142 of 154 people found the following review helpful
An interesting read...,
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This review is from: To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (Hardcover)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. Coercion has a role to play in God's world. To negatively confuse these concepts with each other and with politics in general is too simplistic and unworthy of Hunter's erudition.
In light of Hunter's belief that Christians are over-politicized in their understanding of cultural engagement, he suggests a posture of "faithful presence." Christians must move beyond mere negation and should positively demonstrate / model the new creation within their vocational and institutional contexts. We must not engage in a shouting match over hot-button issues with a world that won't listen. Instead we should work as relatively quiet servants wherever we find ourselves in God's world, albeit with an eye towards institutions in place of mere pietism.
I am left with a few thoughts as I meditate on Hunter's rather vague conclusions about "faithful presence." First, he is a better sociologist than theologian. Second, he is a better sociologist than philosopher. Third, he is a better sociologist than historian.
As a theologian, his eschatology is either underdeveloped or he is not as self-aware of his convictions as he should be. He is implicitly dismissive of negative dispensationalism (thankfully), but embraces a brand of amillenialism that ends up being dispensationalism's kissing cousin. I won't take the time to exegete his book, but his conception of God's kingdom is largely future - with most of its manifestation only happening at the consummation of time. That is a very popular and valid point-of-view within Christianity, but to uncritically foist this on his thesis is hugely unhelpful, in my opinion. To portray more immanent understandings of the kingdom as "triumphalism" is totally inadequate for a work of this nature - and it certainly does no justice to the struggle the church universal has had for two millenia. His theological weakness hampers his ability to promote his thesis.
Second, at one point he states something along the lines of... the kingdom of God "is not about politics." I find such a statement utterly bewildering. Isn't the very word "kingdom" inherently political? The last time I checked, "polis" and "king" reside in the same conceptual category. Isn't this what makes the American constitutional experiment so interesting in light of history - that our founders would try to divorce the state from any specifically religious moorings or institutional relationships? Isn't it interesting that for most of world history, cultures have assumed that government and religion are absolutely intertwined? Are we so intellectually superior as post-Enlightenment people to assume that such a divorce is a philosophical given? If Hunter wants to get at the root of the conservative / liberal / Anbaptist orientation towards politics, he needed to go deeper into the relationship between church and state philosophically. But alas, he is not a political philosopher.
Finally, his historical treatment of "Constantianism" is just outright... Anabaptist. His handling of Calvin's Geneva and the execution of Servetus is nothing more than a superficial gloss. Even if one were to see this as a low-point in Calvin's Geneva, such an example goes to show that this work is not one of historical depth. At points, it reduces itself to thin rhetoric.
I think my two cups of coffee this morning may be manifesting a little too harshly. I'm thankful for this book. Hunter is a man who needs to be heard. There is some gold to mined here. Nevertheless, it should not be uncritically received. There are deeper issues theologically, philosophically, and historically that are missed and mishandled. The church cannot abandon its prophetic role and cannot assume that politics and the kingdom of God live in separate spheres. Yes, we live in a prescriptively pluralistic world, but it does not therefore follow that this should always be - or will always be the case. The church can confirm a descriptive pluralism that acknowledges and affirms differences without assuming that this is our destiny.
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Showing 1-6 of 6 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Sep 19, 2010 12:31:10 PM PDT
Mennonite Medievalist says:
Right there with you. I like this book better than you do perhaps because I am Anabaptist. But, for instance, that "kingdom is not politics" moment was a strange one.
In reply to an earlier post on Dec 5, 2010 4:06:34 PM PST
M. A. D'Virgilio says:
Just finished reading the book, and enjoyed it immensely. I would probably give it four stars, but those would be for the gold to be mined that Brent refers to. I had similar problems with numerous statements that were clearly Anabaptist in nature. You can clearly see where Hunter's basic presuppositions reside. I do like the idea of faithful presence, and see it as a remedy for the dichotomal view (to coin a word) of the world and society and culture of most Christians. Our faith should inform every single thing we do, both it's execution and its telos. But time off from politics is not a good idea, at all. The secular left will never take time off their totalitarian impulses in their attempt to order our lives by their good intentions. San Francisco Happy Meals, anyone?
What Hunter does very well in my opinion, is describe why politics and public policy are not sufficient to "change the world." The cultural influence of institutions are simply more powerful than political efforts to move the direction of our society. I would also argue that worldviews are critically important to the shape of society, but they are clearly not sufficient to affect the overall health and direction of a culture. He does qualify himself at points in the book regarding non-sociological assertions he makes, but you can tell his heart is not in it.
But regardless, this book despite its flaws is a welcomed contribution to the continued struggle of the Church's being in the world, but not of it.
Posted on Jul 3, 2011 6:01:29 PM PDT
Martin Alaichamy says:
Brett, could you recommend related works that engage similar questions, and perhaps more successfully than Hunter? I think this is a very important discussion for contemporary theology, but it's clearly not without some significant difficulties from the outset. I'd appreciate if you could point me in the direction of where the rest of this discussion is taking place in current theological scholarship, if it is at all, so I can better follow it for myself. Thanks.
In reply to an earlier post on Sep 10, 2011 4:38:59 AM PDT
"The kingdom of God is within you." doesn't strike me as a political statement at all.
Posted on Aug 11, 2012 12:19:02 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Aug 11, 2012 12:19:25 PM PDT
Thank you for this review, it was extremely helpful in defining upon conceptual analysis the book as was examined.
Posted on Jan 3, 2013 5:00:07 AM PST
Cindy Udall says:
Thank you for this helpful review, Brett. I am about 2/3 through the book and found your thoughts to be quite similar to mine so far. I'm afraid this will be another vague commission to be "in the world but not of it". As another commenter has said, if you have any thoughts on books that address this issue better, please do share them. As with you, I would buy multiple copies and give them to people who would read them and are hungry for direction.
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