James Davison Hunter. To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2010. 368 pages. $20.12 hardcover (Amazon).

It’s hard to resist the spectacle of the Wachowski brothers’ film Speed Racer. Their visual evocation of a kind of live-action anime hovers and wavers between surrealism and camp. For those of us raised on G-Force, the allure of this aesthetic is palpable yet unexplainable. But in addition to this aesthetic allure, I am also tempted to read the film allegorically, strangely intrigued by a melodramatic, almost cliché line uttered by Racer X to the eponymous Speed: “It doesn’t matter if racing never changes. What matters is if racing changes us.”

The context is the corporate corruption of the World Racing League (WRL), which is rife and systemic. The WRL has always been this way, and Speed despairs that winning within the system will not change the system—indeed, that perhaps nothing can change the system. But at the same time, X and Speed both have a compulsion to race, and that compulsion can only work itself out within the system. (One might say that the corrupt system owns all the tracks.) So given that context and compulsion, the question becomes an issue of assimilation: “What matters is if racing changes us.” While this might sound like a kind of Stoicism, I don’t think it is: Speed and his entire family, devoted to racing, are trying to imagine racing otherwise, and are trying to embody a different kind of team, a different kind of racing, and a different kind of practice within the corporate system. But if X is right, one doesn’t necessarily work out this impulsion in order to “transform” the system. Indeed, maybe “it doesn’t matter if racing never changes.” Perhaps what’s at issue is whether racing changes us. And perhaps this could be read as a parable about Christianity and American culture.

* * *

Many of us are more indebted to James Davison Hunter than we might realize. His 1991 book, Culture Wars, has been a lens through which many have understood the dynamics of American politics, even if they have never read it. An astute and influential observer of American culture, particularly the role of (and transformation of) religion in the public sphere, Hunter is a sociologist without the usual allergy to normative language. And while he’s never taken sides in the culture wars (indeed, despite the way it is cited by both friends and detractors, Culture Wars was pointing out the futility of conducting such battles), Hunter has not shied away from prescription rooted in description and analysis. Thus, his later book The Death of Character unapologetically laments the loss of a unified moral ethos in American culture that undercuts the possibility of true character formation. Although Hunter’s writing can sometimes tend toward the curmudgeonly end of the jeremiad spectrum, he’s nonetheless an important cultural critic.1

His latest offering is a logical trajectory from this earlier work. To Change the World is explicitly addressed to Christians in the United States and is his most unabashedly prescriptive and theological work to date. It is also one of the most important works on Christianity and culture since Nicholas Wolterstorff’s Until Justice and Peace Embrace. One could hope that To Change the World might finally displace the lazy hegemony of Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, even if I think Hunter’s book might have a couple of similar faults.2

It is, above all, a timely book: Hunter is out to do nothing less than displace the dominant Christian understanding of culture and cultural change, with the hope of radically revising Christian strategies for cultural engagement. The targets here are varied but specific: both the Christian Right and Left are subject to criticism because of their very penchant for “changing the world.” But anti-cultural fundamentalists and a-cultural evangelicals who neglect culture-making altogether are also objects of critique. Hunter is an equal opportunity offender, which should give us a clue that he’s onto something different. This is not a tired rehearsal of old party lines. But let me first provide a map of the book before diving into more substantive issues.

I. The Argument

To Change the World is organized into three multichapter essays. By describing them as “essays,” Hunter gives himself permission to paint with broad brushstrokes, to write with a strong voice, and excuses himself from any responsibility to exhaustively peruse the literature. But that does not absolve him of responsibility altogether; he’s still very much offering an argument. And while pedantic scholars may complain about a thousand missing details, Hunter’s strategy here is just right. These are big questions, and he needs the elbow room of the essay in order to make his case.

