Book Review: To Change the World, by J.D. Hunter

Reviewed by David Snoke, University of Pittsburgh

The title of J.D. Hunter’s book, To Change the World (Oxford University Press, 2010) may strike some people as ironic and dismissive, indicating that he rejects the common evangelical meme of changing the world for good. That is not the case. Hunter believes that changing the world, or more specifically, changing the predominant culture, is possible and can be a good aim. But he believes that most evangelicals are misguided because 1) it is much harder than they think, and 2) they are going about it in all the wrong ways. Very few will agree with every point in his critique, but his book still demands to be read, as one of the most important contributions to the topic of the church’s interaction with the world since Niebuhr.

The essence of Hunter’s book is to bring into the discussion the body of work in culture studies over the past decades on the notion of cultural “power”. Some of us in academia have grown tired of every debate being reduced to the notions of power and empowerment, but there is no question that some good work has been done on this topic, and Hunter demonstrates a lot of balance and nuance in his discussion, which is explicitly informed by his Christian commitments.

The book starts with a criticism of essentially every Christian group out there, whether evangelical, liberal, Roman Catholic, or anabaptist. He argues that almost universally their approach is a “grass roots” strategy of simply trying to change the hearts and minds of lots of people. The problem with this approach is that culture is defined by its power structures, which give to some people much more influence and audience than others. If we do not impact the central power structures (e.g., in America, the academic and media elite), we will make no impact on the culture no matter how many people in other stratas of society embrace the Christian world view. This is seen clearly in various statistics, such as the fact that evangelicals make up 40% or so of the population but have no representatives on the Supreme Court, while Jews, who make up about 3% of the population, have three out of nine seats. This is not because of some Jewish conspiracy but because evangelicals by and large have not been populating the seats of power and influence from which Supreme Court justices are typically selected.

Hunter is overly simplistic in saying that evangelicals have not been aware of this problem. Although he uses many quotes of evangelical organizations talking of changing hearts and minds indiscriminately, oftentimes those are just public splash-quotes, and the organizations do in fact have strategies to reach the elite segments of society. I recall as far back as the early 1980’s hearing representatives of both the Christian Missionary Alliance and Campus Crusade for Christ talk of their strategies for targeting the wealthy and elite. I was fairly uncomfortable with that at the time, because such a strategy seems to fly in the face of the Bible’s commands not to show partiality toward the rich and influential, e.g. James 2:1-5. But such Christian organizations make a fairly strong case, as does Hunter in this book, that the command of the Great Commission to make disciples of “all the nations” (Matthew 28:19) means not just all geographical locations of people, but also all societal strata of people. We don’t ignore the less powerful sections of society, but we also don’t ignore the more powerful.

The question remains, if Christian organizations have in fact been aware of the need to influence the power structures of society, why have they been so remarkably ineffective? Here is my assessment, which is largely in agreement with Hunter’s: Christian strategies for engagement with the power structures have come in three types, all of which have failed. One approach has been entirely adversarial. The assumption in this approach is that the existing structures are completely given over to secularism, and will not accept Christians who question their basic assumptions. There is a lot of truth to this—while Christian universities a century ago were asleep to the deliberate plans of secularists to infiltrate and change them, modern universities are not asleep and are on the defense against those who question their premises. Just ask any scholar who openly questions Darwinian evolution or the morality of abortion or homosexuality. The response of many evangelicals has been to use the alternate power structure of the political world. The strategy which I have heard expressed in many quarters has been to take over the government by democratic vote, after which we will have control of the purse strings, at which point we can “drain the swamp,” that is, cut off the continual pumping of government money into secular academia, which trains and controls all of the media elites. There are two problems with this approach. The first is that it creates an adversarial atmosphere, which poisons many people’s view of the church as only interested in power, and poisons our own thinking as well, turning churches into little political bases. Second, it only works if you win; it is an all-or-nothing approach. If you fail you create a lot of enemies and have no influence with them at all.

The second approach can be called the “infiltration” approach: we need to send as many Christian kids as possible to elite secular institutions so that they can be hired by those institutions and change things from within. My assessment is that this has also been a failure so far. There are already plenty of evangelical Christian faculty at major institutions; in my personal experience I would say that there are 1-2 evangelical Christians and 1-2 traditional Catholics in every physics department of 30 or so professors. Not a majority, but certainly not without a presence. Yet these Christian faculty are remarkably non-influential in regard to their faith, though they may be quite solid academically. Many of them are simply so happy to be accepted in the elite circles that they rarely rock the boat on anything that would jeopardize that position (even with tenure, if you rock the boat too much you can lose your funding); others are so narrowly committed to their field of research that they have no time for anything else. In general, Christians in the academic world are not paradigm-questioners. As Hunter documents, societal change has come in the past when there is a community of people who are both comfortable in the elite world of cultural power, and willing to openly question its prevailing paradigms. Christians in the academic world seem much more comfortable turning their guns on their fellow Christians than on the prevailing secular powers.

