Magazine article The American Conservative

What Shall It Profit a Man?

Magazine article The American Conservative

What Shall It Profit a Man?

Article excerpt

What Shall It Profit a Man? [To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the late Modern World, James Davison Hunter, Oxford University Press, 368 pages]

SOCIOLOGIST James Davison Hunter made his reputation as a public intellectual with a landmark interpretation of the "culture wars" in the early 1990s. Now he takes up the question of what Christian faithfulness ought to look like in 21st-century America To Change the World asks Christians of every variety to reconsider the framework of power and transformation that has shaped their efforts to remake society. He offers nothing less than "a new paradigm of being the church in the late modern world."

Along the way, Hunter challenges the American church's assumption that it can redeem the culture from the ground up, one person at a time, with the power of ideas wedded to political activism. Flawed and ineffective, this "hearts and minds" approach - dear to so many celebrity pastors, authors, and "worldview" institutes - misunderstands the way sustainable change happens in society and will never achieve its noble purposes. He lauds contemporary American Christianity's impulse to fulfill the "creation mandate" by obeying God's directive to Adam in Eden to subdue the earth and wield dominion over it. Indeed, "to be a Christian," he writes, "is to be obliged to engage the world, pursuing God's restorative purposes over all of life, individual and corporate, public and private." But that divine mandate needs to be combined with a strategy that will actually work.

Hunter's alternative model of social change foregrounds the role played by institutions, top-down leadership, and well-financed networks of elites operating at the centers of "cultural production." He rapidly surveys early Christianity, the conversion of the barbarians, the Carolingian Renaissance, the Protestant Reformation and its "successor movements" of revivalism and social reform in America; these are historical instances of deep social change driven by the conscious effort to create alternative structures, not just by a shift in ideals. Hunter summons Christians to a more comprehensive application of the Great Commission that, while still carrying them into "all the world," will reach beyond geography to include every institution: the arts, sciences, media, politics, education, entertainment, social welfare, and more. He envisions a culturally engaged church, active in every part of life, bearing witness through its "faithful presence," and "enacting the shalom of God" to bring wholeness to a broken world.

Someone unfamiliar with this esoteric language about the creation mandate, faithful presence, and the peace of God will have a hard time wrapping his mind around just what kind of church Hunter longs to see. At times, he seems merely to dress up an old-fashioned social gospel and anemic ecumenism in trendy language. It is hard to grasp what his recommendations would amount to if he explained them in ordinary words. But Hunter is an astute observer of American culture and worth listening to. He writes from within the American "we" and addresses himself to an audience of his countrymen in the hopes of moving Christians past allegedly obsolete doctrinal battles and "functionally irrelevant" divisions in Christ's body. In his view, Christians must make common cause among themselves, with followers of other religions, and with nonbelievers for the sake of a more just society.

Hunter is at his best in cutting across superficial distinctions among the evangelical right and left and the neo-Anabaptists, uncovering the bad habits they have in common. American Protestants as a group, and even Catholics, have adopted, among other dubious propositions, a naïve transformationalism, a mythic civil religion that commonly fails to distinguish between Israel and America, a negative posture toward the world that emphasizes what Christianity opposes rather than the gift of grace it offers, and a politicized and powerdriven strategy to defeat the enemy, whether that enemy takes the form of secularism, injustice, or the world and its ways. …

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