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Grand Rapids, MI

Embarking Blog

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To Change the World or Not, that is the question (sort of)

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That's not exactly how he phrases it, but James Davison Hunter in his recent book To Change the World: Irony, Tragedy, and The Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World questions the possibility of Christians really changing the world through intention.   It's not nearly that simple, particularly for this brilliant sociologist, but Hunter argues - among other things - that changing the world is a long, complicated process involving cultural elites and centers of power, particularly in politics, that run contrary to the biblical vision given to us by Jesus.  I've been reading this book over the past couple months and have finally brought it to conclusion, although I think I'll read it again.  In a nutshell, Hunter challenges the assumption that aggregated individuals through grassroots efforts can make any lasting or significant change in culture, particularly without wielding the very power of coercion that Christianity rejects. I think Andy Crouch from the Christian Vision Project sums it up well when he says, "The irony is that there is no phrase more beloved to a certain kind of Christian than 'to change the world.' But in Hunter's persuasive account, the strategies those very same Christians have pursued are, by themselves, woefully incapable of changing the world..."  "...the very idea of 'changing the world' is rooted in a quest for dominance that fundamentally misunderstands the Christian gospel and the way of Jesus."

Hunter goes on to critique the Christian Right (conservatives), The Christian Left (liberals or mainliners), and what he calls the "Neo-Anabaptists" made up of folks like Hauerwas, Yoder, Claiborne, and the New Monastics.  In this critique, Hunter betrays his philosophical (or sociological?) postmodernism in agreement with the likes of Foucault, Nietzsche, and others about language, power, and the coercive nature of culture creation.

There are several people who engage Hunter's work, not the least of which are Andy Crouch and Chuck Colsen (see the posts below) who ask some great questions.  What I found interesting was that nowhere (I'm sure it's out there somewhere) have I yet seen someone challenge the philological, linguistic, postmodern philosophical assumptions of Hunter's work.  Don't get me wrong, I actually agree with Hunter on these points about power and cultural transformation, but he doesn't fully tip his hands about the philosophical foundations of those ideas, choosing instead to shroud them more spiritually in the non-coercive, non-violent leadership of Jesus.  I happen to think these two things are very compatible, but haven't seen much work done to connect the two (which I'd love to do if I had the time).  Hunter does his sociological work as a Christian within a postmodern philosophical framework, but only acknowledges his indebtedness to the likes of Foucault at a cursory level hidden in the endnotes (yes, some of us do read them, cf. endnote 1, Chapter 4, Part I) and to Nietzshe with a short explication ofressentiment from Nietzsche and its relationship to Christianity in Chapter 7 of Part II.  Generally I find most Christians merely lambasting postmodern thought and philosophy without a) really understanding some of the seminal thoughts, b) seeing the ability to be a Christian and acknowledge some of these realities, or c) understanding how deeply these ideas affect issues of hermeneutics, missions, and even contextualization.

Don't get me wrong, there are serious problems with postmodern philosophy, postmodernity as a cultural project, unthoughtful "postmodern churches" and edgy "postmodern pastors".  But some of the more serious questions about our embeddedness in cultures of understanding based on would help us think through contextualization in mission, understanding of  power and language might help us avoid our sometimes coercive tendencies (in marketing, preaching, the use of guilt, etc.), and a greater honesty about our presuppositions and framing stories might help us get closer to real conversation with people about basic beliefs without mere condemnation and help our evangelism.  Recently Tim Keller told a group I was a part of that we need a new approach to apologetics, and I think this is part of it.  Hunter, in my opinion, opens the door to some of these conversations in a different (and potentially less volatile) way than Brian McLaren.

So, here are a couple wrap up thoughts on Hunter's book:

  1. This is a wonderful, scholarly work on how cultural change actually functions.
  2. This work requires additional study on these issues by Christians and non-Christians alike.
  3. There is much more work to be done in helping Christians to wrestle with some of these underlying issues of power, language, and culture (which, honestly, postmodern philosophy is mostly about).
  4. This analysis is extremely helpful in understanding many of the drawbacks of the Christian Right, Christian Left, and the Neo-Anabaptist approaches and their rooting (or not) in ressentiment (which, interestingly enough, was the subject of one of my senior seminar papers in 1994 dealing with Neitzsche and the will to power.)

Enough of that for now.  I have more to say, and if I find the time I'll write more.  Here are some helpful articles that give some more information about the book and Crouch and Colsen's responses.


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