In 2010, noted University of Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter published the landmark book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. On the five-year anniversary of its publication, we asked eight contributors to engage the book’s thesis and assess its effect on the ongoing interaction of evangelical Christians with the surrounding culture. The result is The Gospel Coalition’s first eBook, Revisiting ‘Faithful Presence’: To Change the World Five Years Later. You can download the book, for free, to read in your preferred format. You will find, below, my introduction to the book.
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Cloudy with a 100 Percent Chance of Storms
This year marks five years since James Davison published his landmark book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. In many ways the book has been influential beyond its numerical readership in advocating “faithful presence,” warning against ressentiment, and exploring the particular influence of densely networked elites in shaping our shared culture. The disproportionate effect of the book on changing the opinion and action of evangelical professors, pastors, and non-profit executives supports a key argument from Hunter, the Labrosse-Levinson distinguished professor of religion, culture, and social theory at the University of Virginia and executive director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. Change may come imperceptibly, slowly at first. But eventually, as the tastemakers of any given culture have their way, the rest of us barely remember to imagine the world as it was.
Five years, then, is hardly long enough to reach any firm conclusions about whether events will confirm Hunter’s thesis. Hunter sharply criticizes popular political voices from Chuck Colson to Jim Wallis, but evangelicals have hardly responded to his book by going “silent for a season” as advised. Evangelicals still seem to prefer populist outrage to long-term strategic placement and cooperation. Evangelicals continue to invest enormous emotional and financial capital in the political process. In this sense, at least, Hunter has hardly been tried. He’s been found wanting by never being found at all.
But in another sense, evangelicals’ experiences of American culture have changed dramatically in five years, particularly in how they relate to government on sexual ethics and religious freedom. The context of the later George W. Bush administration feels quite different from what we expect now and going forward. Five years ago many evangelicals heard Hunter as a call to seek “faithful presence” in the elite sectors of society. Now many wonder if they could even gain access. And even when they can, do we believe evangelicals could remain faithful under such pressure? Would they even be allowed to practice their faith according to a biblically formed conscience?
Two evangelicals, then, could look back on the last five years and reach diametrically opposed conclusions about Hunter’s book, even though both perspectives can be found therein.
(1) Look at how our culture has deteriorated for Christians. That’s why we need “faithfully present” Christians in education, in law, and in media to effect cultural change. Christians have neglected the influence of elites to their own peril.
(2) Look at how our culture has deteriorated for Christians. I don’t see how Christians can be permitted to exercise public faith in education, law, and media in good conscience. Plus, the church is being rotted from the inside because Christians have allowed those influences to disciple our youth. Rather than “faithful presence” in the world we need “strategic attentiveness” to our own house.
Hunter’s book, then, acts as a litmus test: should we double-down on the “faithful presence” strategy in light of how we’ve seen elites in the numerical minority turn institutions to their advantage? Or does preoccupation with elite culture distract us from Paul’s “foolishness of God” example in 1 Corinthians 1:18–30? To be “silent for a season” sounds like the worst negligence when you see the federal government give millions of dollars to aid Planned Parenthood’s murderous agenda. And what is a better example of loving our neighbor than saving helpless babies from murder? But to be “silent for a season” sounds like the only rational option when you see Donald Trump, even for a time, leading the polls among evangelical Republicans.
The world needs the love of Christ and the example of God’s people as urgently as ever. But evangelicals, mired in social media wars among themselves and plagued by ressentiment on both Left and Right, do not appear up to the task.
Climate vs. Weather
Hunter and I met in his office this fall to talk about the weather. Or, rather, he played the role of cultural climatologist to my meteorologist. He talked about the long-term trends of Western civilization. I reported on the issues of the day. Those issues have their origins in decades, even centuries of thought and learned behavior. So I sought help from him to read the climate based on my readings of our recent cultural storms. I can see the clouds; he could help me predict their long-range potency.
Hunter, 60, published another seminal work, Culture Wars: The Struggle to Control the Family, Art, Education, Law, and Politics in America, in 1992. Not until the late 1990s, however, did he begin to understand that in this book he had described a great rupture in world history, the end of one era and the beginning of the next. We have witnessed the end of Western civilization, which was built on reason (Athens) and revelation (Jerusalem), the work of Plato and Paul. And whether we recognize it or not, we’re seeing the dawn of the age of Nietzsche—history without meaning, the quest for pitiable comfort. “We don’t realize how pagan we’ve become,” Hunter told me.
I asked him to come down from the clouds and help us understand. “What makes you stay up and worry?” I inquired.
“Capitalism is the most global, the most powerful institution in human history,” Hunter explained. “But markets like anything else in creation give expression to the fall. And without a moral system markets are only nihilistic.”
Whether or not you agree with Hunter, and Greg Forster does not in the next chapter of this eBook, we must not miss the significance of September 11, 2001. In their effort to upend world order, Islamic terrorists targeted the most visible symbols of capitalism. In response the most powerful political leader in the world urged patriotic Americans to respond by shopping and traveling. The response tells you what keeps our political leaders up at night, too.
Hunter hardly seemed fazed by the biggest weather development of our culture since 2001, the Obergefell v. Hodges decision earlier this year that legalized same-sex marriage across the United States. So why didn’t the decision register with him as significant? Because in his mind the decision had been foreordained at least 35 years ago. The justice who wrote the decision, Anthony Kennedy, might be the most influential public theologian and philosopher or our era. He’s not an innovator, but he has codified into constitutional law on marriage and abortion the momentous cultural shift toward expressive individualism. And he was appointed by President Ronald Reagan, the greatest electoral achievement of the Religious Right. No amount of political strategy and investment can overcome a cultural revolution that has swept away the old order.
