When I first started using Lendle, I did not realize that when you ask to borrow a kindle book, you are asking for that book right now. That ended up giving me a few books to borrow when I didn’t have time to read them. But in this case it gave me a copy of To Change the World nearly two years after I requested it. (If you are a patron on Lendle you can hold a place in line but then wait until you are read to read the book.)
So I ended up with To Change the World in the middle of my beach vacation. To Change The World is not what I was looking for. Most of the summer I have been reading only fiction, and fairly light fiction at that.
To Change the World is a serious book by sociologist James Davidson Hunter. He is the author probably most well known for his book 1991 book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America. To Change The World is three long essays about the nature of ‘World Changing’.
Books like this remind me that while I am fairly well read and fairly bright, I am not to the level of many in this world. So if you want a masterful review, I would suggest James K A Smith’s review at The Other Journal.
Instead I am going to give a few thoughts. The basic thesis of the first essay is that Christians want to change the world, but they often go about it in the wrong way. They may try to do it through political coercion (get the right people in office, changed the laws and make people act like Christians). They may do it through trying to change Christians (the prime example is worldview training as has been advocated by Charles Colson). Some even try to change culture as Andy Crouch advocates for in Culture Making.
Hunter suggests that the real problem with all of these is that “world-changing’ advocates believe that we can actually do much more than what we can. I think this is the position that I keep coming to when I advocate for being mediocre or mundane. Not that we should do things poorly, but that we should just do things as we do them and be present in the world without attempting to change things all the time. Hunter terms this faithful presence.
The second essay then suggests Christians need to have a better understanding of power and institutions so that we do not become either assimilated into culture or unchanged by Christianity.
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 comment to love our neighbor. (234, bold in original)
The third essay is look at the three main views of how Christianity and culture should interact. For the purposes of this book they are: “defensive against,” “relevance to,” and “purity from”. Very loosely these are fundamentalism, liberalism and neo-Anabaptist approaches to culture. Hunter believes all three have weaknesses and want to suggest a fourth, “faithful presence within”. I find this third essay the most intriguing and frustrating. I agree with Smith’s review that in many ways the group that Hunter beats up the most, the neo-Anabaptists, are actually the closest to his position. And I find myself being most sympathetic to many of those positions.
But even before reading this book if you had listed the four, I would have chosen Hunter’s suggestion. This is a theologically akin to Jeremiah 29‘s suggestion. In many ways it is hard for me to try and argue against that being the optimal choice.
This is a very important book for those that want to think seriously about the role of Christianity in the world. Some of the complaints I have read about the book is that Hunter is a better sociologist then theologian or historian. But I think that is unfair to what Hunter is doing here. Hunter is bringing the role of sociologist to look at how Christians interact with the world. That is the primary strength and importace of the book. Theologians and pastors speak about culture and power all the time without the skill of Hunter’s sociological background. So we need to hear the sociologist speak (and learn from him).
This is the not the final word on cultural interaction for Christians, but I think it is a very useful part of the discussion.