Arts & Culture

Can ‘Faithful Presence’ Change the World? Some Christian Leaders Aren’t so Sure.

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When I first read James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World a couple months ago, I found his argument that the true nature of cultural change is more “top-down” than “bottom-up” compelling.

At the same time, while I was intrigued by his proposal of faithful presence in place of our preoccupation with “changing the world” through institutions, I also found myself wishing there was a comprehensive, thoughtful response to Hunter’s arguments so I could get a different perspective on them.

Given this, the Gospel Coalition’s recent publication of Revisiting ‘Faithful Presence’: ‘To Change the World’ Five Years Later is incredibly timely.

In this collection of essays, several Christian scholars assess the merits and weaknesses of Hunter’s views on how culture changes and how we should engage it through faithful presence.

As the book’s title implies, the idea of faithful presence in particular undergoes serious critique. The authors here largely accept Hunter’s framework for how cultural change actually occurs, but most of them strongly dispute the adequacy of “faithful presence” (Hunter’s definition of it, at least) as a response to the cultural moment in which we find ourselves.

Some of the authors support a both/and approach – seeking to influence culture from within institutions on the one hand, while simultaneously being faithfully present within our communities in the way that Hunter describes. As Daniel Strange puts it,

Faithful presence means both a bottom-up and top-down strategy that is cognizant of the dynamics of cultural change, so helpfully described by Hunter [emphasis in original].

Vermon Pierre concurs, redefining faithful presence to encompass activity within both elite institutions and ordinary communities:

At some points, faithful presence is directed first and foremost toward the believing community. At other points faithful presence means measured but strategic steps to advance the mission at the highest levels of society. And at certain points, faithful presence in Scripture demands active witness against and even defiance of cultural authorities and views.

Other authors, while they do not articulate their own understanding of faithful presence, believe any definition that discourages aspiring to gain power within key institutions (as Hunter’s does) is unacceptable.

In this vein, Hunter Baker writes that merely seeking the common good through faithful presence is not enough:

I would be more inclined to accept [James Davison] Hunter’s description of how cultural change occurs (via the interaction of elites at the centers of culture) and to pursue that strategy as smartly as possible.

Similarly, Albert Mohler says that, insofar as faithful presence means we “surrender any claim of massive cultural influence and…forfeit any pretensions of world-changing on the part of the church,” it is not “an adequate response.”

An important consideration that is barely discussed at all in Revisiting ‘Faithful Presence’ is the possible dangers of attempting to influence the culture through elite institutions. On this matter Greg Forster writes,

If our approach to culture begins with antithesis and focuses on sneaking our people into the centers of power for the sake of subversion, it’s not clear how believers can live as Christians while they are in the process of sneaking in. Faith compels us not only to orthodoxy but also to orthopraxis. Those who conform to the world’s ways in order to get into centers of cultural power will not have much spiritual integrity left to use that power rightly when they get there. But those who do not conform will have difficulty (to say the least) getting into those centers of power.

This echoes one of Hunter’s own reasons for opposing a strategy of influencing culture by infiltrating elite institutions. However, another caution from Hunter that should at least make us stop and think is this:

So much of the discussion surrounding this kind of world-changing is oriented toward the idea of controlling history. The presumption is both that one can know God’s specific plans in human history and that one possesses the power to realize those plans in human affairs. There is a fine line between presumption and hope, as Aquinas observed, but in our culture, such presumption nearly always has tragic consequences.

Hunter is essentially invoking the law of unintended consequences, which states that “actions of people—and especially of government—always have effects that are unanticipated or unintended.” But is this potential danger grave enough to deter us altogether from trying to position ourselves within powerful institutions?

I would say this is the central issue To Change the World presents us with and that Revisiting ‘Faithful Presence’ addresses in different ways. It is a heavy quandary, to say the least.

Ultimately, the question may be whether we have more to fear from a road to hell paved with our good intentions, or a road to hell paved with intentions from the enemies of Christianity.

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  • As I wrote in response to the previous post, Hunter is wrong that culture changes from the top down. There is abundant evidence in economics to the opposite. The whole field of institutional economics proves him wrong. Institutions merely mirror what the masses believe; they don’t form those beliefs and there isn’t even much influence from them.

    And history proves him wrong. Europe tried the top down approach for a thousand years and achieved little. As late as the Reformation Christianity remained a predominantly urban experience. Rural people would pretend to be Christian while at home practicing their old pagan religion. In Latin America, the Church forced baptisms and “everyone” became nominal Christians, but the people mainly continued their pagan beliefs and practices under Catholic terminology.

    At the same time, we have to look to the Bible for real knowledge of how culture changes and there is no indication that God suggests a top down approach. Under the kings, Godly kings had very little impact on pagan idolatry.

    In the Bible, God sends prophets to convince individuals to change their beliefs and ways. If they don’t he sends drought and famine. If that doesn’t work he sends war. Clearly in the harder cases people require major crises in order to be willing to repent. In the NT, there is no suggestion of evangelizing the world through institutions, and changing the world cannot possibly happen without evangelism. The NT relies almost exclusively on preaching and nothing else to cause change.

  • Micah James Lugg

    Thank you, James, for these two posts you’ve written. These issues I’m wrestling with and thus I have found this ebook by TGC very timely.

    What I continue to look for is a sound exposition of the NT’s teaching on these matters. There is a lot of talk of strategy and good things for Christians to be about, but I’m not seeing many verses connected to those arguments. We don’t formulate our orthodoxy or orthopraxy and then go looking for verses. We need to start with the text and let that lead us to the right action.

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