It’s easy to think Hunter must be pessimistic about any Christian efforts to change the world, given the sharp critiques of his book. But he’s surprisingly sanguine about our opportunity as Christians to grow the grass on which a better civilization might be built as an alternative to the age of Nietzsche. The God who is present and faithful to every generation gives us eyes to see a more beautiful world. And in Christ he grants us peace that isn’t from this world. We don’t live from election cycle to cycle. We’re engaged in the work of a century, at least.
“This book is not at all about withdrawal,” Hunter insists. “It’s all about engagement. But I don’t conflate the public with the political.”
The essays of this eBook seek to highlight the most insightful aspects of To Change the World even as several of the contributors offer substantial critique. The process has sharpened my own thinking about why the book struck me as so important five years ago. Here I offer one insight for each year, along with one major concern in my last point.
(1) Courage and conviction are not enough, as Hunter shows in his analysis of historical culture change. Yes, following Jesus necessarily means we’ll be hated, at least by some (John 15:18–25). But courage and conviction without cooperation and compromise accomplish little in the realm of common grace, where we’re called to love our neighbors in word and deed.
(2) Populism doesn’t change cultures. And neither does heroic individualism. Hunter famously cites the example of Jews and gays as minorities that exercise outsized influence on government, media, education, and the arts. What does change culture, then? Dense networks of people working in overlapping fields. So don’t misunderstand the example of the civil rights movement. Heroic individuals like Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. were assisted by high-placed allies in government and media. The same is true of the marching masses.
(3) When evangelicals perceive cultural declension, revival becomes a popular topic. But it’s much less popular to recruit allies to build institutions and structures for the long haul. And yet history suggests that revivals leave a lasting legacy on earth when they change social structures and not just hearts. Such was the case with the work of William Wilberforce and the revived Clapham Sect when they abolished slavery in early 19th-century England.
(4) Politics trumps all in Christian cultural engagement. But it shouldn’t. Because we’ve defined our discipleship in relation to the state, the world knows Christians by our politics. And history shows that churches characterized by partisan politics fall with the fortunes of their patron parties. However it happened, religious liberty has been recast as a position of self-interest, rather than a constitutional guarantee. So Kim Davis in Kentucky reinforces the perception of Christians as exercising the self-righteous privileges of discrimination. Our neighbors can’t connect our principled stand with love for them. Yet our fallen world also provides opportunities to show the way of grace and forgiveness, as in the case of the Charleston Nine this year.
(5) All three modes of cultural engagement identified by Hunter—purity from, defensive against, and relevant to—reflect some biblical truth on their own. But the example of Jesus, rather than the contrast with each other or previous generations, must fuel our imaginations. The more we compliment ourselves for not making the mistakes of our fathers, the more likely we are to be judged by our sons and daughters as missing the point of Jesus.
Assessing the ministry of Jesus, To Change the World favors two dimensions of the atonement over all others: his example and triumph over the forces of evil. But that’s not the only or even the primary way God is present to us and faithful to his promises. Without the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to believers by faith and the satisfaction of God’s wrath against sin (Rom. 3:21–26; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 John 2:2; 4:10), we remain enemies of God under judgment. Those who love God and love their neighbors know how much they’ve been forgiven (Luke 7:47). Hunter’s appeal to the common good would have been stronger with more sustained emphasis on this dimension of Christ’s work.
Not Just for Elites
In so much discussion over Hunter’s book, his main application has barely registered: the local church offers Christians the faithful presence of God and the means to support their mission in every sphere of creation. Essays I and II of Hunter’s book have seven chapters, matching the biblical number for completeness. But Essay III has only six chapters. That’s because, Hunter told me, he intended for the church to write that chapter in her practice. Healthy spiritual formation, as Hunter argues in the book, comes in community culture. As the pastor of Trinity Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, Greg Thompson earned his PhD under Hunter at the University of Virginia. He’s seeking to implement this vision of “missionary churches for a secular age” with the twin goals of forming faithful Christians and unleashing them as creative institution-builders in all cultural spheres.
Even so, many think Hunter is an elitist fixated on infiltration of high society. They miss this key role he assigns to the church. He’s hopeful about churches that see their communities as parishes of networked families. Such dense cultures learn and love in ways that overflow to their neighbors and result in praise to God. At the same time, Hunter insists his work applies equally well to your local school as it does to Washington, D.C. These schools change as teachers work with parents, administrators cooperate with local government officials, and religious leaders consult with business owners. All are elites in their own spheres. All have power to enact change, but they can accomplish a great deal more together than they can separately.
Hunter’s book has mostly reached elites during the last five years. But he challenges all Christians to deploy whatever status and wealth they have been entrusted by God as they carry one another’s burdens. He does not offer a path to influence so much as the mode of faithfulness in our secular age.
“Status is about exclusion,” Hunter told me, “and that’s repugnant to the gospel.” He continued, “Jesus chose a common fisherman, Peter, and he also chose as his chief theologian Paul, one of the greatest minds of all time.”
Whether you’re more like Peter or Paul, God can work with each one of us to change our little corner of the world. And maybe even more. The weather may be cloudy with a 100 percent chance of storms. But the long-range forecast tells us the clouds come with God himself (Rev. 1:7).
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The essays of this eBook reflect diverse approaches to Hunter’s work. Greg Forster offers an extensive overview of Hunter’s context and contributes substantial critique on two aspects in particular. The other essays contribute shorter takes on key aspects of Hunter’s thesis. None should be regarded as attempting exhaustive engagement with Hunter’s mammoth analysis of culture and history. Nevertheless each opens a window into how thinkers and practitioners of various backgrounds have grappled with their calling since 2010 when the book released.