James Davison Hunter’s “To Change the World” Review (Chp. 1)

Posted: June 18, 2010 by Rick Hogaboam in Book Reviews, Christ & Culture
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“To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World” by James Davison Hunter

Chapter 1: “Christian Faith and the Task of World-Changing”

Well, the review on this highly acclaimed book commences. Let’s see what Prof. Hunter offers us regarding the possibility of the Church making an impact in “Late Modern World”. Hunter begins his book with the opening words of the One Book, citing Genesis 1:1, “God created the heavens and the earth”. Hunter quickly moves on to quote Gen. 2:15, “Then the Lord god took the man and put him into the Garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it”.

Hunter wishes to establish the goodness of God and the goodness of creation as God intended. The latter verse refers to what we call the “Creation Mandate”. Though we have sinned, most theologians have taught that this creation mandate still orders society and is binding upon the created order. God could have wiped creation out completely, but He grants a “common grace” that allows His creation to blossom with goodness in spite of our sin. He bestows a greater grace to the redeemed who are restored to restore. It is this “calling” upon the redeemed to be a blessing in the world and for the world that Hunter wishes to explore in this book.

Hunter states, “In the Christian view, then, human beings are, by divine intent and their very nature, world-makers. For Christian belivers, an obligation accompanies God’s gift of life, an obligation by no means negated by human sin…” (p.3).

Hunter(pp. 3-4) adds:

People fulfill their individual and collective destiny in the art, music, literature, commerce, law, and scholarship they cultivate, the relationships they build, and in the institutions they develop—the families, churches, associations, and communities they live in and sustain—as they reflect the good of God and his designs for flourishing.

Hunter then summarizes that ways in which Christians have responded to this mandate:

–          “lifeboat theology” – He summarizes this view as those who view the world as going to hell and not worth working for. All focus in this perspective to preach the Gospel and save as many people as possible.

  • I would say that it is obviously good to evangelize and save as many souls as possible, but this view does neglect the task of building institutions, loving unsaved neighbors for the common equity of all, etc. Such Christians just don’t see much good in improving life in this world and would rather devote all energies into preaching the Gospel. Don’t expect these Christians to build schools, hospitals, to cooperate with neighbors in ways to improve the community.

–          “coping strategy” – Christians in this mould view their faith as a therapeutic means for dealing with the world.

  • While the “lifeboaters” withdraw from the world, these folks just deal with the world. The world is a nagging neighbor that we can hardly bear with. Jesus simply helps us deal with the world and its stresses. While it is true that Jesus delivers us from the cares and worries of this live and invites us to whole-heartedly trust Him as our provider and sustainer, these folks are hardly energized to make a positive impact upon the world.

–          The third group is what Hunter is calling believers to embrace, that of a robust Christian faith that embrace the mandate of creation. He says, “To be Christian is to be obliged to engage the world, pursuing God’s restorative purposes over all of life, individual and corporate, public and private” (p.4).

Hunter shows the sad legacy of the Church in fulfilling this mandate, in spite of her greatest efforts. Hunter briefly analyzes denomination and para-church efforts. He commends their intentions and zeal, bit shows that there is very little to show for it. Hunter wishes to offer a better alternative and boldly asserts that we will fail if we continue on the same course we have tred. This is a bold assertion from Hunter!!! He says:

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. In brief, the model on which various strategies are based not only does not work, but it cannot work. On the basis of this working theory, Christians cannot “change the world” in a way that they, even in their diversity, desire.

Well, my interest is piqued, and I hope I’m not disappointed by yet another “pipe dream” claiming to offer the remedy that so many others have offered before. Let’s just say that I’m not holding my breath, but this Hunter guys is pretty bright and I hope to gain some insight from the chapters ahead.


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