To Change the World: Essay 3, Summary, Part 2

[This series of posts won’t be a traditional book review. Rather, I’ll summarize parts of To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter, and then I’ll add my own thoughts. I may criticize the book here and there, but I don’t have much to criticize.]

Hunter proposes an approach he calls “faithful presence within.” He summarizes the idea in “two essential lessons” —

The first is that incarnation is the only adequate reply to the challenges of dissolution; the erosion of trust between word and world and the problems that attend it. From this follows the second: it is the way the Word became incarnate in Jesus Christ and the purposes to which the incarnation was directed that are the only adequate reply to challenge of difference.

In other words, the church has to live the life of Jesus for the purposes of Jesus — and nothing else will do.

Hunter builds his case on the nature of God (which is always a good place to start your theology). He points out that —

  • God pursues us.
  • God identifies with us. He knows our joys and he knows our sorrows, and both touch him.
  • God offers life.
  • God is characterized by his sacrificial love.

This is God’s own faithful presence. And notice: to God, we are the “other.” We are the enemy that he loves enough to die for. (This is one of the most profound things I’ve ever heard.) And God doesn’t hide from us or seek to impose his will on us through coercion — even though his coercion would be for our own good. Rather, he wants to be chosen by us.

And we are called to be like God.

  • We must pursue others.
  • We must identify with others. We must know their joys and know their sorrows, and both touch us.
  • We must offer life.
  • We must be characterized by our sacrificial love.

And we must, of course, treat each other at least this well — and we don’t.


  • we must welcome the stranger — in the church, individually, and within the secular institutions where we can.
  • we must work with all our heart — at our jobs, in church, in our families — (Col 3:22 ESV) “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.”
  • we must be fully present and committed in our spheres of social influence — acting as God is. “[C]reate conditions in the structures of social life we inhabit that are conducive to the flourishing of all.”

Contrary to the evangelical/fundamentalist way of thinking, it’s not true that “tasks in the world have little if any significance of their own but are instrumentalized on behalf of narrow spiritual ends.” In other words, we must escape the attitude: why make music unless you ask for a commitment to Jesus at the end?

Contrary to the “relevant to” perspective, we must offer more than high standards of ethical behavior. Merely being a good person is not “distinctively Christian.”

Contrary to the “purity from” perspective, it’s not true that “[w]ork and social life outside the church have little or no significance beyond their function to provide for one’s needs.”

Instead —

the call of faithful presence gives priority to what is right in front of us — the community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people of which these are constituted.

The Great Commission

“Go into all the world” is not only about geography. It’s also about all segments of society. Therefore, “the church should be sending people out in these realms–not only discipling those in these fields … but mentoring and providing financial support for young adults who are gifted and called into these vocations.”

Of course, if Christians join the culturally elite, it will be tempting to abuse the power that comes with their status. But all leaders have power. The key is in teaching a scriptural theology of leadership that converts leadership into servanthood — and the willingness to risk it all for Jesus.

In short, faithful presence in practice is the exercise of leadership in all spheres and all levels of life and activity. It represents a quality of commitment oriented to the fruitfulness, wholeness, and well-being of all. It is, therefore, the opposite of elitism and the domination it implies.

It is also the antithesis of celebrity … .

Hunter advises —

The practice of faithful presence, then, generates relationships and institutions that are fundamentally covenantal in character, the ends of which are the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth, beauty, belonging, and fairness — not just for Christians but for everyone.

Why should Christians have a larger obligation to the world than evangelism? Hunter offers two reasons —

  • Christians cannot demand for themselves what they would deny others. Whatever rights we want, we must grant to all.
  • The viability of Christian faith and the possibility of sharing that faith depend on a social environment in which faith — any faith — is plausible.

Here’s a quote to remember —

The proof of [fundamentalism’s] nihilism is its failure to offer any creative achievements or constructive proposals for the everyday problems that trouble most people.

Hunter’s proposed assault on worldliness is —

a bursting out of new creation from within it. To the extent that Christians have any influence and exercise leadership in whatever sphere of life they inhabit, to that extent Christians have a covenantal obligation to actively and concretely realize faith, hope, and love in all that these ideals mean.

In the workplace, we must ask,

What do employers owe to their employees besides a payment for services? What do businesses owe customers besides a product or service for a fee? …

Further, in the visual arts, literature, and music, the first challenge is to simply demonstrate a commitment to excellence in aesthetics (the theory of art) and in the production of artifacts [works] of art generally. … The obligation among artists who are Christians is, among other things, to demonstrate in ways that are imaginative and compelling that materiality is not enough for a proper understanding of human experience; that there is a durability and permanence as well as eternal qualities that exist beyond what we see on the surface of life. … In the news media and academia, the challenge begins by creating resources and space for the pursuit of knowledge and understanding that are protected from the enormous pressure of partisan politics (which makes knowledge a tool in the quest for power) and commercial interest (in which the worth of knowledge is gauged by its market value).

Finally, Hunter offers some examples. I’ll repeat just one (buy the book) —

Three college classmates from a large state university started a magazine that showcased “signs of life in music, film, and culture.” Avoiding the aesthetic and moral squalor often depicted in rock ‘n’ roll magazines, the magazine celebrated musical quality and promoted cultural products that ennobled the human spirit. It has grown to having today over 100,000 subscribers — the third largest music magazine in the United States.

Hunter wraps up with a passage from Jeremiah —

(Jer 29:4-7 ESV)  4 “Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel, to all the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon:  5 Build houses and live in them; plant gardens and eat their produce.  6 Take wives and have sons and daughters; take wives for your sons, and give your daughters in marriage, that they may bear sons and daughters; multiply there, and do not decrease.  7 But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

The Jews were in exile in Babylon — ruled by a wicked king in a pagan culture. Rather than seeking to control the government or to escape into an insular community, God said to “seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile … for in its welfare you will find your welfare.”

We are to live as resident aliens — strangers — in America and the world, but not in ghettos. Rather, we work for the benefit of the land where we live — as aliens but aliens who love “the strange land” where we now live because God put us here. We long to live with Jesus, but in the meantime, we serve Jesus by serving others where we are.

But, of course, we don’t become Babylonians! We are both together with the Babylonians and apart from them. We serve, but we serve as God’s people.

Hunter recommends that we remove ourselves from politics altogether — not because Christians may not participate because we need time to “learn how enact [our] faith in public through acts of shalom ….”

He concludes asking,

Will engaging the world in the way discussed here change the world?

This, I believe, is the wrong question. the question is wrong in part because it is based on the dubious assumption that the world, and thus history, can be controlled and managed.

You just have to do the right thing and leave the results to God.


One Response

  1. “You just have to do the right thing and leave the results to God.”

    That’s a great concluding observation. I shall remember that.

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