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To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World 1st Edition

63 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-0199730803
ISBN-10: 0199730806
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Editorial Reviews Review

Product Description
The call to make the world a better place is inherent in the Christian belief and practice. But why have efforts to change the world by Christians so often failed or gone tragically awry? And how might Christians in the 21st century live in ways that have integrity with their traditions and are more truly transformative? In To Change the World, James Davison Hunter offers persuasive--and provocative--answers to these questions.

Hunter begins with a penetrating appraisal of the most popular models of world-changing among Christians today, highlighting the ways they are inherently flawed and therefore incapable of generating the change to which they aspire. Because change implies power, all Christians eventually embrace strategies of political engagement. Hunter offers a trenchant critique of the political theologies of the Christian Right and Left and the Neo-Anabaptists, taking on many respected leaders, from Charles W. Colson to Jim Wallis and Stanley Hauerwas. Hunter argues that all too often these political theologies worsen the very problems they are designed to solve. What is really needed is a different paradigm of Christian engagement with the world, one that Hunter calls "faithful presence"--an ideal of Christian practice that is not only individual but institutional; a model that plays out not only in all relationships but in our work and all spheres of social life. He offers real life examples, large and small, of what can be accomplished through the practice of "faithful presence." Such practices will be more fruitful, Hunter argues, more exemplary, and more deeply transfiguring than any more overtly ambitious attempts can ever be.

Written with keen insight, deep faith, and profound historical grasp, To Change the World will forever change the way Christians view and talk about their role in the modern world.

Amazon Exclusive: A Q&A with James Davison Hunter

Q: Why did you write To Change the World?

Hunter: I wrote this book because I saw a disjunction between how Christians talk about changing the world, how they try to change the world, and how worlds --that is culture--actually change. These disparities needed to be clarified.

Q: How does this build on your previous work?

Hunter: One way it builds on my earlier work is that it provides a bigger picture of the nature of cultural conflict, why Christians seem to be neck deep in it, and why the approaches that they take in cultural conflict are so counterproductive. This is a response to some of the earlier work that I have done on the nature of culture wars and alternatives to them.

Q: Who do you hope reads this book?

Hunter: The audience I had in mind was the diverse communities that make up American Christians and their institutional leaders--those who think about the world we live in today and how best to engage it. Those who think about these matters will find here a useful guide.

Q: What three things do you want readers to take away from reading this book?

Hunter: The primary ways of thinking about the world and how it changes in our society are mainly incorrect. There is an answer to the question of how to change the world, but how it actually changes is different from how most people think.

Most people believe that politics is a large part of the answer to the problems that we face in the world, and so a second insight would be the limitations of politics. Political strategies are not only counter-productive to the ends that faith communities have in mind, but are antithetical to the ends that they seek to achieve.

A third thing that I would like for readers to take away is that there are alternative ways of thinking about the world we live in, and engaging it, that are constructive and draw upon resources within the Christian tradition. In the end, these strategies are not first and foremost about changing the world, but living toward the flourishing of others.

From Publishers Weekly

To change hearts and minds has been the goal of modern Christians seeking to correct a culture deemed fallen and morally lax. Hunter (Culture Wars), a distinguished professor of religion, culture, and social theory at the University of Virginia, finds this approach pervasive among Christians of all stripes and in every case deeply flawed. It can even undermine the message of the very gospel they cherish and desire to advance. In three essays—groups of chapters developing a concept—Hunter charts the history of Christian assumptions and efforts, investigates the nature of power and politics in Christian life and thought, and then proposes a theologically sound alternative: what he calls the practice of faithful presence. This practice has benevolent consequences... precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world... but rather it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth. Well reasoned and thought provoking, Hunter's corrective argument for authentic Christian engagement with the world is refreshing, persuasive, and inspiring. (Apr.)
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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 368 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; 1 edition (April 14, 2010)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0199730806
  • ISBN-13: 978-0199730803
  • Product Dimensions: 9.2 x 1.2 x 6.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.5 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (63 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #78,443 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

James Davison Hunter is LaBrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory at the University of Virginia and Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture. He is the author of Culture Wars and The Death of Character.

