To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World
The publication of To Change the World marks a new phase in the career of a distinguished sociologist. The author of a half-dozen books on religion and American culture, James Hunter goes where few social scientists dare to tread: the frontier between sociological analysis and theological reflection. The result is essential reading for those called to be Christians in contemporary America. In the preface, he notes that the “questions that animate this book are both broadly academic and deeply personal” (ix). Though his previous works are rich in religious and ethical implications, they have steered clear of theology. Consistent with his mentor Peter Berger’s call for methodological atheism, he has focused on sociological description. This book is different.
A work of sociology that builds to a theological conclusion, To Change the World is divided into three distinct essays. Together, they constitute three movements in a composition that can only be described as symphonic. As a whole, they make a persuasive case for a new approach to Christianity and culture. At the same time, some parts are more persuasive than others. The first essay critiques the dominant evangelical theory of cultural change, arguing that a focus on “hearts and minds” does not lead to societal transformation (7). Analyzing the use of hyperbolic change language by Christian leaders, it points to the dangers of triumphalism. I have noticed such grandiose rhetoric in my own fieldwork; while shadowing an evangelical campus minister, I was surprised to hear her talk about changing the course of the university. At the time, I wondered how a group with 40 members could transform a student body of 40,000.
Rejecting such unrealistic expectations, Hunter outlines his own model of culture and power. First, he writes that cultural change comes from the top down, not the bottom up. Second, he emphasizes the hierarchical organization of cultural production. Third, he argues that American Christians are on the periphery of elite networks and institutions.
Providing a visual guide to the “cultural economy of American Christianity,” Hunter includes a diagram of the contemporary culture industries (90). Though largely impressionistic, much of his analysis is spot-on. While evangelicals maintain a strong presence in the popular genres of mass-market book publishing and broadcast media, they are underrepresented in Ivy League universities and New York art galleries. While religious philanthropy is a significant endeavor, most dollars go to evangelism and social service, not to education and culture.
Though often convincing, Hunter sometimes overstates his case. Downplaying the influence of Christians in higher education, he writes that “their number tends to be very small and their broader impact of no great consequence” (88). While noting that philosophy and history are exceptions to this generalization, he does not elaborate. This is unfortunate—while one-tenth of the American Philosophical Association now belongs to the Society of Christian Philosophers, religion has become the most popular specialization among American historians. Evangelicals have played a key role in both shifts.1
Partnering with colleagues from diverse backgrounds, small groups of believers have had a modest impact on their disciplines. Twenty years ago, a team of political scientists improved the way the National Election Study asked about religion, rediscovering the religious factor in voting research. More recently, an “emerging strong program in the sociology of religion” has led to more faith-friendly articles in the top three sociology journals.2
Under the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, figures like Francis Collins and Owen Gingerich have participated in a new dialogue on faith and knowledge. In interviews with elite scientists, sociologist Elaine Howard Ecklund found that Collins is widely respected for his work as a bridge builder. As the director of the largest scientific grant-making agency in the world, he is also a cultural gatekeeper.3
Hunter calls high-profile Christian scholars a statistical aberration, there “more by accident than by design” (88). While we should not exaggerate their influence, this argument ignores real improvements in the occupational status of conservative Protestants. Buoyed by the upward mobility of the post-war era, evangelicals have entered the academic profession. In a 2006 survey, self-identified “born again” Christians made up about one-fifth of the American professoriate.4 Recognizing these changes, Michael Lindsay has chronicled the rise of an evangelical academic elite. This book challenges Lindsay’s account, though without much data. In 1987, Hunter conducted a comprehensive survey of religious elites. An update of this research would have bolstered his critique.5
In fairness to Hunter, evangelicals have not transformed the university. Though a significant minority, most are employed at second- or third-tier institutions. If they have influence, it is only by working with those outside the household of faith. This is true in most of the culture-producing professions. While never a dominant force, Catholic and Protestant intellectuals have made their mark at the New Republic, the Atlantic, and the Washington Post. The same goes for religious initiatives at the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations. The problem is not the modest contributions of Christian culture makers. The problem is the gap between rhetoric and reality. Like the Americans profiled in Robert Bellah’s Habits of the Heart, they lack a language for making sense of their lives.
Hunter ’s greatest contribution is an analysis of the language believers use to talk about Christianity and culture. In the book’s second essay, he evaluates three major approaches: the Christian right, the Christian left and the neo-Anabaptists. Along the way, he documents the politicization of all three camps. According to Hunter, many Christian leaders have become “functional Nietzscheans,” using anger and ressentiment to motivate their followers (175). It is hard to disagree with this critique. From Sojourners on the left to First Things on the right, most Christian magazines can be mapped onto the American political spectrum. Though Books and Culture and Image are notable exceptions, their small circulations suggest just how polarized the conversation has become. Even the Neo-Anabaptists are obsessed with political metaphors.
