To Change the World, Essay III and Book Review

I’m going to review Essay III and the book as a whole in one post, but I will do a summary of each chapter first.

Chapter 1, “The Challenge of Faithfulness”: Hunter looks at two major facets of this challenge: difference and dissolution.  In a pluralistic society, the existence of many different beliefs pose a challenge to Christian beliefs.  Hunter discusses what Peter Berger calls “plausibility structures,” which are the cultural and institutional supports for beliefs.  Think about a medieval person for whom Christianity was a given and much of the culture supported the centrality of the faith (to borrow Doug Wilson’s example).  Even kings who fought the church for influence would claim that God willed it so.  A more pluralistic society undermines this certainty as the institutional supports are not nearly as aligned.

The challenge of dissolution, which Hunter defines as the waning of the belief that words and concepts can have any ultimate meaning, comes from both high culture and middle/low culture.  On the high cultural end, we have deconstructionist theory and skepticism that doubts the existence of truth.  On the other hand, the pluralism and especially the media environment of modern American life have contributed, as electronic media have significantly reduced the barriers of time and space, present information in a more fragmented way than ever before without any “overarching narrative structure” or differentiation between the serious and ephemeral, present everything as entertainment, and “create an illusion of intimacy” with people that we’ll never know.  This all creates an environment that trivializes information and makes depth and reflection more difficult and helps to dissolve meaning.  This was really interesting but probably required a whole book to be completely convincing.  It rings true, though there are also many good things that come from having access to so much information.  But it will drive us crazy if we let it.  Figuring out how to deal with this cultural transformation is essential for the church, Hunter believes.

Chapter 2, “Old Cultural Wineskins”: Here he revisits the three predominant Christian approaches in America that he has discussed.  He characterizes them as “defensive against” (conservative Christians), “relevant to” (mainline Protestants, progressive evangelicals, emerging church, and seeker-sensitive churches), and “purity from” (neo-Anabaptists, New Monastics, and Pentecostals who withdraw from the world).  Each of these has its strengths and weaknesses.

Hunter also evaluates these stances in relation to the challenges of difference and dissolution.  Two interesting points stood out.  Progressive evangelicals tend to focus more on living out the faith to the point that Hunter worries that doctrines themselves will be deemphasized for future generations.  Secondly, conservative evangelicals have embraced the electronic media, which he believes plays a huge role in the dissolution of meaning, in order to get out their message.  While he sees benefits in this, the problem is that they offer the same “pseudo-intimacy” with famous Christians that the electronic media offer with secular celebrities, and the whole industry is sold using the same market rules as the wider culture.  Thus, he believes these play a role in the dissolution of meaning as well.  I think that one way Hunter might explain it is that it’s great to listen to a sermon by John Piper (which I actually intend to make a part of my week when he comes back from leave), but it’s even better to listen to and know your own pastor who you can have a real relationship with.  And I imagine that Hunter is really worried about the cyber-church phenomenon, which kind of freaks me out too.

Chapter 3, “The Groundwork for an Alternative Way”: This is a mostly theoretical chapter.  Hunter turns around the concerns of Christian leaders who say that Christians just don’t think and believe enough.  The problem, he says, that Christians are not formed by the church but instead by the wider culture.  Thus, it is the leaders’ responsibility to recapture a church that truly forms its members in a Christian culture, the church.  The church’s goal is to model shalom (the Hebrew word translated as “peace,” with deeper connotations of “human flourishing”), a way of life that is better than the world’s and based on God’s revealed will in the Bible.  In light of this, the church has a stance of both affirmation of the good in creation and human culture and antithesis in which it offers a better way.  He believes that it must avoid the error of Constantinian takeover or taking back of culture, but that we must engage in “critical resistance” in which “the church … stands antithetical to modernity and its dominant institutions in order to offer an alternative vision and direction for them” (235).

Chapter 4, “Toward a Theology of Faithful Presence”: Hunter roots his idea of “faithful presence” in the creation and incarnation.  God’s creation and the incarnation of Christ show true identification between word and world militates against the dissolution that we experience in late modernity and God’s acceptance of us in Christ, though we are “other” because of our humanity and sin, provides a new model for encountering the pluralism of the world in which we live.  He writes that God’s “faithful presence” bears four attributes: he pursues us, identifies with us, offers us life in its fullest sense, and sacrificially loves us.  We, then, are to be faithfully present to each other, in his words, in our tasks, and in our spheres of influence.  He believes that the downfall of the relevance-driven liberal and emergent Christians is they focus on deeds without creeds, that evangelicals and fundamentalists tend to prioritize specifically Christian work (celebrating C.S. Lewis’s apologetics, for example, but not his work as an academic), and that the neo-Anabaptists see the world as neutral at best and denigrate work.  Faithful presence, instead, calls for the pursuit of faithfulness and excellence in all that we do.

Chapter 5, “The Burden of Leadership: A Theology of Faithful Presence in Practice”: Hunter now wonders how Christians lead, since that is what he is asking them to do.  I think that a good way to put it is that the church needs to be a culture that envisions life differently and according to God’s vision of life.  This culture is present in the broader culture, not isolated from it.  One way that Christians can show a different vision of life is through the idea of broad and deep covenantal relationships rather than narrowly-defined contracts.  In business, for example, the employer-employee and business-customer relationship is based on a deeper idea of obligations, rather than simply the exchange of labor, products, and money/benefits.  One example of this was that a car dealership group noticed that its profits were much higher in its inner-city locations as compared to its suburban locations (the implication that Hunter gives is that higher-educated people in the suburbs had a greater ability to shop for bargains and perhaps make deals with the dealership, but it’s not entirely clear).  The company decided to fix its prices in the inner city, lowering profit margins but attracting many more customers.  It also decided to pay college tuition for its all employees’ children.  The reward for this has been employee loyalty.

