisan process of governance. When I want to talk of the alternative politics I find myself going back to Plato and other Greeks who established the term as the social means of seeking the common good. All of this is to say that there is some term wrestling that needs to happen as both you and Hunter point out. In some ways, I wonder if his sociological lens of description is just as much an influence as his debts to Niebuhr. By that I mean he is set within the cultural understanding of politics by the very methodology he is trained in. And, at least in my experience, his quip that Neo-Anabaptist types shift the terms is some what true… necessary in my mind, but true nonetheless.

    Josh

    1. That’s helpful. I too shake my head at Hunter in his rather populist account of politics as limited to this conflictual sphere of nation-state democracy (as opposed to a more nuanced view of politics within the history of philosophy and of course the more current political theology). But when you see it in light of sociology (and the critique of sociology by Milbank) then aha … ok … now I get it a little more … 🙂

  8. David, I have not read Hunter so I cannot speak to your thoughts as they relate to his book. But I must say that your thoughts on "faithful presence" are right on. If your last paragraph is a good summary of your coming book on faithful presence then it will be a book that I anticipate with great thankfulness and excitement. Very little has been written well on this important core of what it means to be church. Often underestimated in faithful presence thinking is the mysterious power of Christ in us and through us through presence. Many people in the church simply have a difficult time trusting that dynamic…and so say too much, defend too much, shout too much or want to make sure that they are on the right side of any issue. The result is the two conservative and liberal extremes expressed today without any thoughtfulness of a different way that will be distinct and powerfully influential as God sees fit to make it so.

  9. This is wonderful!! Hunter’s position ultimately fails as an attempt to revitalize the rule of the elite WASP. Faithful presence does nothing to help blacks and Latinos pursue justice in light of the Kingdom. Very unhelpful. Good critique of right-wing conservatism for his proposal ultimately does not move the Kingdom forward.

  10. Thanks for this David. I read this and I think "James K A Smith and his Desiring the Kingdom etc with the emphasis on practices in order to counter cultural practices, influences and formation". But of course (?) he is coming from a (more) reformed perspective. So, my question would be, how (if at all) do your two perspectives/approaches overlap/complement?

    1. We see the church differently. And we see therefore the posture one takes in culture differently. We have different understandings of way creation, sin and grace work. But having said all that, the difference between us is really quick slim.

  11. David! This is an outstanding review of one the most challenging books I’ve read in the past five years. I require it of my students when I can, in fact. You are right that Hunter’s views collapse into an Anabaptist approach. (I think he actually signals this early on–when he critiques the Evangelical Left and Right and Ne0-Anabaptist approaches in the first part of his book, he is always less critical of Neo-Anabaptists than of the other two.) I think your critique of "Faithful Presence" here is one of the best I’ve seen, and you appear to be fleshing out a much deeper, more useful understanding of it–I really, really look forward to your forthcoming book! One more thing: In many respects, does it appear that Stanley Hauerwas has long been on the trail you are seeking to mark out for us? He is always challenging Christians to be a more intentional community of God’s people, no coopted by the world’s system.

  12. Agree with the basic construct of right-wing reacting in defensive/offensive position, and left in relevance to, as well as the ineffectiveness of creating cultures that parallel mainstream but have the branding of Jesus stuck on them.

    I hope your thinking about our faithful presence has at its core the posture and actions of loving God and our neighbor as ourselves. Confronting what it looks like to love my neighbors as I love my self has prompted me to interesting and sometimes surprising acts of justice.

  13. I’m thrilled that you re undertaking this faithful presence project. One of the comments mentioned Jamie Smith’s "Desiring the Kingdom" which I’ve just obtained to read, and I wonder if you plan to interact with that at all as you navigate the waters of "faithful presence." I also wonder if you might interact with Peter Leithart’s "Against Christianity" at all? It would be wonderful to have a book that could help clarify the lingering differences between folks like Yoder and Hauerwas and Hunter, Smith, Leithart, and even Wright. Sometimes I think it’s all forms of neo-anabaptism at least for the time being.

    1. You know I’d love to do this. And it would be easier than the book I’ve written. But I really have worked hard here to make an accessible ecclesiology for pastors/leaders with all the theology in the footnotes. There’s alot of Barth, Hauerwas, Yoder (RYFC) as well as early church history in the footnotes… I’ll have to do this other work in shorter pieces on blogs, journals.. Blessings!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *