Review of To Change the World

Hunter, James Davison.  To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.  Oxford University Press, 2010.  ISBN: 9780199730803.

Meet the Author

Since 1983, James Davison Hunter has been teaching at the University of Virginia and researching American culture.  Currently, he is the LaBrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture and Social Theory as well as the Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.   He has written eight books including Culture Wars: The Struggle To Control The Family, Art, Education, Law, And Politics In America; Death of Character: Moral Education In An Age Without Good Or Evil; and To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.    He is also the co-author of Is There a Culture War?: A Dialogue on Values And American Public Life.  Hunter has been invited to share his research findings in a number of forums including National Public Radio and C-Span, at the National Endowment for the Arts and at dozens of colleges and universities around the country including Columbia, Harvard, Vanderbilt, and Notre Dame.

Book Basics

To Change the World is a book about the possible and proper role of Christianity in American culture in the early twenty-first century.  Many Christians are familiar with the phrase “culture wars” and most understand that their tradition is engaged in changing the nation for good.  For the last thirty years, Christian leaders with diverse theological perspectives have taught the simple formula that Christians must change people and that those people will in turn display changed behavior and the impact of these changed lives will be a changed culture.  Using an academic blend of historical, sociological, and biblical scholarship, Hunter deconstructs the current approaches, beginning with this flawed notion that cultural change comes from the masses rather than the elites.  Throughout the book he offers a critical appraisal of current methodology.  In opposition to the dominant views that Christianity is defensive against, relevance to, or purity from culture, Hunter argues that the proper view is faithful presence within culture. 

So What?

“Redeeming the culture, building the kingdom, transforming the world, reforming the culture, and changing the world” are all phrases Hunter suggests should no longer be used by Christians about their engagement with culture because they are no longer helpful or appropriate and imply “conquest, take-over, or dominion.”

  • Have you used or heard any of those phrases recently?  If so, how do you respond to Hunter’s concern that this language leads Christians toward a goal that isn’t achievable, but one that if it could be achieved would be misguided?
  • What language do you tend to use when discussing a biblically sound and culturally relevant approach to culture?  What sources have informed your view?  How has your view changed over time?

Which view (defensive against, relevance to, purity from, or faithful presence within culture) do you hold? your congregation? denomination? 

  • How does that view shape how each entity engages the American culture? 
  • If you are not currently in the faithful presence from within camp, how would shifting to it change what and how each entity engages the American culture?

A Must Read

One’s view of how individual Christians and Christian communities should engage culture has considerable impact when it comes to important subjects like politics, education, and evangelism/outreach. Every Christian leader should invest the time to more fully develop her or his view on this important topic.  Hunter’s To Change the World is an ideal starting point for more fully forming or possibly reforming your own view.


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  4. […] heavily upon the work of sociologist James Davison Hunter, especially his recent book (2010) To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World, he argues that Christian universities should be “faithful presences within culture” […]

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