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To Change the World (James D. Hunter): A Brief Review and Critique

September 15, 2016

James Davison Hunter makes helpful contributions to the discussion of how Christians should orient themselves toward the world and its need for improvement. His idea of “faithful presence” is a good one, if not especially novel. The idea’s rootedness in the faithful presence of God in Christ offers a theologically sound and relatable paradigm. Because of God’s love for and presence with us, any Christian, whether walking in the so-called halls of power or not, can exercise faithful presence.

Hunter offers a robust view of faithful presence as “the exercise of leadership in all spheres and all levels of life and activity” (260). One thinks of the oft-quoted Abraham Kuyper: “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ… does not cry, ‘Mine!'”

to-change-the-worldHunter sees the need for faithful presence to bring about both individual and institutional change, as it “generates relationships and institutions that are fundamentally covenantal in character, the ends of which are the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth” (263, my emphasis). Further, Hunter writes, “Culture is intrinsically dialectical” (34). His drawing on the Hegelian dialectic allows him to articulate a Christian relation to the world that avoids extremes: “Christians are called to relate to the world within a dialectic of affirmation and antithesis” (231).

The author spends more time than the reader might like in debunking other people’s ideas as to how to make the world a better place. This is a noble enough endeavor, but one wonders: On what authority does he offer his critiques? He begins, “I contend that the dominant ways of thinking about culture and cultural change are flawed, for they are based on both specious social science and problematic theology” (5). (That’s a big claim to have to defend.) He continues with broad, sweeping statements like, “Cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up,” (41) and, “Change of this nature [i.e., cultural change] can only come from the top down” (42).

Evidence, however, seems to be in short supply. One does not have to wade deep into the history of the African American civil rights movement, for example, to find figures who effected change from the bottom up. No doubt Martin Luther King, Jr. found support from “the top” in Lyndon B. Johnson, but King led a movement of the people, many of whom (King included) did not have positional power in the society they changed.

And to take a current example, there is the Black Lives Matter movement. While its long-term impact remains to be seen—and while the movement itself may not always speak with one voice—one would be hard-pressed to suggest that this “grassroots political mobilization” (42) has not “penetrate[d] the structure of our imagination, our frameworks of knowledge and discussion, the perception of everyday reality” (42). Already the Black Lives Matter movement can claim victory in that there is a greater societal awareness of race-motivated police brutality, as well as police departments taking increasingly deliberate measures (body cameras, and so on) to prevent it.

I do appreciate Hunter’s giving “priority to what is right in front of us–the community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people of which these are constituted” (253). But in some ways his “faithful presence” still reads just a little as, “Just try harder… this way is sure to work!”

Of course he is right in saying, “Christians have failed to understand the nature of the world they want to change and failed even more to understand how it actually changes” (99). But the reader rightly wonders: what makes Hunter immune? In short, while Hunter’s larger framework has much to commend it, his work seems to lack attention to important details—and fails to convince that all other visions of world change that preceded him are faulty.

 

Book info: Publisher’s Page (OUP) // Amazon

 


 

Thanks to Oxford University Press for sending me a review copy, which—I assume will be evident—did not influence my attempts at objectivity in assessing the book.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. September 16, 2016 3:12 pm

    Hey Abram,
    I am a regular reader of your blog posts, although I don’t think I have ever commented on them before. All of that to say, I enjoy reading your posts; perhaps, with the exception of your series on notebooks.😉

    I read this book several years ago and really enjoyed it. Let me share one point of agreement and one point of disagreement with regards to your post.

    Disagreement: I thought the second essay was the most well argued portion of the book – that is, his critique of the right, left, and anabaptist movement. But, if I understand you correctly, you felt quite the opposite. Is this correct?

    Agreement: I agree with you that the “faithful presence” argument fell flat. It reminded me of the “armor of God” argument that Hauerwas and Willmon make at the conclusion of Resident Aliens. It left me wanting more, but perhaps that is the very problem that we face as church. What exactly does the “more” look like in our age?

    Keep up the good work!

    Hauge

    • September 16, 2016 4:55 pm

      Hi, Matthew! Thanks for your comment. I was reacting more to his “Cultures change from the top down, rarely if ever from the bottom up,”from the first essay. I might have been reading the book too quickly (it’s actually been a few months now), but Ron Heifetz in *Leadership Without Easy Answers* makes virtually the opposite point… compellingly (in my view). But I’m glad you mention that second essay again, since it will actually dovetail quite nicely with some work I’m doing prepping for a fall adult Sunday school class!

      • September 16, 2016 5:24 pm

        Got it – thanks. You have piqued my interest. What is the subject of the Sunday school class?

      • September 17, 2016 8:14 am

        Here’s the bulletin text:

        Christians have historically taken varied approaches to involvement in political life. With Jesus we proclaim and seek to help usher in the Kingdom of God, “on earth as it is in heaven.” What might this effort look like when it comes to our civic life? Join Abram K-J and [excellent co-teacher] this fall for a biblically-rooted, historically grounded, imaginative series of discussions around the question: How can I, as a follower of Jesus, faithfully practice my faith in the civic sphere?

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