A Response to James Hunter’s To Change the World

The Perplexing Problem of Power: A Response to James Hunter’s To Change the World

No! With that power I should have power too great and terrible. And over me the Ring would gain a power still greater and more deadly! Do not tempt me! For I do not wish to become like the Dark Lord himself. Yet the way of the Ring to my heart is by pity, pity for weakness and the desire of strength to do good. Do not tempt me! I dare not take it, not even to keep it safe, unused.[i]

In 1991 James Hunter, the distinguished sociologist at the University of Virginia who coined the term “culture war,” wrote Culture Wars to describe the increasingly politicized conflict emerging between traditionalists and the progressives. In 2010, he wrote To Change the World to reflect on the way that Christians apply themselves to culture change and cultural conflict. Hunter points out that the attempt to use power to influence or compel others, regardless of the skill employed or end sought, inevitably provokes resistance of some kind. Furthermore, the law of unintended consequences always reigns, rendering many such attempts counterproductive or deeply compromised. Add to this the effects that exercising power can have over the wielder, such as those Gandalf and Galadriel feared in The Lord of the Rings, and the use of power, even towards a good end, is paradoxical. It is doubly paradoxical for Christians, who follow the pattern of Jesus; despite his omnipotence, he chose to submit to the powers of the world rather than engage in a struggle with them. With this in mind, should Christians try to change the world? If so, are they going about it effectively? James Davison Hunter answers both of these questions with a resounding, though nuanced, “no.” It is the nuance that produces the three essays that make up To Change the World.

Hunter’s first essay explores the theories of culture that direct much of the culture-change talk and activity in Christian circles, bringing respected leaders such as Chuck Colson, Os Guiness, and Andy Crouch under intense scrutiny. In particular, Hunter excoriates approaches that focus on changing the hearts and minds of individuals as a means to cultural transformation and renewal. Hunter asserts that both those who seek to increase the personal devotion of individuals and those who seek to improve the Christian mind or the worldview of individuals pursue noble ends, but they fail to grasp the nature of culture and cultural change and so fail dismally if world-changing is the goal. Hunter urges his readers to recognize that changes in what individuals think or value, even if attempted by large aggregate numbers or majorities, simply cannot compete with the power found in institutions, elite figures, and the networks surrounding them. No local newspaper can rival the New York Times when it comes to cultural cache and influence; even if the Valley News were to gain more subscriptions than the New York Times, and even if it were demonstrably more accurate, it would simply not have the elite status and privilege enjoyed by the paper of record. It would serve a noble goal as a local newspaper, but it could not compete in the arena of cultural influence even among the locals who read it. As Hunter puts it, “overlapping networks of leaders and overlapping resources all operating near or in the center of institutions and in common purpose— are some of the practical dynamics within which world-changing occurs.”[ii] He points to the short-term success of the temperance movements of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries as examples of how difficult it is to achieve a desired cultural change; despite broad-based appeal and legislative achievements such as prohibition, the temperance movement did not address or transform the cultural realities that made the idea of restraint seem ridiculous to both elites and the average person. “Culture is endlessly complex and difficult, and it is highly resistant to our passion to change it, however well intentioned and heroic our efforts may be.”[iii]

After his examination of the nature of culture and culture-change theories, Hunter turns to the question of power. His second essay critiques both the way most people conceive of power and the way that the Christian Right, the Christian Left, and the Anabaptist approaches to the exercise of power fail to operate with success or Christian character. In the broader cultural situation, Hunter points to the problematic ways in which public life has been conflated with politics. As a consequence, most attempts to change a cultural situation become exercises in coercion, provoking aggrieved parties to adopt the attitude of ressentiment, an entrenched attitude of anger and revenge on account of an injury done through the political process. This creates an increasingly corrosive public environment, and Christians who play into this situation with a culture war attitude only inflame already difficult situations. The obsession in our time with political solutions can prevent men and women of good will from engaging with the more fundamental forms of power: the power to name, to define, to define what is considered real in such a way that some actions are natural while others are unthinkable.[iv] At the same time, Hunter rejects the Anabapist approach of separation from the world as a solution, for he recognizes that “all human relations are inherently power relations.”[v] The question of how to use power properly, though paradoxical, is therefore also inescapable. His examination of the way Jesus used power in the gospel accounts leads him to conclude that Christians can and must exercise power, but that coercion can in no way be considered “the Christian way,” for it is the lesser of evils at best.

Hunter’s final essay shifts from the critiques that dominate the first two essays in order to provides a positive vision for the interface between the church and the world. He adopts the term “faithful presence” to describe this vision for operating outside of the dynamics of political coercion and ressentiment while remaining engaged in public life. While Hunter asserts that Christians should not be trying to change the world, there is nuance, for he does not advocate or condone passivity. “If there are benevolent consequences of our engagement with the world, in other words, it is precisely because it is not rooted in a desire to change the world for the better but rather because it is an expression of a desire to honor the creator of all goodness, beauty, and truth, a manifestation of our loving obedience to God, and a fulfillment of God’s command to love our neighbor.”[vi] Although Hunter’s book continues to provoke debates about culture change, this last statement is well worth ruminating on, and it is the ambition of his last essay to explain how such a reality can be lived out. Tim Keller has spoken often of his vision of the church as “an alternative city within the city that serves the city,” and Hunter’s vision of the church as a countercultural community strikes many of the same notes, for it also promotes deliberate action contrary to prevailing cultural values without requiring a culture war mentality. Hunter also explores the burden of leadership laid on every person, a form of benevolent influence that avoids elitism and domination, and he provides a series of vignettes illustrating real-world ways in which Christians are living out the calling to leadership and faithful presence.

At Dartmouth College students are pressed to exercise leadership in the world and to “make the world’s problems your own.” This is a noble call, but those who take it seriously must consider the ways in which the use of one’s influence, power, and position carry hidden problems and paradoxes. This, however, is a methodological problem, and not only does Hunter press the question of methodology, but he also questions the motives that drive so many towards world-changing, as so often the simply setting “change the world” as a goal creates more problems than it solves.

  1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991) 60.
  2. James Davison Hunter, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010) 44.
  3. Hunter, 47.
  4. Hunter, 178.
  5. Hunter, 178.
  6. Hunter, 234.

Ryan Bouton D’01 majored in Classics and is now pursuing the M.A.R. through Reformed Theological Seminary. He and his wife, Jenny D’02, lead the Cru movement at Dartmouth.


Image: Detail from Silence by Mstivslav Dobuzhinsky.

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