If you’re at all interested in impacting our culture or how to equip your children to make a true difference in our world, you have GOT to read To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. This profoundly well-written and compelling book will challenge your misconceptions about culture and turn your view of cultural change on its head.
Author and professor of religion, culture, and social theory at UVA James Davison Hunter calls on a wide range of sources from a variety of disciplines to show how cultures are influenced (not by winning the hearts and minds of average people, as you might have heard, but actually by having influence in the elite centers of power). He aptly describes how historically cultural change has been achieved by elites working within existing power and knowledge structures to affect gradual change, rather than by popular uprising (although popular uprising can augment or be caused by elites initiating cultural change).
Hunter writes that in contrast to the prevailing rhetoric from Christian leaders and interest groups today, “the main reason why Christian believers today (from various communities) have not had the influence in the culture to which they have aspired is not that they don’t believe enough, or try hard enough, or care enough, or think Christianly enough, or have the right worldview, but rather because they have been absent from the arenas in which the greatest influence in the culture is exerted.” Christians nowadays tend to take aim at the middle class, write gobs of books directed at Christians rather than interacting with the ideas and writing of the rest of the world (hence, the books lack influence and are never or very rarely reviewed in influential publications), and produce lowbrow art when they produce it at all. Although there are exceptions to this rule, Hunter points out that Christians actually attempting to live out their faith through excellence in the cultural arena are marginalized by the anti-intellectual tradition in modern western Christianity, and also by the propensity for Christian philanthropy to go to small local efforts or political causes rather than to supporting and nurturing Christians who actually could make a difference.
Hunter then takes Christians of all persuasions (conservative, liberal, and isolationist) to task for dropping the ball by idolizing politics, adopting what amounts to Nietschean nihilism, and neglecting our calling to be faithful where God has placed us. Using scripture such as Jeremiah’s exhortation to the exiles in Babylon to work for the welfare and prosperity of our cities, and other references to bringing about God’s shalom (peace, flourishing, abundant life), Hunter lays out a vision for how Christians can adopt a model of “faithful presence” rather than taking a confrontational, destructive, or isolated approach to culture. Hunter’s vision is covenantal and much more faithful to historical Christianity than are the modern alternatives.
In a short blog review it would be impossible for me to address all of Hunter’s themes and summarize all of his arguments, but at its heart the book represents a calling to Christians to seriously consider and reevaluate our orientation toward and faithfulness in our culture, and how we can live as Christians in our unique time and place. This book has serious implications for how we pursue our vocations and how we prepare our children to navigate their place in the world.
Although it’s only January, I can say with absolute confidence that To Change the World is going on my top reads of 2013 list. The content is important and deep, but the writing is accessible and not overly academic, so it’s not the sort of book you have to plod through for your own good. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in culture and worldview, and to parents who want to train their children toward having a real impact on the world.
If you’ve read To Change the World or read it in the future, let me know what you think! My husband and I had some great discussions about it and I’d love to interact with other people about the ideas the book presents.
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