The third approach has been to try to build parallel institutions of power that will rival the existing structures of power. Major examples include the founding of Liberty University and the attempted retaking of Baylor University; there are also many smaller schools with a distinctly Christian character. The problem with this approach is not their isolation (Christian faculty at these schools are quite aware of the larger world) but their general lack of time to do any significant independent thinking; at typical Christian schools faculty teach eight courses per year, while at a major research university like mine, two courses per year is typical. Faculty at Christian schools are simply run ragged. They have no time to be major questioners of paradigms. Secondarily, almost all of these schools look to the major secular schools for the credentialing of their faculty, which means that those schools still have the predominant cultural power.

Is there any alternative to these strategies? Hunter has many good points on how to adjust our approach, based both on culture studies of times when change has happened in the past, as well as the biblical ethic.

1. Accepting plurality. Many conservative Christians speak in terms of “taking back America,” which means, essentially, working toward a state in which Christians set the agenda. This is not the bugaboo “theocracy” that secularists fear, because Christians believe in lots of freedoms. But it is probably an unrealistic goal, simply because the world has changed. The successes of free economics, which brings with it free travel and mixing of peoples, along with free speech, coupled with the internet, have made it nearly impossible for Christianity, or any other world view for that matter, to have complete hegemony in the world of cultural power. While we may not embrace pluralism, which celebrates this diversity as an end in itself, we need to accept that plurality of viewpoints is here to stay, and think about how to create a community which is self-propagating without the need for the larger society to affirm it. Christians in the Roman Empire, and Jews in the Middle Ages, excelled at this.

2. Focusing on the positive, not the negative. Hunter documents how all three of the Christian political schools of thought have become dominated by the pattern of aggrievement, or resentment of wrongs done by others, which runs through our culture. We have all become offended minority groups. The Christian Right resents the attempts to remove Christianity from the public sphere, and fears a new persecution, with many well-documented stories of people whose careers were destroyed or threatened by anti-Christian zealots. The Christian Left resents the dominance of the Christian Right in evangelical and Catholic circles; their writings are as bitter as anything they critique on the Right. Those who retreat from politics, called neo-anabaptists by Hunter, seem to resent the entire world outside the church and see nothing good in it. For people to embrace a different world view, they need to see something positive about it, something beautiful. In the science world, for example, would we do better to present the wonders of the design of God’s creation, than to merely present biology as a battle between Darwinists and anti-Darwinists?

3. Antithesis. At the same time that we focus on the positive, we must be willing to question prevailing paradigms. It would be quite surprising if sinful people with self interest in a world of power and prestige never get it wrong when it comes to truth claims. Christians ought to be the best paradigm questioners, because we know that people (including ourselves) are sinful and can blind themselves to truth. As mentioned above, Hunter makes a case that change has happened when there have been communities of elite thinkers who are willing to be outsiders because they question paradigms. Think, for example, of the circles of communists gathering to talk politics in Russia before the Revolution, or the many scholars sitting around in bars at the time of the Reformation. Revolutions are almost never grass-roots things; they need leaders to lead them, who usually come from the existing power structures in society. But those leaders need to be willing to become outsiders and not be wedded to staying in the inner circles forever.

Hunter discusses three approaches to culture among Christians today. Two are adversarial: the “defense against” approach, which seeks to defeat the outside world, and the “purity from within” approach, which retreats from society and tries to form pure communities. Both of these have the problem of not being attractive to most people. But Hunter also has harsh words for the third approach, which he calls the “relevant to” approach. This school of thought, which includes the old “seeker sensitive” movement as well as the new “emergent” movement, suffer from sucking up too much to the culture, letting the outside world define the priorities of the church and downplaying anything distinctive that the world might not like. Any approach that consists of whittling down our distinctives to a minimal set, so as not to offend the culture, will fail to be a comprehensive world view with staying power.

