Arts & Culture

What We Talk about When We Talk about “Changing the World”

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The amount of discussion Christians have devoted to the topic of “culture” has been inversely proportional to the degree to which Christians feel they control “culture.”

Perhaps that’s an overgeneralization, but I only mean to say there seems to be a rough correlation between an increased number of books commenting on our culture—its fallen state, what we should do about it—and a growing national acceptance of practices such as, say, same-sex marriage.

Hence, as American culture has moved further away from a Christian understanding of sexual ethics and other issues, there have been no fewer than five books by prominent evangelicals on the subject in the past seven years alone: Andy Crouch’s Culture Making (2008), James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World (2010), D.A. Carson’s Christ and Culture Revisited (2012), Greg Forster’s Joy for the World (2014), and Russell Moore’s Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel (2015). No doubt other examples could be given.

As part of this ongoing conversation, the Gospel Coalition recently published a free e-book titled Revisiting ‘Faithful Presence’: ‘To Change the World’ Five Years Later, which is a collection of essays reflecting on James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World and his idea of engaging the culture through “faithful presence” in particular.

As Collin Hansen, editor of Revisiting ‘Faithful Presence’ observes, To Change the World has had a “disproportionate effect…on changing the opinion and action of evangelical professors, pastors, and non-profit executives” that “has been influential beyond its numerical readership.”

That is to say, likely as it is that you’ve never heard of this book before, it has had a significant impact on Christian leaders.

How we decide to relate to the culture around us as Christians will to a great extent determine the everyday choices we make, so the issue is far from academic.

In today’s post, then, we will briefly survey Hunter’s To Change the World, and in a subsequent post we will consider the analysis thereof in Revisiting ‘Faithful Presence.’ 

Changing the World

At the risk of oversimplifying Hunter’s work, there are two great questions at the heart of To Change the World: how does culture change, and what are we to do about it?

It is arguably Hunter’s answer to the first question that has had such a “disproportionate effect” on people.

By his account, most Christians have a “bottom-up” understanding of the nature of culture and how it changes, which Hunter summarizes as follows:

If a culture is good, it is because the good values embraced by individuals lead to good choices. By contrast, if a culture is decadent and in decline, it is because the values or worldviews held by individuals are mistaken at the least, or even immoral, and those corrupt values lead to bad choices. Cumulatively, those mistaken ideas, corrupt values, and bad choices create an unhealthy, immoral culture.

According to this view,

If we want to change our culture for the better, we need more and more individuals possessing the right values and the right worldview and, therefore, making better choices.

This perspective informs politics as well in that,

Bad law is the outcome of bad choices made by individual politicians, judges, and policy makers. Thus, changing the world requires that individual Christians vote into office those who hold the right values or possess the right worldview and therefore will make the right choices.

Hunter notes that prominent Christians such as Chuck Colson of Prison Fellowship, Robert George at Princeton University, and James Dobson of Focus on the Family have held this view of culture, as have many ordinary Christians.

The problem with it, he says, is that it is entirely wrong:

Cultures simply do not change in these ways, or at least not in the way people think they do.

Instead, Hunter argues that “the deepest and most enduring forms of cultural change nearly always occurs [sic] from the ‘top down’” (emphasis in original).

Specifically,

When networks of elites [what Hunter calls institutions] in overlapping fields of culture and overlapping spheres of social life come together with their varied resources and act in common purpose, cultures do change and change profoundly.

To be clear, Hunter adds that this does not mean it is unimportant to change people’s worldviews and work on the individual level, only that we should not assume we will “change the world” by doing so.

Introducing “Faithful Presence”

Because of the compelling evidence Hunter presents in making his case, his account of how culture changes has gained acceptance from many Christian leaders.

This brings us to the second major question Hunter’s book addresses—“What are we to do with our knowledge of how culture changes?”—which is considerably more contentious.

Based on Hunter’s account of cultural change, the obvious inference is that we should seek to infiltrate the most powerful institutions while at the same time creating our own.

However, this is exactly what Hunter says we should not do for various reasons, one of them being the following:

Because Christianity has lost status in the institutional centers of the modern world, those believers who work and live in the higher echelons of culture, politics, business, and finance are under great pressure to carefully “manage their identities” in part by hiding this discrediting information about themselves. In this case, the consequence of disclosure is to be excluded themselves. The temptation to be deceptive or dishonest about one’s faith in these circles is enormous.

In other words, it cannot be guaranteed that even Christians with the best of intentions will remain true to their faith if they achieve peak cultural influence.

So then, what are we to do?

Hunter proposes a model of what he calls faithful presence, which he broadly defines as,

A recognition that the vocation of the church is to bear witness to and to be the embodiment of the coming Kingdom of God.

More precisely, Hunter exhorts ordinary Christians to be “fully present and committed in their spheres of social influence,” small and local as they are:

What we do certainly would include our jobs, but the reality is that our tasks are many, and they range far beyond paid labor. They involve our work as parents, students, volunteers, citizens, and the like. But in the many capacities in which we operate, St. Paul’s instruction is that we pursue our tasks with all of our hearts. This not only suggests that we give our full attention to those tasks but that we pursue excellence in them. Here too, what is required is a commitment defined by pursuit, identification, and sacrificial love that gives life.

As Hunter himself points out, the idea of faithful presence in many ways incorporates “a classical view of vocation.”

In sum, Hunter’s vision of cultural engagement is that we be devoted to loving and serving the people around us without any thought of whether this will “change the world” or not, for such a concern should not preoccupy us.

Unsurprisingly, such a controversial position has not gone unchallenged, and we will hear more about this and other critiques from Revisiting ‘Faithful Presence’ in a future post.

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  • I haven’t read “To Change the World” but this review makes me skeptical. My field of expertise is economics and especially institutional economics. A very important book on the topic is “Culture Matters: How Values Shape Human Progress” by Huntington and Harrison. The essence of the book is that the flow of cause and effect goes from religion to institutions to economic development. It’s not possible to have institutions that contradict the values of the majority and those come from religion. Schoeck’s book “Envy: A Theory of Social Behavior” and McCloskey’s series on the bourgeois virtues say the same thing.

    It seems like a chicken and egg problem, but it’s not really. Those who see elites as creating institutions that change culture are merely witnessing elites who have a good sense of what the majority wants. Otherwise, you would end up with institutions like those in Latin America and that everyone ignores, as the Peruvian economist de Soto has often pointed out.

    In the US, the Constitution is a good example. Created by elites, most politicians ignored it and violated it until the 20th century when judges and politicians decided to interpret it away so that it means anything they want it to mean.

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