Sunday, February 24, 2013

Book Review: To Change the World

To Change the World is a difficult book to critique. It's broad in scope, arguing that the Christian Right (Dobson & co.), the Christian Left (Wallis & co.), and the Neo-Anabaptists (Hauerwas & co.) have all basically got it wrong. Rather than "a pox on all your houses," James Davison Hunter argues that Christians should look to Jeremiah 29 in the context of exile and adopt a posture of "faithful presence" in positions throughout the culture.

The difficulty with a book like this is that it is of necessity so large that to be readable it can only criticize summaries, and summaries are going to be straw men in one way or another. As far as the political Right and Left, Hunter makes a very good argument that the very politics they practice underwrites the political assumptions that create the sense of injustice and aggreivance they feed off in the first place. A vicious feedback cycle that gets us nowhere. They need their enemies, and some among them idolize their own ossified positions. I'm with Hunter on this -- hence the irony and tragedy in his subtitle.

Hunter's criticisms of the neo-Anabaptists are more problematic to me. That's quite a diverse group, especially because Hunter includes people like Richard B. Hays, who don't truly belong. Hauerwas does belong, but Hauerwas has produced such a large body of work that I can't help but feel that Hunter is cherry-picking in what he quotes. For instance, if you're going to say that neo-Anabaptists are all about disengagement, you need to look at the counterargument that is Hauerwas's Gifford Lectures, in which he adapts natural theology to his own framework. This and Hauerwas's State of the University are the best things I've read by him, I'd say, and they're not about disengagement by any stretch of the word. So my favorite writings of Hauerwas are nowhere to be found, but how could they be? There's only 300 pages here, and I'd be complaining if there was much more. The truly wrong -- as in, that's just wrong -- quotes come from other "neo-Anabaptists," none of whom I have read. How influential are those?

And yet ... I have the feeling that Hauerwas is indeed incomplete without other people showing where he's not quite all that, and I did find this section one of the most interesting parts of Hunter's book. Just like G.K. Chesterton and Hauerwas create sparks and tension, I'm happy to have other sources of that. I like sparks. Dissonant chords are interesting.

I have to conclude that Hunter's underlying thesis is not wrong. I do think "faithful presence" indeed comes closer than the other three positions as described in this book, and that's what I want to focus on. Mainly, I find elements of "faithful presence" in the non-extreme positions of the other three "wings" of Christianity, in a mere Christianity kind of way. I'll bet Hunter would agree, and I appreciate the positive agenda those two words start to write for us. So this book does just what it can do. It doesn't slay the giants, but I don't think it sets out to. It does point out that changing the world is hard, we can't do it alone, and relying on God with patience, perseverance and wisdom is what's really important. I can appreciate that, and reading this book, I did appreciate it.

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