The first essay is a critique of the dominant understanding of culture and cultural change, particularly as assumed by Christians who see themselves engaged in the mission of “changing the world.” And I suppose one has to appreciate just how extensively such lingo has come to permeate evangelical institutions, particularly parachurch organizations with political interests, but also Christian colleges and universities.3 Hunter’s critique of talk about “transforming culture” and “changing the world” can be withering, as seen in his opening critique of Chuck Colson’s influential manifesto How Now Shall We Live? But Hunter is no respecter of misguided strategies and is equally critical of Catholic or leftish versions of the same project. When it comes to mistaken conceptions of cultural change, Jim Wallis has nothing on Chuck Colson, Hunter argues.

The problem is that such projects for “transforming culture” assume a naive and “idealistic” view of culture and cultural change. Their view is idealistic because it places too much priority on ideas; they mistakenly assume that culture is made up of an accumulation of heady things like ideas and beliefs and values—that culture is akin to a “worldview” (6, 24-26).4 Working with this idealist assumption, people like Colson and Nancy Pearcey adopt a “hearts and minds” strategy because they mistakenly assume that the “culture war” is a “cognitive war” (25, italics in original). And they assume that if we can change the hearts and minds of individuals, we’ll change the culture (or “reclaim” the culture, as the rhetoric often goes).

For Hunter, such a strategy is benighted because it assumes a simplistic notion of culture and cultural change. Culture, he argues, is not the sort of thing that resides in sets of propositions (33); rather, culture is more like an infrastructure than an intellectual framework—more like an environment than a set of ideas. Even more importantly, Hunter emphasizes that culture—and hence cultural change—is most profoundly shaped and determined by centers of power. “In other words,” he bluntly summarizes, “the work of world-making and world-changing are, by and large, the work of elites” (41). This makes grassroots efforts at cultural change among “the people” (like, say, Sarah Palin’s “real Americans”) misguided and doomed to failure—which is just to say that most of the mass efforts of Christian parachurch organizations can expect the same. Indeed, for Hunter this explains just why all these Christian efforts (and dollars) have failed to halt the slide toward secularization and fragmentation in American society.

It’s not that ideas don’t have consequences, only that there are conditions under which ideas might have consequences: “Ideas do have consequences in history, yet not because those ideas are inherently truthful or obviously correct but rather because of the way they are embedded in very powerful institutions, networks, interests, and symbols” (44).5 Hunter tries to make this case with a long historical survey (ch. 5) and then compares this with the paltry cultural output of American Christianity over the past century (ch. 6). As a populist movement, and (rightly) allergic to elitism, evangelicalism has either eschewed cultural production altogether or has instead engaged in merely subcultural production—generating the mimicking kitsch that fills Christian “gift” stores across the country. Such subcultural production (that is, the production of an evangelical subculture) actually betrays that “large swaths [of evangelicalism] have been captured by the spirit of the age” (92). No matter how many Jesus action figures or Hipster Study Bibles™ we might sell, the battle’s already been lost as soon as such phenomena exist. All we’ve done is carve out a new market sector that extends dominant cultural forces. This is a long way from “changing the world,” despite our rhetoric to the contrary. The world has changed us.

What starts to emerge, then, is a two-fold problem: on the one hand, those who want to “change the world” are working with naive conceptions of culture and cultural change; on the other hand, such world-changers tend to be allergic to power and suspicious of elitism. Hunter’s second essay, then, is kind of “power therapy,” meant to disabuse Christians of naive understandings of cultural change but also to help them work through their “power issues,” as it were. It is in this essay that Hunter articulates his critique of both the Christian Right and Christian Left (what there is of it!), noting the “civil religion of the left” (145-148).6 It is this critique of civil religion that motivates his serious engagement with “neo-Anabaptists” like Stanley Hauerwas who, Hunter argues, are exactly right in diagnosing the error of Right/Left ways but are still misguided because they valorize “powerlessness” (181). Because, according to Hunter, if the church really wants to change the world, and not fall into merely assimilated subcultural renditions of it, then Christians need to get over their allergy to power and elitism. “The question for the church,” Hunter emphasizes, “is not about choosing between power and powerlessness but rather, to the extent that it has space to do so, how will the church and its people use the power that they have. How will it engage the world around it and of which it is a part?” (184). Decoupling the public from the political,7 and looking at Jesus as an exemplar of the exercise of power, Hunter sets up the constructive proposal sketched in the third essay.