Photo by Kirsten Rose.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

176 of 190 people found the following review helpful By Brett A. Bonecutter on September 3, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I appreciated much of Hunter's project and am intrigued by his assessment of three contemporary Christian styles of cultural engagement, but feel his conclusions are a bit thin. I'll try to explain...

One of his central theses is that "culture" is not usually changed in a populist-pietist-peripheral / bottoms-up manner. In fact, culture is generally most impacted by small networks of elites with central-symbolic power to create and change the institutions we all live within. I wholeheartedly agree with this and think that Christians in America need to wake up to this reality. I almost wish Hunter would have done more to illustrate this point in light of the fact that American Christianity has relegated itself to another populist movement on the peripheral margins - simply another subcultural ghetto among many. If his book would have simply stopped at this point I would have bought about 100 books and given a copy to every Christian I thought would read it.

What follows, however, is somewhat puzzling to me. After critiquing American conservatives, liberals, and Anabaptists, he concludes that each movement is over-politicized because each defines itself almost primarily through its relation to political power. Fair enough. This is a hugely important observation. He moves on to suggest that it might be wise for Christians to pull away from politics for a season to rediscover other ways of engaging the culture. One of the ways he builds this case is by conflating power and authority with "coercion." By doing so, he unwittingly adopts part of the Anabaptist view he was critiquing. Authority and power are not anti-Christian per se - and Hunter pays a certain amount of lip service to this truth. Nevertheless, I would contend that not all coercion is negative either.
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67 of 76 people found the following review helpful By David Bahnsen on August 10, 2010
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
There is no subject that invokes as much passion in me as that of a Christian's interaction with culture. I was raised to believe that "God is in the universe business" (thank you, dad), and I spend the bulk of my extra-curricular time exploring ways that men and women of the Christian faith may have a more meaningful impact on the culture around them. James Davison Hunter has written some extraordinary material on this subject (Culture Wars particularly comes to mind, along with some privately distributed materials I read several years ago that forced a bit of a paradigm shift in the way I view meaningful impact on society coming about). His latest book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, was to be the culmination of a decade's worth of work from Dr. Hunter. I am extremely grateful that I patiently waited for the book, feel that I am a better person for having read it, and believe it contains a plethora of thought that is sorely needed in the community of believers I belong to. Sadly, I also think the book falls short in a number of areas. My objective in this review is to highlight both the strong points and not-so-strong points in Hunter's latest work.

There is a sense in which I believe the initial notion that attracted me to Hunter shines through as the most important part of the book - and that is the idea of cultural change coming from the "top down" - specifically, when elites with a great deal of cultural capital network together in common pursuit of change.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By Dave Ainsworth on April 27, 2013
Format: Kindle Edition
This book is excellent and deserves all the accolades it's received. If you're interested in how culture changes or the culture wars, it's a great book. I'm also a pastor, and found it a really helpful guide in how to think and talk about politics, culture, etc.

Divided into three substantially argued "essays," I found the first two essays particularly helpful. The first one argued against a traditional democratic view of cultural change (i.e., if only we could win enough people to our side, we could change culture), and showed that culture is changed in mostly unpredictable ways. Only God controls history. But, in as much as you can see it, cultural change does follow a pattern. Primarily, culture is affected through the influence of cultural centers and the elites who inhabit them. I.e., what happens at the New York Times is more influential than the Orlando Sentinel, which is more influential than the small-town gazette. This is not only true of present-day, as he illustrates through a quick retelling of church history. Hunter helpfully compares this to evangelical efforts at cultural change, which has typically believed in the democratic model, and explains why they have been far from effective at their effort to "take back America."

The second essay examines that aspiration in evangelicalism and in the broader culture -- to take back or take over the culture. To do this, he looks at the idea of power and will in late modern culture. This was the best part of the book for me. You will see culture differently, and see yourself differently after reading it. Basically, as Western culture has deteriorated and broken into many subcultures, people have little to share in terms of tradition, ideas, morality, etc.
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