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To Change the World or Not to Change the World? A Book Recommendation

I end the year wishing all a Happy New Year and with a book recommendation. It is called To Change the World, by James Davison Hunter. He is a major figure behind the work of Tim Keller in New York. He teaches in religion, culture and social theory at the University of Virginia. The book is published by Oxford University Press.

I end the year wishing all a Happy New Year and with a book recommendation. It is called To Change the World, by James Davison Hunter. He is a major figure behind the work of Tim Keller in New York. He teaches in religion, culture and social theory at the University of Virginia. The book is published by Oxford University Press.

It is a superb study of modern culture and the dilemma Christians have living in it.

Its analysis of culture and the three primary ways Christians try to engage it is full of insight and discernment for why each approach has problems. Hunter expains why the goal and approach of each of these ways seeks to accomplish too much with no real chance of success. The three models are the Religious Right, the Progressive Left (Including some emergent figures) and the Neo-Anabaptist approaches. (So read Dobson, Wallis, McLaren, Hauerwas respectively).  What makes the book is his understanding of how pluralism is so pervasive it has changed the game of life and how to impact culture. He also understands the complexities of culture, especially at its corporate and institutional levels, as well as appreciating that there is far more to culture than the state. In particular, he challenges the idea that merely getting individual people to change their worldviews is the answer. Culture is too corporate and institutionalized and too fragmented for this to be possible, at least in the short term. Further, Christians are placed too much on the periphery of culture to succeed.  Neither should we expect too much from politics, because to pursue the solution there does not appreciate the limits of what the state can do and what politics can achieve in such a complex culture. This political push also requires resorting to a kind of power that actually undermines key values of the church, undercutting the church's message and credibility in the process.

Christians often underestimate the value of sociology and what it teaches us about culture and how it works. This book shows the value of such careful analysis. He argues for more limited goals and what he calls a "faithful presence within" that works at both affirming what is of value in common grace, takes vocational life seriously in all spheres, while also challenging what should be challenged in the culture (what he calls affirmation and antithesis). Hunter wants a Christianity that engages positively with the world but critically at the same time and is not just negative (the right), affirming (Progressives) or withdrawn (Neo-Anabaptists). He notes the irony of how party affiliation is virtually automatic in two of the models (Right with Republicans and Prog with Democrats) in ways that show too much alignment each way. In this way, he argues these two approaches are more like each other than they want to see. Neo-Anabaptists with their critique of world and vocation, their tendency to withdraw and with their focus almost exclusively on their church end up being disengaged and unable to help people where they spend much of their time living (at their work). This is but the tip of the iceberg in his analysis.

It is a book worth reading and pondering. Maybe there is another "fourth" way to engage that has the right goals and that also draws on the best of what the other models offer without expecting too much in what can and should be done. Hunter emphasizes where the focus should be, not on winning or conquering, or dominating– but on faithfully serving and reflecting God's presence where he has us, calling us to be as positively and yet distinctly engaged with the world as we can be. This means both affirming and challenging the world while contributing to it, even though we are at the same time like exiles, aliens in a world of tensions until God resolves it all.

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5 Comments

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    Scott Cunningham

    highly recommended

     

    Darrell, I join with you in highly recommending this book, and have done so a number of times since I read after its publication earlier this year.  I have intentionally thought through issues of Christianity and culture for many years, and although I have swung from Dobson to Colson to Wallis at various phases, I was always a little uneasy with my approach, and didn't really understand why.  In my opinion Hunter (who by the way is the one who coined the term "culture wars") has provided a conceptual framework for reflection and action which is theologically sound and sociologically informed.  

    The other positive thing to say about Hunter's approach is that it is something which has a life in cultures where Christians are a minority (even an oppressed or persecuted minority).  The approaches of the Christian Right or Left, at least as they are manifested in the States, are less compelling in cultures where the political process is dominated by non-Christians.  

    I'm still working out the implications for this new turn in my journey, and need to re-read Hunter now that I've given this some further thought, but I'm generally satisfied with this new direction.

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    Darrell L. Bock

    highly recommended

    Scott:

     

    Indeed in reading this book I thought of its international "fit." There is a lot to chew on here. I am actually getting ready to write on this topic myself and will try to show how "confused" our American scene is for Christians when they try to act christianly given what Dobson and Wallis say Christians are to do (and saying the opposite of one another). Hunter exposes why this is so sociologically. So where does one go? That is a harder question, but understanding this may let the church be the church by avoiding being wed to closely to our political scene.

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