It is in the third essay that Hunter gives us a Niebuhr-like taxonomy, summarizing three paradigms of Christian engagement with culture as “defensive against,” “relevance to,” and “purity from” (213ff.). It is generally conservative Christians who are “defensive against” culture, “constructing a complex empire of parallel institutions” (214), while still covertly hoping to repristinate America as a Christian nation. “Relevance to” culture has historically been the strategy of accommodating liberalism, but Hunter rightly points out that the same accommodation to culture happens in seeker-sensitive evangelicalism. Finally, those who want to preserve “purity from” culture are a motley crew: on the one hand, Hunter includes pietistic evangelicals and Pentecostals from the holiness tradition; on the other hand, it’s also here that he locates the neo-Anabaptists described earlier—one of his most problematic claims. Indeed, this whole categorization is one of the less nuanced strategies in the book; and although he simply offers this overview as a heuristic device, one can worry that—like Niebuhr’s taxonomy—the cost of simplicity isn’t worth it.

But apart from problems with these categories, I’m primarily interested in Hunter’s constructive proposal for a different paradigm: “faithful presence within.” This paradigm is first sketched much earlier in the book, at the conclusion of the first essay. In that context, we can appreciate Hunter’s concerns and in what sense “faithful presence” is an alternative to the other paradigms. On the one hand, his model of faithful presence is deeply concerned about the extent of Christianity’s assimilation to American culture, even in the name of being “conservative.”8 What’s wrong with both the Christian Right and Left, Hunter rightly notes, is that they have unwittingly bought into the will-to-power that characterizes disordered political life in late modern America. As a shorthand, one can say (as Hunter sometimes does) that they have fallen prey to a Constantinian desire to run the world (or at least America). The problem is that, in the name of “reclaiming America for Christ,” their “Christ” has been assimilated to what we might call “Americanism”—or what Hunter will sometimes describe simply as “nihilism” (264).9 Faithful presence, then, is not simply playing will-to-power for Jesus such that Christianity wins the culture war. Indeed, faithful presence will often run counter to the strategies of religious politics as currently played. Instead, faithful presence is the church carrying out the creational mandate to “make culture” (Gen. 1:26-31) in a way that is faithful to God’s desires for his creation. As such, “the best understanding of the creation mandate is not about changing the world at all. It is certainly not about ‘saving Western civilization,’ ‘saving America,’ ‘winning the culture war,’ or anything else like it” (95). Rather, “the church is to bear witness to and to be the embodiment of the coming Kingdom of God”—to be a foretaste of the new creation. And that “new” creation “is a reference to the kingdom of God working in us and in the world; a different people and an alternative culture that is, nevertheless, integrated within the present culture” that includes “networks (and more, communities) of counter-leaders operating within the upper echelons of cultural production and social life generally” (96).

This emphasis on antithesis and the critique of Constantinianism makes Hunter deeply sympathetic to the neo-Anabaptists (150-166). Indeed, this is one of the most refreshing, even courageous aspects of his book. However, Hunter’s model of faithful presence also cuts against what he takes to be the weakness of the neo-Anabaptist paradigm. When he’s speaking against the Religious Right/Left, Hunter emphasizes that Christians are called to faithful presence rather than Constantinian dominance. But when he turns to the neo-Anabaptists, Hunter emphasizes that Christians are called to faithful presence rather than sectarian absence or withdrawal. If the Constantinianism of the Christian Right/Left neglects the radical antithesis of faithfully following Jesus’s model of cruciform power, Hunter thinks that the neo-Anabaptists neglect the cultural mandate. Although the neo-Anabaptists rightly emphasize antithesis, he thinks they lack a fundamental “affirmation” of “culture and culture-making having their own validity before God that is not nullified by the fall” (231). Because of this, “they ignore the implications of the incarnation in the vocations of ordinary Christians in the workaday world” (223).10 Whether this is a fair characterization of the neo-Anabaptist paradigm will be a matter of discussion below; here it is important to appreciate that Hunter takes his model of faithful presence to be an alternative to models that neglect the God-given task of culture-making more broadly.

