To Change the World, Chapter 1

There’s been a lot of buzz about James Davison Hunter’s new book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.  Hunter is a professor in the sociology department at University of Virginia.  He seems to be a respected Christian thinker on the “culture wars,” and it seems that To Change the World is widely regarded as an important entry into the discussion on the age-old question of how Christ relates to culture.  Justin Taylor and Doug Wilson have both blogged through the part of the book so far, and Chuck Colson, whose approach to culture change is critiqued by Hunter, expressed concern in a recent Breakpoint broadcast at the traction that Hunter’s argument was gaining.   Christianity Today featured online responses from Colson and Andy Crouch, along with Hunter’s response to them.  You can find these three articles here.

Chapter 1 is short, surveying statements of many Protestant and Catholic institutions that reflect the desire to “change the world” for Christ.  He believes that this follows from our calling by God in the Garden of Eden: “to cultivate and keep it.”  He believes that they are sincere, but here’s the rub: he doesn’t believe that they can work:

I contend that the dominant ways of thinking about culture and cultural change are flawed, for they are based on both specious social science and problematic theology.  In brief, the model on which various strategies are based not only does not work, but it cannot work.  On the basis of this working theory, Christians cannot “change the world” in a way that they, even in their diversity, desire.  But this is just the beginning; the entry point for a longer reflection on the Christian faith and its engagement with the world. (5)

I’m really looking forward to seeing what Hunter has to say.  The trope of “changing the world” and “making a difference” is so common in both Christian and non-Christian discourse that it’s lost much of its meaning for me.  Thomas Sowell may have produce the first crack in the wall for me with his column “Stop ‘Making a Difference.’” Really deep change takes a lot of time, years or decades or centuries, and it seems like a lot of “make a difference, change the world” rhetoric wants immediate change, which can often be very shallow or make the people taking action feel good.  If Hunter can offer some insights on how cultures really do change, it will be very helpful.


  1. Sowell’s article is excellent, particularly as he distinguishes positive interpretations of those tropes from the more popular but clearly flawed uses of them.

    Hunter’s focus seems a bit different, but we’ll see. To the extent that he’s arguing for attracting rather than pushing or coercing, I probably agree with him. Hopefully, he’ll have some good examples to consider.

  2. Hunter strikes me as being rather down about the tremendous accomplishments of Christianity. To describe the actual Christian legacy on “pursuing God’s restorative purposes over all life” as ambivalent is to take a rather dim view of 2000 years of Christianity, IMO. Similarly, he seems to take a rather dim view of American Christianity’s record on engaging the culture, which strikes me as lacking a full perspective. American Christianity has tremendous faults, but it has maintained something no other western first world country has maintained, a vibrant and youthful Christian presence. This is no small accomplishment and can in many ways be attributed to the work of groups like Campus Crusade, Focus on the Family, etc. This Christian counter-culture may be rather ignorant when it comes to things like 6 day creationism, and it may not influence the halls of the New York Times, but it has had a significant impact on our culture at large and the future of a Christian presence in the US. Instead of blaming the Christian counter culture for the lack of success in “changing the world,” my knee jerk is to blame the education system for making people such slaves of media outlets like the New York Times and even sitcoms that they are unable to discern the BS from the legit. As a culture, we are extremely vulnerable to emotional appeals devoid of logical rigor, and while Christianity hasn’t caused that stupidity, it hasn’t done enough to rectify the situation.

    Anyway, that’s my knee-jerk to the first chapter as presented on Amazon. I would really like to see Hunter take a more positive (and realistic) attitude toward the real accomplishments of the system he criticizes. Only as one accurately evaluates the present can one make a forceful case for an alternate system.

    Chesterton once said that, “The business of Progressives is to go on making mistakes. The business of the Conservatives is to prevent the mistakes from being corrected.” I suppose I tend to err on the side of conservatism, so perhaps by the end of the book (or in another 15 years), I’ll be less skeptical of Hunter’s views. 🙂

  3. Not to go on too much about this, because Amazon cut off the preview at the end of page 8, so I’m really limited in what I’ve read on the topic, but it strikes me as really odd that Catholics are being accused of not understanding the importance of institutions in cultural change. Usually, the mantra is that Catholics rely far too much on institutions, so this strikes me as a rather unique accusation. To this end, I am not surprised that the only quote I am able to find on this topic is obviously taken out of context. Hunter ends one paragraph by saying that Colson teaches that cultural transformation needs to be from the bottom up, and then goes on to say that Catholics have the same viewpoint, quoting Robert George, “The work of transformation of hearts and minds necessarily includes the work of cultural transformation” From just this quote, I was extremely skeptical that Dr. George was minimizing the influence of institutions such as the media and Ivy Leagues (where he teaches!) etc. Reading the full context of the quote bore out that skepticism.

    Indeed, one of the primary focuses of George’s article was not on the political, but the moral and cultural shift among Christians beginning publicly with the Anglican Lambeth Conference of 1929, when for the first time a Christian denomination embraced contraception in certain circumstances. The rejection of Church teaching on contraception by many Catholics has led to extreme disorder and weakening of the Church and to the embrace of all sorts of sinful acts, such as homosexuality. No group of people that embraces contraception can stand long against homosexuality as being intrinsically disordered. They have abandoned one of the primary non-arbitrary reasons for its rejection.

    While Robert George does mention the political in his article, this is not necessarily indicative of a view that the political is the sole or primary means of attaining culture change, as his focus on other cultural changes indicates. However, he does recognize the role of governmental institutions and the law in maintaining, forming and transforming culture. To say that government only has power because of the threat of violence is a simplistic view of governmental influence. I would hope that Hunter does not propose that Christians abandon the political in favor of other institutional forms of culture change, since that would strike me as rather imbalanced. This is especially true since the political is one of the few American institutional arenas where intelligent Christian ideas on things like homosexual marriage are not blackballed as a rule.


  4. You’re probably right that Hunter could give more credit to the cultural accomplishments of Christianity. I think that he probably is thinking of some of the abuses perhaps more than the general cultural environment created in Western Christian culture. A later chapter focuses on some of the ways that Christians have contributed to world-changing:

    Regarding Robert George, he is not saying that George focuses too much on the political but rather that cultural change doesn’t work from the bottom up: changing ordinary people’s hearts and minds doesn’t often change a culture because it often leaves the centers of power untouched. Looking briefly at the passage in the article that you provided, it appears that he may have misunderstood what George was saying. George seems to be saying that culture transformation is necessary to transform individuals, which would be more consonant with what Hunter is talking about.

    If that is the proper understanding, then Hunter would probably still object that culture transformation is a precarious goal, because so much of it is out of our control.

    As far as dealing with Catholicism, I think that is one of Hunter’s weaknesses. He deals a decent amount with Catholic-Protestant co-belligerence in the culture wars, but doesn’t do well in highlighting the different (although related) streams from which they draw. He would probably say that their public manifestation is often so similar that it’s not necessary to get into that for his purposes.

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