4. Community/Networking. Above, I said that Christians in academia are not paradigm-questioners, by and large. One reason is that most of them feel relatively isolated. They attend churches where there are almost no other academics, and in the academic world they do not network other Christians. Hunter documents the power and effectiveness of social networks in elite circles. People are more willing to question paradigms when they are part of a community that also questions those paradigms. In the examples given above, Christians in the Roman empire and Jews in the Middle Ages, a big reason for their staying power was that they had lively conversation among themselves that did not depend on the approval of the rest of the world. In general, God has made us to be a people connected together, and there is no sphere of life which will not suffer if we neglect that.

Several people have asked me what the purpose of the Christian Scientific Society is. We don’t publish a journal, and we don’t have an agenda of pushing certain issues, so what do we do? I could not say it better than Hunter: our goal is to form a networking covenantal community among Christians in the sciences. That is a goal in itself, not a stage toward some other goal. Health comes when we know lots of people who we talk to on a regular basis who have both the tools and the gumption to debate things, to sharpen each other.

One thing Hunter does not address is the proliferation of one-man shows in the evangelical world. We have many, many parachurch organizations which are essentially mouthpieces for one person. These do many good things, but they do not encourage networking and debate per se. They are not intellectual societies. In almost every case, deviation from a party line is not allowed. While Christians have a core commitment to the Bible, vibrant debate on the implications of the Bible is part of what makes us healthy—“iron sharpens iron.”

5. Strategy. One striking statistic Hunter cites is the difference between how secular foundations and religion-friendly organizations spend their money. Many secular foundations give money to individuals to let them operate at the top levels of academia, e.g. the MacArthur “genius” awards, the Nobel prize, and many fellowships. There is essentially zero equivalent spending by religious groups. One reason may be our fear that rewarding individuals will be a type of partiality toward the elite. But we could view such spending as simply good strategy to go to “all the world” to make disciples.

What would it look like if the Christian world had numerous opportunities for Christian scholars to not be dependent on the secular world for funding? One can imagine, for example, faculty at Christian schools having the time to actually do research or to visit elite institutions, or a Christian scientific-granting agency which alleviated the pressure to only do politically correct work.

In this regard, it is striking that the Templeton Foundation is completely allergic to supporting any research related to intelligent design. Is the position of an organization as well funded as the Templeton so fragile that it will lose its prestige if it funds a few people who turn out to be crackpots? That hasn’t happened to DARPA, which funds all kinds of flakey research such as ESP with the aim that maybe some of it may turn out to be right. One would think the independence of foundations like the Templeton might lead them to take more risks, not less.

Perhaps the other problem with giving money to individuals is trust. If we commission some people to be deep thinkers, what if their thinking leads them astray? This is where covenantal communities and networks come in to play. If we know people, and know their core commitments, we can be more comfortable with letting them run with an idea without too many constraints.

6. Christlike. A recogition of the role of power does not mean that we need to either grasp at it blindly or else be allergic to it. Hunter brings in a fully Bible-centered discussion of how Christ used power, including, notably, choosing the well-educated Paul to spread his message to the Gentiles, and in later years of the Roman empire, the conversion of many scholars to the Christian faith. Christ’s power is servantlike, however, not oppressive; not beholden to the opinion of others; and concerned with the glory of God, just just changing the world for the sake of making a mark. Hunter calls this “faithful presence.”

One remark that stands out is when Hunter says that coercion, that is, the open use of power, can never be done in the name of Christ, but only as a compromise (page 103). This quasi-pacifist sentiment is odd in the context of an entire book about embracing the reality of power as intrinsic to the human experience. We cannot build a comprehensive world view on a position that the most important, defining element of culture can never be used in the name of Christ. I once talked to a pacifist who insisted that the police were like the untouchables of India: doing a necessary job, but too dirty for Christians. What is needed is a robust Christian understanding of the role of government in the legitimate use of force, not a shrinking from it as distasteful but necessary.

In sum, Hunter has done a good job at bringing the language of power, so common in academia, into the Christian discussion, without mere capitulation to the secular norms. Some of his arrows hit the mark, while others miss wide, especially some in which he oversimplifies the views of other evangelicals. But the book will lead us all to think through these issues more deeply.

2 responses to “Book Review: To Change the World, by J.D. Hunter”

  1. Gary Sweeten Avatar

    As a Clinical Counselor with interest in prayer, and love with truth as components of care and counsel I find your society and this article very welcome. I have become somewhat of an expert on being a change agent and agree with the analysis that our approach to social change has been inadequate. It seems that the book, Faith in the Halls of Power records some success stories in regard to influence. Do you see any positive examples? Are you familiar with The Pittsburg Experiment?

  2. David Snoke
    David Snoke

    I am not familiar with the Pittsburgh experiment. Can you give details?

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