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To Change the World by James Davison Hunter

To Change the World : The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (James Davison Hunter)

Book Summary

The title of the book is what got me interested in reading it. This collection of three essays on various approaches which the church has used is very insightful for any insider leader of the Christian church.

Essay one showed how privatized, individual and spiritual transformation has not and will be about a noticeable change in culture.

Essay two showed how Christians gaining power in various areas of culture will corrupt the very gospel we are trying to model and proclaim. There are three paradigms of cultural engagement which can be summarized by what he calls “defensive against,” “relevance to,” and ‘purity from.” There are simple yet helpful ways of clustering various views and approaches of cultural engagement.

Hunter explains in Essay three the idea of “faithful presence” where the task of making disciples—is oriented toward the cultivation of faithfulness in the totality of life. When followers of Jesus, both individually and collectively as the Church, are faithfully present in all aspects of a culture the possibility for effective cultural engagement are more possible.

The theology of “faithful presence” is build on God’s character and the incarnation. The Great Commission has a geographical focus but Hunter emphasizes that it must also have a scope focus in that we are to make disciples who will live out the gospel in all aspects of life and culture. He says, “The church is to go into all realms of social life: in volunteer and paid labor—skilled and unskilled labor, the crafts, engineering, commerce, art, law, architecture, teaching, health care, and service.”

As a pastor-coach who is deeply committed to making mature and equipped followers of Jesus, the book challenged and deepened my thinking about the result of discipleship. We are concerned to help people spiritually but true spirituality will effect all aspects of our lives and our cultural engagement as Christians and as the Church in the world.

Key Quotations

Pluralism in its most basic expression is nothing more than the simultaneous presence of multiple cultures and those who inhabit those cultures.

The three political theologies discussed in Essay II are, in fact, the leading public edge of more complex paradigms of cultural engagement that I call “defensive against,” “relevance to,” and “purity from.”

Those who embrace the “defensive against” paradigm continue to believe, by and large, that the main problem in the world is secularization; if only God could be re-enshrined in the social order, they assume, the culture would be restored.

Unlike those who prioritize distinctiveness though self-conscious continuity with Christian orthodoxy of the past, those in the “relevance to” paradigm make a priority of being connected to the pressing issues of the day.

This leads to the second point, which is that the main point of reference in defining itself as a movement and its main focus of critique is not contemporary culture but the established church.

Yet the desire to be “relevant to” the world has come at the cost of abandoning distinctiveness. The desire to be “defensive against” the world is rooted in a desire to retain distinctiveness, but this has been manifested in ways that are, on the one hand, aggressive and confrontational and, on the other, culturally trivial and inconsequential.

Finally, the desire to be “pure from” the world has entailed a disengagement and withdrawal from active presence in huge areas of social life. All want to engage the world faithfully, yet all pursue that end in ways that minimize the inherent tension that comes with being ones who are called to be “in the world but not of it.”

What is an authentically biblical way of existing within a pluralistic world in which Christianity will never be anything other than one culture among others?

What has been missing is a leadership that comprehends the nature of these challenges and offers a vision of formation adequate to the task of discipling the church and its members for a time such as ours. (My favorite quotation)

Formation—the task of making disciples—is oriented toward the cultivation of faithfulness in the totality of life.

The problem, in other words, is that Christians have not been formed “in all wisdom” that they might rise to the demands of faithfulness in a time such as ours, “bearing fruit in every good work.”

If, for whatever reason, the culture of a local church and the larger Christian communion of which it is a part does not express and embody a vision of renewal and restoration that extends to all of life then it will be impossible to “make disciples” capable of doing the same in every part of their lives.

When people are saved by God through faith in Christ they are not only being saved from their sins, they are saved in order to resume the tasks mandated at creation, the task of caring for and cultivating a world that honors God and reflects his character and glory.