Christians’ faithful presence needs to be supported and connected by local churches.  Also, the results will vary depending on the circumstances, but faithful presence is nonetheless good for whatever community it touches.

Chapter 6, “Toward a New City Commons”: The final chapter sums up Hunter’s points and considers a bit more how “faithful presence” can become reality.  Leaving behind ambitions of world-changing, as commonly defined, the church must focus on being a community that models shalom.  Hunter considers Jeremiah 29’s call to the Jews to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile” to be relevant for Christians in a post-Christian culture today.  It would be a long period of exile, and exile in which the first generation of exiles would have to raise their children rather than returning to Zion in their lifetimes.

Hunter calls for patience, even self-imposed silence, while Christians figure out how to engage the world in ways that are public expressions of shalom rather than purely political.  Christians also must learn to unite and love each other that they might be able to love the world.  He believes that the primacy of the formation of Christian disciples actually means that differences between Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox are largely irrelevant in the face of the need to form disciples in late modern culture.  In thinking about our relationship to the outside world, Hunter returns to the double responsibility of affirmation and antithesis.  He ends with the suggestion that if Christians truly focus on creating the alternate culture of the church, they may succeed in making the world slightly better.

The end of the book is very much in keeping with what Hunter has been saying all along. Changing the world is difficult, and making it our goal without understanding how culture change works sets us up for failure.

There was a lot about this book to praise.  Reading Hunter’s observations on cultural change and seeing some examples (Chapters 4 and 5 of Essay I) was fascinating and it seems like an important thing for publically-engaged Christians to understand.  His description of the political culture (Essay II, Chapter 2) was a skillful diagnosis, and his exploration of the Christian Right, Christian Left, and neo-Anabaptists were insightful and thought-provoking.  His vision for the church as a true community that offers a vision of a better life and forms disciples is something that we need to be reminded of in a culture where we want the church to help us feel good and “spiritual” and to follow our program.

On the other hand, there were some frustrating things about it.  It sometimes felt like a rough draft, especially in the latter part of the book.  He didn’t seem to have his idea of “faithful presence” fully developed, and I feel like he would have a tough time defending it in debate once he got beyond the very good foundation that he has laid for it.  Toward the end, his arguments felt repetitive, and I don’t feel that he sketched out what faithful presence would really look like in academia, media, etc.  Finally, I think that his engagement with the ideas of the Christian Right was too isolated from Christian practice.  As he explained in Essay III, Chapter 5, many Christians are living in ways that reflect faithful presence.

Hunter also assumes that pluralism and secular governments are here to stay and that Constantinian ambitions of church-state cooperation are to be avoided, as Doug Wilson has pointed out in his chapter by chapter interactions with Hunter.  Wilson, as usual, has provocative critiques (most notably here, in which he turns Hunter’s biblical examples of the exiled Israelites’ faithful presence against Hunter’s own argument), but it should be said that Hunter is definitely in the majority with these assumptions.  The contrast between their positions is definitely an illustration that eschatology makes a big difference when we think about the relationship between Christ and culture.

I certainly benefitted from reading this book.  If I were making a recommendation, I would say to read Essay I for sure.  That’s where the best stuff is.  In Essay II, read Chapter 2’s description of our political culture and Chapter 7’s reflections on power, and read the rest if you have time.  Essay III is interesting, but I would say skim it if you’re pressed for time.

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5 comments

  1. So, is his basic solution that Christians are on the outs now (and likely will be for some time), so they should give up on changing the culture and focus on forming deep relationships and providing “shalom” for their very local community?

    Hunter seems to have spent a lot of time saying that culture is formed and changed through elite institutions. Given his pessimism about this situation changing, he seems to advocate a retreat from the culture and prudence in picking when we should engage. Is that a correct assessment?

    My opinion is that culture building takes time and involving sinful people, means that members of successful movements are prone to dissolution when following the CEO or independent model so many churches today embrace. There needs to be a deeper culture that can incorporate the good of particular movements and continue to grow, without falling apart when scandal hits or simply dying off and aging into irrelevance as popularity ebbs. Constantly reinventing the wheel keeps young movements “relevant” to the popular culture, but it can never provide a firm enough foundation to build a parallel culture capable of changing people’s lives when in conflict with the message passed down through elite circles. This is a big reason why the non-denominational divorce rate is so high relative to Catholics and Lutherans. Show me a Christian movement of decent size whose divorce rate is different from the culture at large, and I’ll show you a movement that has significant staying power and the ability to form and change culture over time.

  2. I think that he would say to give up on changing the culture as a conscious goal since it is out of our control, but still to engage the culture as the church.

    My wife and I were just saying the other day that if there was more unity in the evangelical world (even a parish model, I dare say, which is a pipe dream for now) there wouldn’t be the expectation that a pastor would have a vision for the church, which then causes turnover in the members (who go shopping for a new church) and the staff who don’t fit the vision. When you have a tradition to draw from, you might not have to “reinvent the wheel” as you say. But this is certainly not an evangelical strength.

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