To Change the World: Ambiguity

changing the worldTo Change the World by sociologist James Davison Hunter has much that is appealing to Two Kingdom advocates in its critique of mainstream transformationalism.  Yet it comes with a recommendation by Tim Keller, lauding Hunter for teaching him about “this all-important and complex subject of how culture is changed.”  In fact, both sides of the debate can find elements of the book to applaud.  This is due to a certain ambiguity in its foundation.

First, Hunter assumes that “The creation mandate inevitably leads Christian believers to a transformative engagement with the culture in which they find themselves.”  (p. 94)  Is Hunter unaware that this is a fighting issue?  He is a sociologist after all.  There is just one passing reference to “two kingdom” and the index shows no mention of men commonly associated with the two kingdom view.   Notwithstanding those omissions, the thrust of his argument includes elements that are near and dear to the two kingdom perspective:

Let me say further that the best understanding of the creation mandate is not about changing the world at all.  It is certainly not about “saving Western Civilization” or “saving America,” “winning the culture war” or anything else like it. … For now, I will only say that the antidote to “seizing power” in a new way is a better understanding of faithful presence. … A theology of faithful presence means a recognition that the vocation of the church is to bear witness to and be an embodiment of the coming Kingdom of God. (p. 95)

So it appears that a transformative engagement is not about changing the world, which, as I say, seems more than a little ambiguous.  Does Hunter ultimately have a two kingdom solution to the transformational quest or is this best understood as a strategy within the transformationalist perspective?  Stay tuned.

Meanwhile, to get a sense of what Hunter is doing in Essay One, consider his eleven propositions on culture:

  1. Culture is a system of truth claims and moral obligations
  2. Culture is a product of history
  3. Culture is intrinsically dialectical
  4. Culture is a resource and, as such, a form of power
  5. Cultural production and symbolic capital are stratified in a fairly rigid structure of “center” and “perhiphery”
  6. Culture is generated within networks
  7. Culture is neither autonomous nor fully coherent
  8. Cultures change from the top down, rarely from the bottom up
  9. Change is typically initiated by elites who are outside of the centermost positions of prestige
  10. World-changing is most concentrated when the networks of elites and the institutions they lead overlap
  11. Cultures change, but rarely if ever without a fight

These propositions serve as principles for rejecting the notion that signficant culture change is effectuated by changing as many individual worldviews as can be accomplished.  Presumably we’ll be re-visiting some of these propositions in Hunter’s second and third essays.


Filed under Culture Wars, To Change the World, Two Kingdom, Worldview

10 responses to “To Change the World: Ambiguity

  1. Richard

    Excellent summary! Yes, as Steve and you point out, there is ambiguity here, but 2Kers can point to much to applaud, and it knocks the foundations off transformationalists.

  2. Actually, two kingdoms is in the index and points to page 218 where he’s not exactly helpful. Terry Eastland at the Weekly Standard, in his dual review of TCTW and DVD’s NL2K, wondered what was up with that. As did I:

    • Richard

      Yeah, I picked up on that review as well. The Weekly Standard is a pretty excellent source for book reviews like this (sure beats CT or World). I wonder too, but, on the other hand, when Hunter talks about the solution of “faithful presence” later on, it sure sounds like a Reformed view of vocation; I’ve heard Dr. Horton say the same thing, which is a comfort to me that I’m not a total lunatic when it comes to the book.

    • Zrim, thanks for pointing out the 2k reference. I edited the post accordingly.

  3. Richard, I suppose I get queasy when Christianity and solutions to human problems get paired up. As I read about “faithful presence” I can’t help but wonder if it’s an appeal to the transformationalist impulse to be relevant but in a more thoughtful than pious way. I prefer sober thought to squishy piety, but then I come back to the pairing and the queasiness returns.And I’ve never gotten from the older Reformed doctrines of vocation a sense of social solution. I get a sense of creational goodness, gratitude, love for neighbor, and obedience.

    • Zrim, I’m curious to know if you have read Hunter’s book. I’m halfway done now, and it’s evident that he is turning mainstream transformationalism inside out. What I’m looking for now is whether his book is really about refining transformationalism as you suggest, or if his solutions actually come quite close to where 2K’s end up, and nearly suggest the end of the tranformational quest. Whichever, the book is rich in various insights of which I’ll only be able to scratch the surface here.

  4. I have, and found the first half to be its strength. Even while the second half spent in unpacking “faithful presence” has its merits, it does seem to me that in order to end up where 2ks do it would have to be in a theology of the cross, and from what I recall the cross was curiously absent. And not to spoil your reading, but I am pretty sure the word-concept “shalom” entered the final analysis, a word-concept highly favored amongst my local neo-Calvinists…

  5. Richard

    Yeah, Steve, I think MLM is right–he basically rips the foundations out of transformationalism, calling it at some point in its manifestations a “Nietschean will to power,” which I hope MLM comments on. And part of his solution is that evangelicals case fire for a time when it comes to poltical matters. It sure sounds like 2k–which is one reason why the reviewer Terry Eastland was so puzzled by the disconnect.

  6. heetderks

    MM, As one who won’t be reading Hunter’s book any time soon (priorities, I’m afraid – e.g. I still haven’t read Van Drunen), I appreciate you taking the time to go through it.

    The discussion of “ambiguity” reminded me of a conversation I had a while back with somebody (I forget who) who suggested perhaps a weakness in Dr. Hunter’s book was the lack of grounding his views in a particular church or theological tradition. Is that a fair observation? Does he reveal anything of his own theological or ecclesiastical convictions in the book? Maybe “faithful presence” is something we can all agree with, like the Nicene Creed, or maybe not.

    • Heet,I did a three minute google to try to find his affiliation but didn’t find it. Although he does include a description of the Christian left and the Anabaptist tradition, he seems most concerned with the evangelical right, if that’s any clue.

      But, yes, treatment of the church would seem to be pretty important, wouldn’t it? Yet it’s marginal when worldview-types give their “Christian” points of view, and, at least so far, it hasn’t had a signficant role in this book.

      I tend to think it’s signficant that he is a sociologist, not a theologian, historian, etc. Does that mitigate his failure to consider the 2k option? Maybe.

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