Changing the World with James Davison Hunter

Cover of To Change the WorldMichael Hickerson wrote the below review when he served as the Associate Director of the Emerging Scholars Network.

Each year, the InterVarsity Faculty Ministry Leadership Team (FMLT) read a book together that (we hope) gets at some aspect of our ministry to the university. Our book for this year was James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Oxford University Press, 2010).

If you’ve not read it yet, you should. Hunter, a sociologist at the University of Virginia, has produced a seminal book on cultural formation and change, particularly insightful on how Christians (primarily evangelical) have understood and misunderstood culture change over the past 40 years or so.

There’s much to discuss in this book — at times, it seemed like I was highlighting nearly every sentence — so I won’t try to summarize it or give a detailed review. For that, I encourage you strongly encourage you to read:

For my own remarks, I’ll limit them to two: the argument which I feel is Hunter’s most important, and what I think is the greatest weakness of the book. My observations come after the jump.

Have you read Hunter’s book? Do you agree or disagree with my points? What are your favorite parts of his argument?

The Need for Faithful Presence

Hunter’s central concept for how Christians should influence the world is something he calls faithful presence.

Only by being fully present to God as a worshipping community and as adoring followers can we be faithfully present in the world. This plays out in three critically important ways.

First, 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.


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.

(244 – 247, emphasis added)

The greatest strength of this argument, however, is in Hunter’s insistence that faithful presence is only possible when Christians are being formed in worshipping communities and growing in spiritual formation.

Beyond the worship of God and the proclamation of his word, the central of the church is one of formation; of making disciples…It is the church’s task of teaching, admonishing, and encouraging believers over the the course of their lives in order to present them “as complete in Christ,” “fit for any calling.” At the foundation of this task, of course, are the fundamental preparations of the catachesis — instruction into central truths of Christian belief, the development of the spiritual disciplines, and the observance of basic sacraments. (236-7)

Kudos to my colleague Kenny Benge for pointing this out to me, since I initially missed the importance of the church in Hunter’s vision. In fact, I wish that Hunter had gone further into this point, or at least pointed readers to some fuller discussions of the role of the church in formation, such as James K. A. Smith’s Desiring the Kingdom, Robert Webber’s Who Gets to Narrate the World?, Jonathan R. Wilson’s Why Church Matters — and many more that I could list.

I can’t affirm Hunter’s point about the church strongly enough. Perhaps that’s why I feel so strongly about the book’s greatness weakness.

Where Is the Local Witness?

Through the book, Hunter downplays the vast witness of local Christian communities and local Christian organizations. I have been told that Hunter intentionally overstated some aspects of his argument in order to prompt reaction. Thus, I can’t be sure if this weakness was an intentional overstatement, or whether it is a legitimate blind spot. It could be intentional, because local Christian witness undermines a central idea of Hunter’s: that Christians have become over-politicized. Hunter makes this point very early:

It is not an exaggeration to say that the dominant public witness of the Christian churches in America since the early 1980s has been a political witness. (12, emphasis original)

Hunter goes on to devote the entire middle section of his book to (in his view, futile) attempts by Christians to influence or reject politics.

The problem with this: he is correct in that politics has been the “dominant public witness” of Christians…if and only if your perspective is based on national media coverage that reads everything through the lens of politics and consistently fails to understand the “flyover country” of middle America. At the local level, the public witness of churches has been much more complex, consisting of, yes, political activism, but also social services, elementary and secondary schools, Christian colleges, counseling programs, evangelism, prayer meetings, and much, much more. In fact, if one takes the national perspective of evangelical Christians as highly politically active as the norm, then evangelical churches must seem weirdly apolitical in their actual activities and emphases.

Even Hunter’s analysis of Christian philanthropy (pp. 81-84) makes this mistake of ignoring the local. Before joining InterVarsity, I worked for a nonprofit watchdog, so I know of which I speak. Hunter focuses on the spending habits of large, national foundations and despairs at the lack of religious voices in that elite circle. Yet he ignores the vast – indeed, dominant – role of religious nonprofits in local communities, such as the Salvation Army, Catholic Social Services, Habitat for Humanity, and thousands upon thousands that grow out of Christians’ “faithful presence.” In my experience, most local nonprofits are motivated at by religious concerns, even if religion is not mentioned in their mission statement. The high-profile, well-endowed, predominantly secular foundations that receive so much national attention are the exceptions, not the rule, in the nonprofit world.