To be sure, Hunter ’s typology will not satisfy everyone acquainted with the nuances of each approach. Some will dispute Hunter ’s characterization of Stanley Hauerwas as “relentlessly negative” (164). Members of all three camps will insist that they are motivated by more than ressentiment, a fact he acknowledges but does not sufficiently stress. In a work of big picture analysis, lumping is more prevalent than splitting. Despite the broad brushstrokes, part two is a perceptive portrait of contemporary Christian cultural engagement.
What is Hunter ’s solution? In part three, he offers a new model of Christian “faithful presence,” focusing on spiritual formation, Christian community and vocation. Advocating neither withdrawal nor assimilation, he argues that the tension between church and world is “inevitable and irresolvable” (230). At the heart of Hunter ’s proposal is the poetic image of a “new city commons,” drawn from Jeremiah’s injunction to seek the peace of the city. Though Christians cannot change the world, they can contribute to their local communities. They can develop a sense of vocation. They can pursue shalom.
Much of Hunter’s vision will be familiar to readers of this journal. That is because many Christian faculty are already committed to the fusion of spiritual formation and vocation. Such an approach was at the heart of Lilly Endowment’s $210 million Programs for the Theological Exploration of Vocation. It is also reflected in Dorothy Bass and Mark Schwehn’s Leading Lives That Matter: What We Should Do and Who We Should Be (2006, Eerdmans), a work assigned on many church-related college campuses.
Even closer to Hunter ’s project is Duane Friesen’s Artists, Citizens, Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City (2000, Herald Press). Using the same image from Jeremiah, Friesen articulates a middle way between separatism and accommodation, anticipating Hunter’s critique of the Neo-Anabaptists. Emphasizing cultural engagement, he affirms the value of vocation and artistic creativity. Recently retired from Bethel College in Newton, Kansas, he volunteers in a community garden. Not far from campus, an independent bookstore features poetry readings, live music and Friesen’s book.6
What is the significance of such activities? According to Hunter’s theory of cultural change, they are of no great consequence. According to his theology of faithful presence, they matter a great deal. Which is it? In his judgment, there is an unavoidable paradox between faithfulness and cultural influence.
Earlier in the book, Hunter criticizes the Christian strategy of parallel institutions, arguing they are an ineffective method of cultural change. From the perspective of sociology, this critique is convincing. Unless they are about the Amish, books by Mennonite college professors do not capture the attention of cultural elites.
Yet from the perspective of faithfulness, the picture looks quite different. Though Hunter does not seem to recognize it, many Christian colleges are promoting a version of faithful presence. The same goes for seminaries and divinity schools. In contemporary America, few organizations are more committed to cultivating a thick sense of discipleship and vocation. With foundation support, such institutions have promoted the recovery of Christian practices among the laity, as well as a deeper focus on spiritual formation and congregational vitality. Were they to disappear, faithful presence would surely suffer.
In To Change the World, Hunter argues, “what is required here is not a new ministry or a new program,” but “creative thinking, imagination, and hard work” (270). Fair enough. Yet this should not negate the contributions of existing programs and ministries. Though faithful presence must reach beyond existing institutions, Hunter should start by acknowledging what is already happening. While he includes some hopeful vignettes, they do not begin to capture the richness of Christian cultural engagement.
Despite this oversight, To Change the World provides a compelling analysis of Christianity in late modern society. Far from an isolated work, it is part of a wider conversation among Christian leaders. It is precisely the kind of book one would expect from a product of Christian higher education.
Cite this article
- See Robert B. Townsend, “A New Found Religion? The Field Surges among AHA Members,” Perspectives on History, December 2009. Available at www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2009/0912/0912new3.cfm.
- David Leege and Lyman Kellstedt, Rediscovering the Religious Factor in American Politics (Armonk, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1993); David Smilde and Matthew May, “The Emerging Strong Program in the Sociology of Religion,” SSRC Working Papers, 8 February 2010. Available at http://blogs.ssrc.org/tif/wp-con-tent/uploads/2010/02/Emerging-Strong-Program-TIF.pdf. This paper also argues that Protestant assumptions have sometimes distorted research on religion, a reminder of the ambiguities of Christian influence.
- Elaine Howard Ecklund, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010)
- Though based on a crude measure of religious identity, this finding suggests evangelicals are a significant presence in the academy. See Neil Gross and Solon Simmons, “The Religiosity of American College andUniversity Professors,” Sociology of Religion 70 (2009): 101-129.
- D. Michael Lindsay, Faith in the Halls of Power (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007); James Davison Hunter and James E. Hawdon, “Religious Elites in Advanced Capitalism,” in World Order in American Religion, Wade Clark Roof, ed., (New York: SUNY Press, 1991), 35-59.
- Duane Friesen, Artists, Citizens, Philosophers: Seeking the Peace of the City (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press,2000).