Over against the “Defensive Against,” “Relevance To” and “Purity From” paradigms, I would offer an alternative: “Faithful Presence”

The very character of God and the heart of his Word is that God is fully and faithfully present to us. On the face of it, faithful presence suggests proximity, but it is much more than this. His faithful presence is an expression of commitment marked by at least four attributes. First, God’s faithful presence implies that he pursues us. A second attribute of God’s faithful presence is his identification with us. A third attribute of his faithful presence is found in the life he offers. Finally—and inextricably intertwined with the preceding—the life he offers is only made possible by his sacrificial love. Pursuit, identification, the offer of life through sacrificial love —this is what God’s faithful presence means.

At root, a theology of faithful presence begins with an acknowledgement of God’s faithful presence to us and that his call upon us is that we be faithfully present to him in return.

As he does not pursue us for instrumental purposes, so we do not pursue him for instrumental purposes. As our creator and redeemer, our highest aim is to be in his presence; worshipping and enjoying him forever.

Faithful presence means that we are to be fully present to each other within the community of faith and fully present to those who are not. Whether within the community of believers or among those outside the church, we imitate our creator and redeemer: we pursue each other, identify with each other, and direct our lives toward the flourishing of each other through sacrificial love.

Second, faithful presence requires that Christians be fully present and committed to their tasks.

Third, faithful presence in the world means that Christians are fully present and committed in their spheres of social influence, whatever they may be: their families, neighborhoods, voluntary activities, and places of work.

As Eric Liddell’s father says to him in the film Chariots of Fire , “What the world needs right now is a muscular Christian—to make them sit up and take notice!” and “Run in God’s name and let the world stand back in wonder!”

This fragmentation is often reinforced by a world of hyperkinetic activity marked by unrelenting interruption and distraction. On the one hand, such conditions foster a technical mastery that prizes speed and agility, and facility with multiple tasks—for example, using e-mail, I-M, the cell phone, the iPod, all the while eating lunch, holding a conversation, or listening to a lecture. But on the other hand, these very same conditions undermine our capacity for silence, depth of thinking, and focused attention. In other words, the context of contemporary life, by its very nature, cultivates a kind of absence in the experience of “being elsewhere.” Faithful presence resists such conditions and the frame of mind it cultivates.

When our various tasks are done in ways that acknowledge God, God is present and he is glorified. Such tasks may not be redeeming, but they can provide a foretaste of the coming kingdom.

As to our spheres of influence, a theology of faithful presence obligates us to do what we are able, under the sovereignty of God, to shape the patterns of life and work and relationship—that is, the institutions of which our lives are constituted—toward a shalom that seeks the welfare not only of those of the household of God but of all.

The church is to go into all realms of social life: in volunteer and paid labor—skilled and unskilled labor, the crafts, engineering, commerce, art, law, architecture, teaching, health care, and service.

The first obligation for Christians is to listen carefully to opponents and if they are not willing to do so, then Christians should simply be silent. To engage in a war of words is to engage in a symbolic violence that is fundamentally at odds with the gospel.

There is a yearning for a different way, especially among the young; a way that has integrity with the historic truths of the faith and the witness of the Spirit and that is adequate to the challenges of the present moment.

It is essential, in my view, to abandon altogether talk of “redeeming the culture,” “advancing the kingdom,” “building the kingdom,” “transforming the world,” “reclaiming the culture,” “reforming the culture,” and “changing the world.” Christians need to leave such language behind them because it carries too much weight. It implies conquest, take-over, or dominion, which in my view is precisely what God does not call us to pursue—at least not in any conventional, twentieth- or twenty-first-century way of understanding these terms.

It is not likely to happen, but it may be that the healthiest course of action for Christians, on this count, is to be silent for a season and learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through law, policy, and political mobilization.

Unity around the core beliefs and practices of Christian faith can only serve the larger purposes of making disciples, on the one hand, and serving the common good, on the other.

If Christians cannot extend grace and love through faithful presence within the body of believers, they certainly will not be able to extend grace to those outside.

As a community and an institution, the church is a plausibility structure and the only one with the resources capable of offering an alternative formation to that offered by popular culture.

Christians, at their best, will neither create a perfect world nor one that is altogether new; but by enacting shalom and seeking it on behalf of all others through the practice of faithful presence, it is possible, just possible, that they will help to make the world a little bit better.

CareerCharles Hooper, Jr.