In To Change the World by James Davison Hunter, we have seen a powerful critique of today’s mainstream transformationalism. He rejects efforts to change culture “one worldview at a time” and sets forth both the ineffectiveness and hazards of using political power as a means to cultural change.
But rejecting the most popular means of today are not the same as rejecting the ultimate goals of contemporary transformationalism. Hunter does, at times, reject the idea of “Christian culture” (p. 234) and counsels against the desire to change the world (p. 234), but ultimately Hunter is committed to the transformational quest – he just has a different strategy.
Key to his strategy are the concepts of “shalom” and “faithful presence.” These can’t be adequately explained here, but you can get the gist from the following:
If, indeed, there is a hope or an imaginable prospect for human flourishing in the contemporary world, it begins with when the Word of shalom becomes flesh in us and is enacted through us toward those with whom we live, in the tasks we are given, and in the spheres of influence in which we operate. When the Word of all flourishing – defined by the love of Christ – becomes flesh in us, in our relationships with others, within the tasks we are given, and within our spheres of influence – absence gives way to presence, and the word we speak to each other and to the world becomes authentic and trustworthy. This is the heart of a theology of faithful presence. (p. 252)
Hunter can sound like a two kingdom advocate in his prescriptive sections. He quotes the familiar passage of Jeremiah 29:4-7 that describes how the people of Israel are to conduct themselves during their time of Babylonian captivity – build houses, plant gardens, have children, and seek the welfare of the city. (p. 276) He also quotes from the letter to Diognetus with the familiar “Christians are distinguished from other men neither by country, nor language, nor the customs they observe …following the customs of the natives in respect to clothing, food, and the rest of their ordinary conduct…” (p. 284) But to Hunter, these are ways of “strengthening its [the world’s] healthy qualities and humbly criticizing and subverting its most destructive tendencies.” (p. 285) He uses these passages not as a rejection of the mandate to change culture but as subversive strategies to do just that.
There are significant casualties that would result from Hunter’s approach. Hunter interprets the Great Commission and its disciple-making in terms of “social structure.” (p. 257) According to that understanding, “the church is to go into all realms of social life…providing the theological resources to serve them well…and providing financial support for young adults who are gifted and called into these vocations.” (p. 257) But this just looks like the same mistake of Protestant liberals in the time of Machen and the right-wing culture warriors of today. Ultimately, it’s one more version of the church as a servant of culture and the world.
Theological rigor is another victim of Hunter’s vision. The cause of Christianity’s major schisms, for example, becomes “functionally irrelevant.” (p. 281) One such functionally irrelevant schism would be the Protestant Reformation. Unity on a relatively small core of beliefs, Hunter tells us, will better serve the purpose of “serving the common good” and making disciples. (p. 281) Here his quest to change the world requires a complement of indifference to biblical doctrine that includes indifference to the gospel itself and indifference to core convictions about how God is to be worshipped.
Ultimately, Hunter’s book is full of engaging insights, especially in his first two essays. He critiques current models of Christian culture change in a devastating way. There are also valid elements to his “faithful presence.” But by maintaining the ultimate goal of changing the world he falls into the all-too familiar traps of making the Church a servant of culture and promoting a corollary of that servitude, indifference to the very truth the church is called to proclaim.