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

4.05  ·  Rating details ·  1,491 ratings  ·  140 reviews
The call to make the world a better place is inherent in the Christian belief and practice. But why have efforts to change the world by Christians so often failed or gone tragically awry? And how might Christians in the 21st century live in ways that have integrity with their traditions and are more truly transformative? In To Change the World, James Davison Hunter offers ...more
Hardcover, 358 pages
Published April 14th 2010 by Oxford University Press, USA (first published January 1st 2010)
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4.05  · 
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 ·  1,491 ratings  ·  140 reviews

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James Smith
Sep 06, 2010 rated it it was amazing
My review of this book, "How (Not) to Change the World," is available at The Other Journal. The book is really a must-read.
Douglas Wilson
Jul 25, 2010 rated it liked it
The full title of this book is To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy & Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. It ought to have been To Change the World: But Not Too Much.

Hunter is obviously learned, and there are sections of this book that are insightful, and very helpful. But, taken as whole, the thesis is really bad, which is to say, terrible.
Jul 05, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Hunter's is a voice that needs to be heard in the highly politicized climate of American Christianity, right and left. He combines erudition with clear writing, making this one of the most compelling books I've read in a while.

Only a few criticisms:
1. Andy Crouch's review in Books and Culture was right that Hunter could be more generous to other Christians dealing with issues of Christianity and culture. I'm not sure that most writers are as far from his idea of "faithful presence" as he portray
Clara Biesel
Jun 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
This book is very, very good. I read most of it in the fall but had one chunk leftover which I wanted to read before reviewing it. This book does a beautiful job of laying out the problems of Christianity in America today, and I love it's call to faithful presence. I had wished for more of an answer to the question of how do we change the world. For more on that topic I recommend Blueprint for Revolution and Switch: How to Change when Change is Hard.
Abigail Hartman
Dec 29, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: christianity
As I conclude the final essay of To Change the World, I almost feel I need to go back and read it over again immediately. In some ways it is a very dense book, much more substantial than your average Crossway publication about how the Church and individual believers can impact the world: it is, after all, written by a sociology and religion professor and published by Oxford University Press. Perhaps it is this perspective that ultimately makes the book so powerful, for Hunter is able to call upo ...more
Nov 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing
I dread the 2012 presidential election because debates will arise, as they always do, about who Christians should vote for. I will be told that true Christians cannot vote for candidates who are pro-choice (to be fair, others will say the only Christian choice is the pro-choice candidate because...of various reasons). It has often struck me that this entire debate is framed as a matter of politics. Recently I watched a very popular evangelistic movie online where the host manages to convince peo ...more
This book explores questions I have been dying to get to the bottom to. What does it mean to remain faithful to God in a post-postmodern age of pluralism, relativism, and nihilism without going to the extremes of hyper-spiritualization (a fearful isolation of oneself from the world) or hyper-secularization (political lobbying and "relevance to" culture arguments). Gets to the bottom of why evangelical conservatism and social gospel liberalism in Christianity both prove to be ultimately unsatisfa ...more
Ben Thurley
Dec 15, 2012 rated it really liked it
Subtitled, "The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World" this is a forceful sociological engagement with contemporary forms of Christian public and political witness. Constructed as three essays, whose arguments build cumulatively, James Davison Hunter (JDH) asks what the possibilities are for a contemporary Christian witness that isn't co-opted by partisan politics and that isn't, itself, an expression of the will to power that marks so much political engagement ...more
Apr 09, 2019 rated it really liked it
Retraction: "While culture change is not democratic and egalitarian (some people will have more power than others), creating and preserving Evangelical culture as we find it has and will continue to have an impact, a great deal of it positive, especially in the long view of history."

