James Davison Hunter, Please Recognize Your Allies

REVIEW: To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter

In this book, James Davison Hunter, a respected sociologist, seeks to provide insight into the possibilities for Christians to change culture. As much as this book has been lauded as the most important book on the subject since Richard Niebuhr’s Christ and Culture, with “wide-ranging examples” (as Nicolas Wolterstorff writes in the blurb on the back of the book), what Hunter offers is neither groundbreaking nor particularly insightful.

It’s not that his premise is wrong; in fact, it is fundamentally correct. The problem is that in his attempt to cite examples of Christians attempting to change culture with poor results because of faulty premises, he paints mere caricatures of many of them. And in so doing, Hunter does not recognize that there are Christians that are actually allies in his cause.

It’s as if Hunter thinks he is the only one who understands the Creation Mandate, the Christian call to faithfully be present in every sphere of influence in culture, the need to move beyond individual Christianity and embrace Christian community and cultural networks, the cancerous destruction of Hegelian idealism in modern Christianity, that we need new alternative ways to imagine Christian cultural influence outside of the political venue, and that we must be humble in our participation in what God is accomplishing in His Kingdom.

All of this has been said time and again by everyone from Abraham Kuyper to Albert Wolters to Stanley Hauerwas to Andy Crouch to Gabe Lyons. It’s odd, then, that Hauerwas, Crouch, and Lyons are set directly in Hunter’s sights when he starts naming names of people who do not get what he is saying. And it’s extremely odd that in a book that is supposed to be so all-encompassing that Abraham Kuyper is not mentioned once. Kuyper is arguably the most important Christian theologian on cultural change in the past hundred years, and Hunter doesn’t even attempt to interact with his theology.

Hunter writes,
“When the Word of all flourishing—defined by the love of Christ—becomes flesh in us, in our relations with others, within the tasks we are given, and within our sphere of influence—absence gives way to presence, and the word we speak to each other and to the world becomes authentic and trustworthy. This is the heart of a theology of faithful presence.” (p. 252).
This is absolutely biblical and correct.

In the footnote for this quote, Hunter writes,
“In one sense I am merely restating a classical view of vocation. Given the nature and conditions of the late modern world, the need for a rethinking and restatement of such a theology is of critical importance. Where I seek to build on this is in the institutional implications of this theological tradition” (fn. 22, p 334).
There lies the problem with this book.

Hunter is indeed contributing immensely with To Change the World by looking specifically at the institutional implications of a theology of vocation. He offers plenty of helpful insights into why and how Christians should humbly seek to have “faithful presence” in the culture. There is a lot on offer here in this book.

But what Hunter fails to see is that others (people that he brushes off casually as not getting it, like Gabe Lyons and Andy Crouch) are also building on the same classical theology of vocation.

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