Because Hunter has written such a challenging, deep book with so many strong claims, it would be easy to go on with further criticisms and quibbles. So I’ll end my review with this:

Read To Change the World, preferably with a group of friends or colleagues, and begin identifying ways to practice faithful presence in your community, tasks, and spheres of influence. (Hint: your campus might be a good place to start.)

Have you read Hunter’s book? Do you agree or disagree with my points? What are your favorite parts of his argument?

Updated 7/11/2016.

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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    Emily Gum commented on August 3, 2010 Reply

    In Hickerson’s opinion, Hunter’s greatest strength is his emphasis on the role of the LOCAL spiritual community (that is, the church) and Hunter’s greatest weakness is “ignoring the LOCAL.” (emphasis mine) What’s going on here?

    Hickerson states that the “…local Christian witness undermines a central idea of Hunter’s: that Christians have become over-politicized.” He then very helpfully points out that local nonprofits have been continually and deeply committed to the work of faithful presence in local communities through social services, schools, counseling, etc.

    But, does this mean that Hunter is mistaken when he says that the dominant public witness of the church has been a political witness? I suggest that we need to parse terms. Hunter’s cultural theory states that “culture” is the power to define reality and that elites (read leaders) hold this power. When Hunter says that the dominant public witness of the church has been a political witness, what he is arguing is that the national leadership of the church has succumb to the politicization of everything, and Hunter goes to great pains to argue this exhaustively in the second essay of To Change the World. So, while it may very well be that local Christian leadership has indeed sustained a focus on the flourishing of local communities, the national leadership of the church has defined the public role of the church as primarily political.

    If this is the case, then Hickerson may choose to take issue with Hunter’s cultural theory (as outlined in essay one). But if Hunter’s cultural theory is correct, then I do not think that Hickerson’s criticism holds.

      Micheal Hickerson commented on August 3, 2010 Reply


      Thanks for your comment and push-back on my analysis. Since I’m admittedly obsessed with the role of Christians in local communities, I guess I don’t see a problem with saying that Hunter’s greatest strength is his emphasis on local communities and his greatest weakness is not emphasizing them enough.

      You’re right: we do need to parse terms. For example, which church? And what counts as “public witness”? Does something have to be in the news to be “public”? Who are the actual leaders of American Christianity? As Hunter himself points out, leaders are not necessarily the people who sell the most books – couldn’t the same be said of media attention?

      For what it’s worth, I agree with Hunter’s analysis of evangelical Christianity’s national political witness. (Though I think that most of what he was addressing falls under the “evangelical” big tent – not sure if it would be applicable to Roman Catholicism, black Protestant churches, Pentecostalism, or other Christian traditions in the US.)

      Do I agree with Hunter’s cultural theory? Probably, though the definition of “elite” has to be fleshed out carefully, and, in many ways, the truly “elite” can only be determined in retrospect. (Who was the most important American poet of the 19th century? Longfellow, of course. Dickinson? Who’s that?) Hunter suggests that the most radical cultural change is caused by elites who are on the fringes of power, rather than in the absolute center. This seems right to me, and also suggests that Christians who are shut out of the centers of power might have something to be thankful for.

    Janine commented on August 3, 2010 Reply

    Thank you, Mike, SOOOOOO much for this review. I have not read the book yet but have read about every review out there so far. (I’m waiting for some library around here to get it so I don’t have to buy it.)

    I really like the way you argue that a) he doesn’t understand midwest flyover country, and b) he ignores the local Christian witness. You could probably add to this his over emphasis on elites in making and sustaining cultural change.

    However, I guess Hunter would say that Catholic Charities, Salvation Army, Habitat, etc have in common that none of them think of themselves as evangelical. They may hope to spread the gospel, but evangelical to some people means something very specific– a particular middle class interdenominational movement that may have roots in the Great Awakening but in fact really refers to post 1960s non-mainline white, bible thumping and hip Protestants. I guess many of these people are in fact more politically “socially conservative” than they are dedicated to sustained social justice issues on the local level, but even that (I’d agree with you) is gross overstatement without local research.

      Micheal Hickerson commented on August 3, 2010 Reply

      Thanks, Janine. Good point re: “evangelical.” At several points, I would have liked Hunter to have been a bit more precise regarding the term and the specific theological/denominational backgrounds of leaders he examines, though that wasn’t really the focus of the book.

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