In this respect, Hunter’s model of faithful presence resonates with a long tradition of Reformed reflection on culture that has emphasized the creational goodness of culture-making.11 “A theology of faithful presence,” he concludes, “obligates us to do what we are able, under the sovereignty of God, to shape the patterns of life and work and relationship—that is, the institutions in which our lives are constituted—toward a shalom that seeks the welfare not only of those of the household of God but of all” (254). This will inevitably require stewardly exercise of power and not merely a supposedly “Christian” version of the will to power bent on winning.12 Rather, “the means of influence and the ends of influence must conform to the exercise of power modeled by Christ” (254, italics in original).

So how do we change the world? Wrong question, Hunter argues (285). The desire to change the world too easily tends toward reactive strategies of ressentiment and ends up playing by the rules of the will-to-power. So instead we should be asking: what does faithful culture-making look like? What does it mean for us to care for the gardens—and cities—in which God has placed us? When that is our concern, change will be a by-product at best. Hunter summarizes this in an important, italicized passage:

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)

II. Continuing the Conversation

I am deeply sympathetic to both Hunter’s diagnosis and constructive proposal. If it’s too much to hope that this book could displace Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture from college syllabi, I at least hope To Change the World will be treated as a must-read companion volume. More importantly, I hope Hunter’s argument might tame the rhetoric of “transforming culture,” which has so captivated evangelicalism over the past decade, given that so often such language is really only a cover for further assimilation. In sum, To Change the World could be a game-changer for conversations about Christianity and culture.

That said, in the spirit of continued reflection on these important matters, let me highlight a couple of themes as a springboard for further conversation in a more critical mode. Encouraging more nuance in his analysis and argument, I offer some criticisms in the spirit of an assist.

First, I worry that Hunter’s critique of the neo-Anabaptists remains a critique of a caricature. I say this cautiously because I applaud his critical appreciation for the neo-Anabaptist critique of Constantinian strategies (Hunter includes “Radical Orthodoxy” under this banner, which is debatable but defensible). As already noted, Hunter worries that the neo-Anabaptists give up on culture-making altogether, thus ending up with a separatist or sectarian concern for “purity.” But do neo-Anabaptists such as John Howard Yoder and Stanley Hauerwas really lack a theological affirmation of culture-making?13 I don’t think so.14 Indeed, I think the neo-Anabaptist paradigm (particularly in its “Radically Orthodox” version15) is very close to Hunter’s own model of faithful presence.

The confusion (and thus perceived distance) between Hunter and the neo-Anabaptists might stem from equivocation about the term world. Even within the canon of Scripture, this is a slippery term.16 And I worry that Hunter misreads the neo-Anabaptists by over-reading their critique of “the world” as if it were a critique of creation per se.17 For example, when Hunter claims that neo-Anabaptists make “a sharp dichotomy between the church and the world,”18 he seems to read this as if they posited a sharp dichotomy between the church and creation (and, hence, culture), positing a problematic tension, then, between the orders of redemption and creation.19 Conversely, when Hunter claims that “there is a world that God created that is shared in common by believers and nonbelievers alike” (232), the “world” he’s naming there is not “the world” being rejected by the neo-Anabaptists. On the one hand, “world” names the disordered cultural systems of a fallen world “under the sway of the evil one” (1 John 5:19); on the other hand, “world” can be used to name the space of the created cosmos, the “territory” of creation. If we fail to discern and distinguish these different meanings, we’ll end up reading the neo-Anabaptist critique of “the world” as if it were a kind of gnosticism—which Hunter unfortunately does (251). Whereas, in fact, Hunter’s proposal for the church creating “an alternative culture [. . .] within the present culture” (96) could be a very fitting summary for much of the neo-Anabaptist vision of faithful culture-making.20 All this is just to say that Hunter might find allies where he least expects them.21 And I suspect that if neo-Anabaptists carefully and charitably considered Hunter’s articulation of a Jesus-centric theology of power, they might be willing to consider how and why impacting “elite” culture might be faithful—though that’s going to be a hard habit to break.

