Book Review: To Change the World by James Davison Hunter

By Cris Putnam
toChangeTheWorldBookProbably one of the most important books about Christianity and culture in the last decade is James Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Writing as a Christian and a social scientist, he states his thesis, “I contend that the dominant ways of thinking about culture and cultural change are flawed, for they are based on both specious social science and problematic theology.”[1] I agree with his tenet that cultural change is usually “top down” by elites rather than “bottom up” by ordinary citizens and this is problematic for the strategies expressed by Colson and the Truth Project and even worse for those who couple Christianity to politics. He observes, “Speaking as a Christian myself, contemporary Christian understandings of power and politics are a very large part of what has made contemporary Christianity in America appalling, irrelevant, and ineffective—part and parcel of the worst elements of our late-modern culture today, rather than a healthy alternative to it.”[2] In my own conversations and interactions, I have found this to be the case. He suggests most have misunderstood what culture is and how it works. Hunter lists seven propositions concerning culture:

Proposition one: culture is a system of truth claims and moral obligations. For the most part, I agree with his assessment. I acknowledge that various cultures filter their morals through their beliefs, myths and old adages so they are expressed in different ways and, to that extent, I grant the authors hypothesis. However, I am concerned by the implied suggestion that right and wrong are a product of culture rather than a reflection transcendent objective moral law. Although I doubt it is his intention, it seems relativistic.

Proposition two: culture is a product of history. I agree with this one without qualification. It offers a lot explanatory power for why cultural change is so difficult. Cultural behaviors and norms are engrained by tradition and things like nationality which have a rich history.

Proposition three: culture is intrinsically dialectical. Hunter contends, “culture is as much an infrastructure as it is ideas.”[3] I agree with this as well and I think this is his most potent criticism of the worldview approach. For instance, I do not believe evangelical activism through the Republican Party is effective because the infrastructure of the political system is corrupted by influence peddling and what amounts to bribery by lobbyists. If we want policy to move toward biblical values, then the infrastructure should be changed in that direction first. Without a profound revision of political infrastructure, I doubt any meaningful change can occur.

Proposition four: culture is a resource and, as such, a form of power. Hunter talks about “symbolic capital” which represents knowledge, skills, and credentials. The power of symbolic capital like an advanced degree or title is credibility and influence. One of the reasons naturalism gained so much traction in Western culture is the symbolic capital allowed scientists. I agree that this is true but I am unclear as to how this applies to culture ontologically.

Proposition five: cultural production and symbolic capital are stratified in a fairly rigid structure of “center” and “periphery.” This concerns the status or clout of symbolic power in point four. I agree that this is the case. It is also for this reason that culture becomes entrenched and self-reinforcing. If we give the most authority to graduates of ivy-league schools then it should be of no surprise that their values are what are reflected in our politics and laws.

Proposition six: culture is generated within networks. Hunter argues against the “great man” account of history by asserting “that the key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks.”[4] I agree allowing that often an individual, like Jesus of Nazareth, inspires and forms the network. In the end, His influence inspires culture through a network of followers or disciples.

Proposition seven: culture is neither autonomous nor fully coherent. I think this is one of his best points. Culture is not coherent and most people are harboring some degree of cognitive dissonance. This is part of living in a fallen world but it is also where the worldview apologetics along the lines of Francis Schaeffer’s truth divide concept of nature/grace has a lot to offer. For example, I have noticed a lot of professing evangelicals think like naturalists and exclude the supernatural from their analysis of politics and current events.

Faithful Presence rather than a culture war: He offers criticism of the three dominant stances amongst evangelicals toward culture: 1)“Defensive Against” the culture war; 2)“Relevance To” the emergent church; and 3) “Purity From” entailing a withdrawal like the Amish community and offers an alternative: “Faithful Presence Within.” This presence is based on the model of Jesus’ incarnation and the way Jesus as the word was present working out His purposes in a hostile world. Those purposes include: pursuit, identification, and the offer of life through His sacrificial love. God’s faithful presence implies that he pursues us. Thus, in like fashion, Christians should pursue each other and the community at large. He cites Matthew 25:34-40 as an example of how one should act incarnationally. Second, God’s faithful presence is his identification with us and we can extend this in how we treat outsiders. The third quality of His faithful presence is found in the life He offers. Because of God’s faithful presence to us, we should be faithfully present to Him in response. It means that we are to be fully present to believers and fully present to those who are not. Christians should be fully present and committed to their tasks meaning we work “as unto the Lord” (Col 3:24). We work faithfully in our spheres of influence to create conditions conducive to flourishing for all. As Hunter expresses it, when the love of Christ is realized incarnationally through us, in our relationships, within vocations, and within our circle of influence, then we are exercising faithful presence. I think the basic concept is sound and superior to the “culture war” political mentality. Evangelism works better by attraction than promotion. If we live faithfully and genuinely our lives will attract others and promotion is less necessary. This is an important book and I hope Christians leaders will read and sincerely consider Hunter’s advice.


[1] James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: the Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2010), 5.

[2] Ibid, 95.

[3] Ibid, 34.

[4] Ibid, 38.