I had some conversations this weekend that have basically convinced me this aspect of Hunter's thesis is actually right (no cultures are created bottom-up; they're always top-down by elites). We can and should help t
Jul 13, 2019 rated it it was amazing
My husband bought me this book because I’m always talking about my desire to save the world. I’m glad I read it. But, it was a lot like taking disgusting medicine. I know it’s good for me, but it’s also rather unpleasant. For one, I’ve realized the methods of world saving I’ve been most enthusiastic about are not only useless, some of them are actually harmful. Like when he said this, “To engage in a war of words is to engage in a symbolic violence that is fundamentally at odds with the gospel.” ...more
Dec 02, 2011 rated it it was amazing
This is an important book! James Davison Hunter challenges the rhetoric (and hubris) that often comes with the idea of "changing the world" that is embraced by many Christian ministries and movements. He argues first that we often work from inadequate assumptions about the nature of culture change. Secondly, he argues that either in our embrace or rejection of political power, we wrongly attribute too much to this kind of power. Third, he would argue that the proper stance for the church is one ...more
Mike Fendrich
Jan 30, 2018 rated it it was amazing
A must read. It is time for the western church to lay down its worldly weapons it has used in the culture wars, stop fighting culture wars and get to the business of living faithfully in the world that God has given us. Hunter's book is an excellent reminder that God brings peace to His people (not in their circumstances necessarily but in their attitudes and relationships with others). The kingdom that we long for is His and He will institute it at the time of His choosing. In the meantime, we ...more
Mark Jr.
Dec 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: 2014, kindle
This book will need to gestate for a while. There's no way I can write a review at the moment. I can only offer initial impressions as to its value: I simply found his analysis of major Christian ways to view culture more intuitive—and more immediately helpful—than Niebuhr or even Carson. If I were you, I'd actually read the last chapter first, then go back and read the book. I wish I had; I like to be oriented first before I read a substantive book. In any case, that last chapter carries this g ...more
Phillip Howell
Jan 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Should Christians be trying to change the world? Many churches, colleges, and Christian institutions say that changing the world iswhy they exist. However, Hunter makes some great arguments as to why Christians should focus on being faithfully present in the world and not focus on changing the world. There is a lot of good stuff in this book.

My outline:

The argument of this book is that many Christians take the wrong approach and thought process for changing the world, namely, by changing one he
Jan 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Fantastic book, perhaps the most insightful book on how Christians should engage culture that I've ever read. It's more sociological and philosophical than theological, but the sociological elements are the most helpful framework for understanding Christian postures towards culture I've ever come across.

It's composed of three essays, the first explaining how culture changes and thus why Christianity's attempt to change it is completely wrong, the second explaining why having power in the modern
Mar 20, 2012 rated it liked it
I liked a lot about this book: Hunter points out how both the Christian Right and Christian Left operate under the same assumptions, effectively using the same language for different purposes. He argues persuasively that much of "political" Christianity today are underwritten by a sense of victimization, negation, and Nietzchean "ressentiment." He necessarily paints with an overly-broad brush in his diagnosis, but he does a good job nonetheless. I was very interested by his discussion about how ...more
Bryan Kibbe
Sep 19, 2010 rated it really liked it
James Davison Hunter may not be out to change the world with this book, but he is sure to give a lot of people something to think about in his proposal that Christians stop trying to "change the world" and instead adopt a practice of what he calls faithful presence. This book is provocative and challenging, as it questions a kind of rhetoric and orientation that has been dominant in a wide variety of Christian circles in the past 50 years. I admit to feeling apprehensive about his claims at vari ...more
Douglas Hayes
This is a fascinating read - at least the first 2/3 of it. Hunter made many insightful and useful comments about the current assumptions about how contemporary Christians see themselves in the world, and how we ought to be interacting with culture. He demonstrates, I think correctly, that most Christians have assumptions about our place in the world and how we ought to be changing the world that are simply wrong. Christians have largely accommodated to the world by thinking that the primary mean ...more
J.E. Jr.
I can’t say enough about this book. It is one of those books that I read and keep tying into everything else I see, hear, and read; that I keep telling everyone else about, and that quotes regularly come to mind that apply immediately to circumstances or ideas.

In short, Hunter considers the lofty and frequent goal of “changing culture” or, as the title states, even changing the world— both in its foundational underpinnings and rationale, and in the efforts and approaches put forth to accomplish
Catherine Gillespie
Feb 07, 2015 rated it really liked it
Shelves: culture, theology
If you’re at all interested in impacting our culture or how to equip your children to make a true difference in our world, you have GOT to read To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. This profoundly well-written and compelling book will challenge your misconceptions about culture and turn your view of cultural change on its head.

Author and professor of religion, culture, and social theory at UVA James Davison Hunter calls on a wide rang
Jun 22, 2010 rated it liked it
If you are interested in Christianity and politics/culture, you should read this book. It will be one of the defining books in that genre. I'll be reviewing it in the winter issue of "The Review of Faith & International Affairs."