Related to the proximity of Hunter’s position and a non-caricatured neo-Anabaptist model, a second point of concern: if our calling is to faithfully make culture in a way that embodies God’s desires for his creation and is a foretaste of the coming Kingdom; and if, then, we’re not primarily concerned with changing the world but with making culture in a way that is faithful, then it’s not clear to me why so-called “parallel institutions” can’t be instantiations of faithful presence. And yet Hunter is persistently critical of parallel institutions. Now many so-called “Christian” parallel institutions are worthy of critique because, rather than being sites of faithful culture-making, they are merely syncretistic examples of subcultural mimicry—“Jesufied” versions of the majority culture. Let’s agree that such substandard, subcultural institutions are worthy of critique. But other parallel institutions might be generated because they are the only way and place to carry out faithful culture-making without being severely compromised by the disordered systems of a majority culture. Insofar as such parallel institutions are still “in the world” (i.e., solidly located in the territory of creation), they can clearly still bear witness to what creation is called to be, thus fulfilling the obligation of faithful presence. To criticize parallel institutions tout court feels like a transformationist hangover, a still-quasi-Constantinian worry that we’re neglecting our responsibility to be custodians of the (majority) culture. But if that were the case, then it sounds like Hunter still wants to win—still wants to change the world—whereas perhaps what matters is that we “race well,” so to speak, and not let the world change us.

1. See James Davison Hunter, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Control the Family, Art, Education, Law, and Politics in America (New York, NY: Basic Books, 1991) and The Death of Character: On the Moral Education of America’s Children (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2000).

2. See Nicholas Wolterstorff, Until Justice and Peace Embrace (Grand Rapids , MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983) and Richard Niebuhr, Christ and Culture (San Francisco, CA: Harper and Row, 1956).

3. We also should try to appreciate how recent this consensus is. See my discussion of Greg Boyd’s Myth of a Christian Nation (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007) in The Devil Reads Derrida: And Other Essays on the University, the Church, Politics, and the Arts (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2009), 97-101.

4. Anyone familiar with my argument in Desiring the Kingdom: Worship, Worldview, and Cultural Formation (Baker Academic, 2009) will sense a healthy degree of overlap in our concerns here. What’s intriguing, from my standpoint, is that Hunter and I end up in the same place, with the same critique of “worldviewism,” but seem to have arrived there from quite different trajectories.

5. One can thus see how Redeemer Presbyterian, pastored by Tim Keller in New York City, is seeking to be a witness amid one of the centers of cultural power in the United States. However, one also needs to appreciate Hunter’s nuance on this point, as he is very critical of the story that D. Michael Lindsay tells about Faith in the Halls of Power (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2007): “The idea that significant numbers of Christians are operating ‘in the halls of power’ in ways that are thoughtful and strategic [. . .] is simply ludicrous” (p. 274; cp. 306n.25). So it’s not just about getting into the halls of power; it’s also about what you do (and why you’re doing it) once you get there.

6. In a similar vein, I have criticized what I describe as a “Constantinianism of the Left” in The Devil Reads Derrida, 105-112.

7. “Politics is just one way to engage the world and, arguably, not the highest, best, most effective, nor most humane to do so” (185).

