Book | To Change the World by James Davison Hunter

toChangeTheWorldBookJames Davison Hunter is Labrosse-Levinson Distinguished Professor of Religion, Culture, and Social Theory at the University of Virginia and Executive Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture.  He has written seven books, edited three books, and published a wide range of essays, articles, and reviews all variously concerned with the problem of meaning and moral order in a time of political and cultural change in American life.

I read this book for the class ST8475 The Congregation at Luther Seminary, taught by Dr. Patrick Keifert. Here is a brief reflection after my first reading…

The heart of Hunter’s argument is built upon his critique of the Western church’s conformity to Hegelian idealism and the subsequent radical individualism that dominates Western society. When the church thinks it can change the world by using individualistic, grass-roots tactics it actually perpetuates a Constantinian notion of power and domination as the only means to change culture. The irony is that, while well-intentioned, this endeavor merely perpetuates the very things about culture that the church intuitively resists. The most compelling statement, for me, in Hunter’s proposition is when he says, “it may be that the healthiest course of action for Christians, on this count, is to be silent for a season and learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through law, policy, and political mobilization.”[1] The church needs to

cultivate tension with the world by affirming the centrality of the church itself and the parish or local congregation in particular. The church is God’s gift to his people and part of what makes it a strategic gift in our time is that it is a community and an institution. Constituted by powerful ideals, truths, and narratives, patterns of behavior and relationship, social organization, and a wide range of resources, institutions are a social reality that are larger than the sum total of individuals who make them up. Only within strong communities can one find the relational means to sustain the difficulties endemic to life in the modern world. Only within strong institutions can one find the resources to resist its destructive influences and pressures.[2]

In other words, if the church—located within the particularities of the local congregation, not the abstract concept of the universal whole—focused on being the church and not on trying to change the world through politics and coercion, then perhaps the world might find an alternative plausibility structure that presents the shalom of God in a real, tangible way. It is the task of the congregational leader—our task—to equip and facilitate communities that are centered on the shalom of God found in Jesus, through the power of the Holy Spirit. We are a centered set in which the boundaries are fuzzy and the world in which we maintain a faithful presence is welcome to discover the shalom of God in and through the ways in which we welcome the stranger.


[1] Hunter, 281.

[2] Ibid.,  282.


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