"Hunter’s book is comprehensive; indeed, it may be too comprehensive. Its ambition has (predictably) yielded varied critiques—responses that often focus on just one of Hunter’s theses. Some reviewers have objected to his focus on elites and networks; others
Steven Wedgeworth
Jun 10, 2011 rated it it was amazing
A great critique of world-viewism. He might actually not go far enough at points. His positive suggestion is actually pretty basic Reformed Protestantism with a heavy dose of the doctrine of vocation. There's also some tranformationalism hidden throughout, which didn't escape the notice of the R2k folks.
Apr 07, 2010 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
Most profound and helpful book on Christ and culture I've ever read. Addresses our current moment with great theological clarity and charts a wise new way forward for Christians puzzling over how to 'engage' culture.
Jun 18, 2013 rated it it was amazing
A sociologist with historical and theological acumen, Hunter delivers a stunning essay on Christian dispositions toward culture.
Nov 15, 2017 rated it really liked it
Ready for a deep dive into how Christians in the USA have been trying (rather unsuccessfully) to make the world (or maybe just the USA) more Godly? Mr. Hunter provides an insightful critique of the worldview of the Christian Right as well as the less well known Christian Left and Neo-Anabaptists. However, the pox-on-all-your-houses work starts with an essay on the failure of Christians to understand how to change the country and the world. The author mainly argues that those trying to change the ...more
Ryan Handermann
Oct 15, 2017 rated it liked it
At the beginning he suggests that he is attempting to radically reshape the way evangelicals think about and actually engage with the culture of the world, but in the end doesn't have really anything new to add, he simply concludes that Christians should live faithfully, and not really engage culture.

A few helpful points he brought up:

Evangelicals think that if you change hearts you will change the culture. He has quite an array of quotes to demonstrate that this is what they think. And I think
Mary Lou
Feb 22, 2018 rated it really liked it
James Hunter, in his book To Change the World, tackles the political theologies adopted by American Christians in their diverse efforts to be faithful in the world. He approaches this contentious issue as a sociologist and as a Christian. With detailed, historical accuracy he describes the political/religious relationships with the world that the Christian Right (conservatives/fundamentalists), the Christian Left (liberals and moderates) and the neo-Anabaptists (Quakers, etc.) have taken. He cal ...more
Jun 10, 2016 rated it liked it
I have mixed thoughts about this book.

On the one hand, Hunter is an excellent writer and clearly has his finger squarely on what makes much of the culture tick. In that sense, this book will be an excellent guide for understanding what makes culture work and how Christians can effectively engage in society for the better. Hunter's encouraging Christians to de-emphasize politics and to emphasize the wider culture (the arts, humanities, etc) is especially important--particularly his challenge for
Mar 12, 2018 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Hunter has pulled together some very insightful and challenging thoughts on engaging culture. Specifically, this book feels most at home in the Western world. While I think his points could prove equally valid in other cultural contexts, they are most easily percieved (and executed) in a western one. That being said, his critiques of the Religious Right, Left, and Neo-Anabaptists have some teeth to them, and his accusations of the failings of their undergirding philosophies should be addressed b ...more
Jan 20, 2015 rated it it was amazing

I am sitting on my back patio, reading on into Essay Three (his book is divided into three parts) of James Davison Hunter’s book and getting a little excited as I see where he is headed. In true “external processor” fashion, I have reached a point where I need to stop and express my thoughts in print (even if no one reads this, it helps me organize my thoughts).

In his second essay (part 2 of the book) he devotes one chapter each to examination of three current polit
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James Davison Hunter is the 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.
“A final irony has to do with the idea of political responsibility. Christians are urged to vote and become involved in politics as an expression of their civic duty and public responsibility. This is a credible argument and good advice up to a point. Yet in our day, given the size of the state and the expectations that people place on it to solve so many problems, politics can also be a way of saying, in effect, that the problems should be solved by others besides myself and by institutions other than the church. It is, after all, much easier to vote for a politician who champions child welfare than to adopt a baby born in poverty, to vote for a referendum that would expand health care benefits for seniors than to care for an elderly and infirmed parent, and to rally for racial harmony than to get to know someone of a different race than yours. True responsibility invariably costs. Political participation, then, can and often does amount to an avoidance of responsibility.” 8 likes
“The tragedy is that in the name of resisting the internal deterioration of faith and the corruption of the world around them, many Christians - and Christian conservatives most significantly - unwittingly embrace some of the most corrosive aspects of the cultural disintegration they decry. By nurturing its resentments, sustaining them through a discourse of negation toward outsiders, and in cases, pursuing their will to power, they become functional Nietzscheans, participating in the very cultural breakdown they so ardently strive to resist.” 4 likes
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