8. Hunter rightly diagnoses this as a matter of formation: “The problem for Christians—to restate the broader issue once more—is not that their faith is weak or inadequate. [. . .] But while they have faith, they have also been formed by the larger post-Christian culture, a culture whose habits of life less and less resemble anything like the vision of human flourishing provided by the life of Christ and witness of scripture” (227, emphasis original). Thus, if the church is going to carry out its mission of “faithful presence,” it will have to consider its practice of formation and counterformation. This is precisely my concern in Desiring the Kingdom where I suggest that evangelicalism has become assimilated to American culture precisely because they have failed to appreciate the formative power of “secular liturgies.” See Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 89-129.

9. I especially appreciate Hunter’s willingness to name our complicity with a “market society” where “the logic, language, and ideals of rational and free exchange based on a calculation of costs and benefits spill out of the economy proper and into the entire culture thus shaping every sphere of social life. [. . .] In the case of the mega-churches or the seeker church movement in Evangelicalism, the embrace of a market rationale is the deliberate foundation of its strategy” (264). The problem is that “[t]his kind of autonomous instrumentality is also fundamentally nihilistic” (ibid.).

10. A related concern is the neo-Anabaptist valorization of “powerlessness,” which Hunter interprets as an abdication of creational responsibility (181).

11. Indeed, one of the oddities of the book is the complete absence of Abraham Kuyper from the discussion. I note this, not as a failure to be comprehensive (I respect the “essay” genre), but only because where Hunter ends up is so close to Kuyper’s model (even if Hunter is rightly critical of Chuck Colson’s bastardization of Kuyper in How Now Shall We Live?). That said, I also think Hunter’s emphasis on antithesis is a refreshing break from the tendency of late modern Kuyperians, who seem to overemphasize affirmation under the rubric of common grace.

12. Hunter’s criticism is pointed: “The tragic irony is that in the name of resisting the dark nihilisms of the modern age, Christians—in their will to power and the ressentiment that fuels it—perpetuate that nihilism. In so doing, Christians undermine the message of the very gospel they cherish and desire to advance” (275).

13. I grant that Hunter has cited passages from Robert Brimlow (250) that do seem guilty of just this. I’m just not sure Brimlow is representative in this respect.

14. For a comprehensive account of Yoder’s affirmative theology of creation and culture, see Branson Parler, Things Hold Together: John Howard Yoder’s Trinitarian Theology of Culture, PhD diss., Calvin Theological Seminary, 2010.

15. See especially the work of Graham Ward, in his most recent book, Political Discipleship: Becoming Postmaterial Citizens, Church and Postmodern Culture Series (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2009).

16. For discussion of this point, see Smith, Desiring the Kingdom, 187-190.

17. In a similar way, Hunter seems to make the common mistake of equating Augustine’s “earthly city” with creational life per se (161). Thus, Hunter takes a critique of the earthly city to be a critique creaturely life. But that’s clearly not the case for Augustine given that the origin of the “earthly city” is not creation but the fall. I hope to demonstrate this more fully elsewhere.

18. Later in the book he calls this their “hermetic distinction between church and world” (182).

19. The latter is a common Reformed critique of Yoder, which Parler has now shown to be patently false.

20. In a similar way, Hunter fails to appreciate the neo-Anabaptist claims about “the politics of Jesus” (pace Yoder) and the church as polis. He reads this as yet another reduction of Christianity to politics “[a]s with the Christian Right and Left” (163), whereas Yoder and William Cavanaugh are imagining politics otherwise—again, in a way very similar to Hunter, it seems to me. Like Hunter, they are equally concerned to reject the “statecraft” that has tempted the Christian Right and Left.

21. In this context, let me also note that I would (now) agree with Hunter that while there should be a recognition of radical antithesis, this does not preclude the possibility of finding ad hoc occasions for strategic collaboration (in reference to his discussion of a point from my Introducing Radical Orthodoxy on 332-333 of To Change the World). Following Augustine (and Oliver O’Donovan), I would agree that we can find points of penultimate overlapping concern. I hope to expand on this point in a forthcoming work on Augustine.