To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World

James Davison Hunter has a way of ruffling feathers, not only outside the Christian community, but also within it. His recently published book, To Change the World, critiques much of what passes for Christian public engagement—from the right, left, and Anabaptist perspectives—as sincerely misguided and “participating in the very cultural breakdown they so ardently strive to resist.” This has sparked a debate on the pages of Christianity Today.

Charles Colson, Andy Crouch, and James Davison Hunter—all of whom have written influential books in the last decade regarding the Christian’s cultural calling—have emerged as the leading figures in this debate. Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey in How Now Shall We Live? argue that Christians needed to understand and live their faith as a comprehensive worldview, not simply as a private salvation solution that provides primarily post-death benefits. They develop the implications of this worldview for the various dimensions of life, including how we do politics, academics, church, and entertainment. The biblical truths regarding creation, fall, redemption, and restoration provide an accurate diagnosis and prescription for life, and when believers live out of that reality, they contribute to creating a new world of peace, love, and forgiveness.

Andy Crouch argues in Culture Making that changing culture requires more than worldview. He focuses on the embodiment of worldview, arguing that the artifacts of culture—the “stuff” we use and produce—are at the heart of determining how we understand and change the world. While acknowledging that Christians at times need to condemn and critique secular culture, Crouch calls for the cultivation and creation of cultural artifacts as more effective and faithful means of social engagement.

Hunter explicitly challenges the approaches of Colson and Crouch.  He claims the predominant evangelism, politics, and social reform strategies practiced by Christians today are “fundamentally flawed” and do not live up to their “world-changing” promise. Instead, Hunter argues, we need to work from a more complex culture paradigm. It is not the truth of an idea that makes it influential in a culture-changing way, but rather “the way (ideas) are embedded in very powerful institutions, networks, interests, and symbols.” Christian witness in our time has been compromised because we have thought mistakenly that changed individuals will change culture, when in fact it is “cultures that ultimately shape the hearts and minds and, thus, direct the lives of individuals.” That being said, Christians have mistakenly made culture-change an end when at best, it should be a secondary consequence of our faithful presence in the culture in which we find ourselves.

The debate is insightful, as it puts the spotlight on different dimensions of the complex process that is cultural engagement. Reading any of these works on their own might cause us to overlook that complexity. However, even after the twelve-hundred combined pages and ongoing discussion, the entire terrain still has not been mapped. With a few exceptions, the debate has focused on the theological, political, and aesthetic spheres without adequate accounting for the economic sphere. Institutions are often presented as normative givens, even though the structures are changing as the debate is taking place; sorting out what is normative and what can be thrown away is a day-to-day challenge, and not enough attention is focused on that issue. While the concepts of power, authority, and responsibility are regularly tossed around, developing a more common understanding of their roots would be helpful.

Such limitations are inevitable and each of the authors admit that there is a tension that accompanies any proposed paradigm as must we all as we deal with the “now but not yet” nature of God’s kingdom. The challenge of leading while serving, of affirming the good of creation while condemning the brokenness of the fall, of realizing that this line between good and evil does not run between me and others, but right through the middle of my own heart—these are the tensions that accompany our temporal existence.

I doubt any of these authors would disagree with Hunter when he concludes that changing the world is not a primary objective of Christianity but rather secondary “to the primary good of God himself and the primary task of worshipping him and honoring him in all they do.” Obedience, not outcomes, ought to be impetus for our activities. A robust doctrine of creation and providence make clear that our daily and social activities are not simply things we do as we “put in time” waiting for the eschaton, but are an essential part of our obedience.

Such basic biblical truths are not in dispute. Still, a very different analysis of our present predicament implies quite different prescriptions. Hunter calls us to “faithful presence,” Crouch speaks of “postures of cultivating and creating,” while Colson describes “embracing, understanding, contending for, and living” out of truth. None are mutually exclusive, but neither are they the same. Reflecting on a coherent amalgam can be a humbling experience.

Secularists who dismiss any talk involving religion and public life as “theocratic imposition” rarely notice the diversity that exists within the Christian community regarding these questions. Perhaps the reason they see Christian public involvement as such a threat is they evaluate all such activities within the very human desires of taking over, fighting, and winning. And perhaps the reason secularists think so is because Christians have engaged in the public square in a triumphalist manner, as often as not, more interested in leading than serving. Acknowledging and lamenting misrepresentations of the gospel is a useful and honest exercise.

But that is not a reason to pack up and go home. Even while we admit the imperfections of how Christians live their public-square lives, we can also point to the good works and applied biblical truths that provide a preserving social “salt” as Jesus talked about in the Sermon on the Mount. We ought not to hide the gospel and its life-affirming, social flourishing impacts under a bushel. God’s word has social wisdom to offer and we should share that good news. To not proclaim this is to proclaim a truncated gospel and disobey the injunction to always be ready to give reason for the hope that is in us.

Are we called to change the world? Yes—just as we are called to be holy. We can no more change the world than we can change ourselves. But our inability to change ourselves is not an excuse for unholy living. Neither is our inability to change the world a reason to hide in our privatized bushels. It is precisely because our involvement is faith-inspired that a very different calculus is invoked to measure the results of our activity. When the benchmarks for our success are linking our activities with world-changing consequences, we are almost always on the wrong path.

For Christian educators, these books—both individually and in dialogue with each other—provide a valuable antidote to the formulaic reductionism of the application of the lordship of Christ to all areas of life. Christian schools provide students with more than a set of worldview spectacles through which they might understand the world. They should challenge students with calls for a whole-life obedience and cultural transformation, which, paradoxically, are beyond human capacity.

Colson, Crouch, and Hunter provide insights regarding how to apply our calling to live faithfully. None is entirely right and none entirely wrong. In a cultural context in which Christians are being challenged to conform to a “no-truth” paradigm, living culturally-engaged lives that by our daily postures and practices proclaim that we bow the knee to God’s truth is, in itself, a form of witness. Wisely choosing the tactics and approach requires a discerning wisdom and humble graciousness, ready to listen and learn from others. There are no formulaic answers. The existence of paradoxes of kingdom life in a fallen world is in itself a daily reminder of our own finitude and the limitations of our influence in the context of God’s eternal plans, even for those who have achieved elite status in the central institutions of power.

We need not answer, but embrace the paradox. The result will be a posture of humble confession, prayerful dependence, and thankful living. It will also continue to seek to understand the world in which we live, recognizing that wise and stewardly strategies are more God-honouring than foolish and self-serving ones. But at the end of the day, it isn’t about changing the world, for Christians know that work already has been done.

Works Cited

  • Colson, Charles and Nancy Pearcey. How Now Shall We Live? Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Publishers, 2000.
  • Crouch, Andy. Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008.