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

4.06  ·  Rating details ·  1,611 ratings  ·  156 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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 ·  1,611 ratings  ·  156 reviews

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I read most of this for school and just finished the parts I didn't get to this week. I started to write a review and it turned into a giant essay, so buckle in if you really want a summary. In short—a must-read for anyone interested in Christianity and culture/art/politics/the modern era.

4.5 stars


This book has a fascinating arc. It's split into three essays. The first, “Christianity and World-changing,” pushes against the common conception of how to change the world: change individual people
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. ...more
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.
Jan 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: culture
Fascinating and important work on the Church in modern American society.
Also - how does culture work and what changes it?
Plus - Who and what actually influences culture (spoiler alert, it's not the little guy buying a cup of organic coffee, after all).
And - How American politics and power have set the terms for how Christianity understands itself (yes, even the anabaptists), or, what Jim Wallis and Franklin Graham have in common (?!).
Finally - a better way to go out into the world after churc
Christopher Gow
Nov 13, 2020 rated it really liked it
Helpful as a survey and critique of current ideas for political/public engagement in the Church.

But, as much as he emphasizes the need to be "constructive" and not merely critical, Hunter doesn't offer much specificity about an alternative to these other options he critiques. He offers "faithful presence" as a "posture" toward society for the church to adopt, but the specific requirements/goals --or even what Christians should hope will come from "faithful presence" are not clearly outlined. Th
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
Feb 18, 2021 rated it it was amazing
I was blown away by this book. It's objective is ambitious: to explain why Christians so often struggle to make a difference in the culture - to "change the world" - and to offer an altogether different paradigm for doing so.

Hunter's approach is both historically rich and spiritually deep. He organizes his argument into three essays which build on each other to make the case for his theology of faithful presence.

In Essay One, he explores the healthy desire of Christians to change the world, bu
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. ...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
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
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
Tabitha McDuffee
Shawn and I read this book together after my father-in-law recommended it. It is definitely an academic work, and therefore not for the faint of heart, but for any thinking Christian it is invaluable. North American Christians of all stripes today are in the business of changing the world, and yet most of them are misguided about how cultures and societies actually undergo significant change. Not to mention that maybe trying to change the world shouldn’t be the faithful Church’s goal at all. The ...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
Jackson Ford
Aug 27, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Loved it! What an excellent work on Christianity’s interactions with power and culture. Truly a faithful discernment of praxis.
Kai Newell
Sep 26, 2020 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: com-theory, favorites
A must read for any believer who desires to interact biblically with culture.
David Bruyn
Nov 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
The concept of faithful presence is imperative, especially for the ‘kingdom-builders’ and ‘redeeming-culture-men’. Not sure the practicalities of this are that clear.
Mark Jr.
Dec 09, 2011 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: kindle, 2014
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
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: theology, culture
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 to h
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. ...more
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.
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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.

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122 likes · 24 comments
“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.” 10 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.” 6 likes
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