Ours is a missionary moment. Christendom is finished and with it the idolatry of a nominal, cultural Christianity. This is a good thing. Superficial discipleship will be exposed. Authenticity in life and love is required. This is a wonderful time to be apprentices of Jesus Christ. As Fuller Seminary president Mark Labberton recently told Christianity Today, “Now that Christendom—the forms and structures of a Christianly-oriented culture—has fallen away, the church is having to ask itself, ‘Who are we? What are we really about? What defines us and distinguishes us?'”
This does not mitigate how difficult this transition will be. It will directly challenge many of the tendencies, dispositions, and habits evangelicals have developed from history. The newly found cultural realities are forcing a new reassessment of evangelical patterns.
This transition period will be a messy and uneven process. This is demonstrated in the Gospel Coalition’s release of a five-year retrospective of James Davison Hunter’s book To Change The World (Oxford University Press, 2010): Revisiting “Faithful Presence”: To Change the World Five Years Later, edited by Collin Hansen. (The book can be downloaded for free.)
Revisiting is a collection of disparate essays written by noted Reformed thinkers, including Collin Hansen, Greg Forster, and Albert Mohler. The tacit assignment is to engage with James Davison Hunter’s suggested metaphor for cultural engagement: “faithful presence,” a key phrase Hunter introduces in his book to describe a model of cultural change that takes seriously the influence of elite institutions on society. “A theology of faithful presence,” Hunter writes, “means a recognition that the vocation of the church is to bear witness to and to be the embodiment of the coming Kingdom of God.” Revisiting exposes two weaknesses in Hunter’s book. First, Hunter does not spell out the practical implications for his cultural thesis, which leaves many readers frustrated. Second, as a working metaphor, “faithful presence” is not sufficiently descriptive and is thus easily susceptible to misappropriation and distortion.
Hansen observes that To Change the World serves as a litmus test for evangelicals. While many of the authors in this volume are appreciative of Hunter’s contribution, in Revisiting we see the inability or unwillingness of evangelical cultural translators to understand the force of Hunter’s argument. Repeatedly, pietism, populism, resentment, and majoritarianism raise their hoary heads. Political pleading and nascent Constantinianism abound. Hansen wants Hunter to talk about the imputation of Christ’s righteousness, which is hardly Hunter’s point. Forster asserts a quasi-Constantinianism that belies common grace. “We want something that is naturally impossible—that human beings should control their own behavior voluntarily rather than being controlled from without by an enforced religious orthodoxy.” He believes that the Founding Fathers were mistaken for thinking that public consensus can be maintained “on the basis of moral commitments necessary for the social order.” So it’s salvation or nothing; the supernatural or nothing; church or nothing. This is not a position about which Hunter has anything good to say, and the reassertion of these views seems to suggest they haven’t quite grasped Hunter’s critique.
There is general agreement among the essays in Revisiting that Hunter has not spelled out the application of his cultural thesis in a manner that is readily accessible to practitioners. Mohler laments, “But what are Christians to do? . . . [Hunter’s] brilliant meta-analysis breaks down at the question of practical application.” This is a fair criticism. One can say that Hunter is both responsible for doing so and also incapable of doing so. But as Hansen indicates, Hunter “intended for the church to write that [last] chapter in her practice.”
Mike Metzger uses a helpful metaphor when discussing this perceived weakness. Think of cultural labour like getting a car to move, engaging engine, transmission, and wheels. Academics are like engine manufacturers; they generate ideas. Then there are translators, who act as the engine’s transmission. Finally, practitioners act as the car’s wheels. Academics are rarely in a position to be the translators, or the engine’s transmission. Effective translators have a dual responsibility to adequately understand the academic’s ideas and to seamlessly connect the power of these ideas to the practitioner’s wheels. Academics need translators, and translators need both academics and practitioners.
One has not failed as an engine maker if one is not the transmission or the wheels. We need a more collaborative understanding of our distinctive roles. We need to think more in terms of an assembly plant. Effective cultural engagement takes a village.
It is to Hunter’s credit, and a measure of his humility, that he knows his limits and stays within them. It may be frustrating, but it is not a fault. The scholar’s temptation is to assume competence in areas outside their experience or understanding. There are transmission think tanks such as New City Commons, the Clapham Institute, and Cardus who serve as cultural translators. This is an ongoing story we are writing together.
To be faithful to the task of translation, we must tell the story accurately. Revisiting is only marginally successful in this regard. The tone in some of the essays is unworthy of the Gospel Coalition. For example, Forster claims Hunter has a “revisionist understanding of culture,” is to be blamed for the failures of the Christian Right, provides “cheap and easy answers.” He also calls Hunter a rationalist, materialist, economically naïve, and unpatriotic. Hunter does not treat the Bible as the Word of God, he is guilty of making moral formation impossible, and finally, his claims are “urgently dangerous.” All this in one essay. This tone minimizes the effectiveness of this book.
A third of the essays in this book do not engage Hunter at all. Some directly counter his advice without argument as if Hunter doesn’t merit the energy to comment. British thinker Daniel Strange, for example, believes that Hunter is “too passive and concessionary” and dismisses his proposal as “a low-calorie diet and decaffeinated transformationism.” Strange calls instead for a return to a ‘militaristic language on behalf of the Lord Jesus Christ.” But this ignores Hunter’s warning that such attitudes make one a “functional Nietzschean.” This disconnect is a repeated weakness in the book.
Metaphors for Cultural Engagement
“Faithful presence” as a metaphor is the main focus of this series of essays. This metaphor is evocative but not sufficiently descriptive.
Hunter models “faithful presence” on the example of Jesus—particularly his self-sacrificial incarnational love. He explores this in terms of two challenges the church faces: dissolution and difference. Because dissolution is a problem in the modern world, Hunter places a priority on presence and place. Our actions, like that of Jesus, need to be embedded in the lives of others. This is the only way authentic witness can be seen and felt. Hunter writes, “Incarnation is the only adequate reply to the challenges of dissolution; the erosion of trust between word and world and the problems that attend it.”
The second problem, of difference, stems from how we are perceived in this modern pluralistic public. Difference is addressed, Hunter argues, by the manner and to what ends incarnational presence is expressed. Militaristic, Constantinian, or king-of-the-cultural-mountain language do not serve our kingdom purpose. Instead, Hunter calls for “pursuit, identification, the offer of life through sacrificial love—this is what God’s faithful presence means. It is a quality of commitment that is active, not passive; intentional, not accidental; covenantal, not contractual.” Hunter summarizes, “What this means is that where and to the extent we are able, faithful presence commits us to do what we can to create conditions in the structures of social life we inhabit that are conducive to the flourishing of all.”
So to realize “faithful presence,” our actions in society need to be proximate, sacrificial, and loving to those we serve. Even in a highly polarized and often secularized society, such actions if done with humility and authenticity will find a warm welcome. There is no need to play the victim, as self-sacrifice is our willingly chosen modus operandi.
When Mike Metzger and I were wrestling with Hunter’s book, we found a sport’s metaphor helpful: assist leader. In basketball, soccer, and hockey, among the statistics that are kept are “assists.” At the end of each season each league selects an “assist leader,” that one player who has provided the greatest number of assists to his teammates. Hunter is calling the church to be an assist leader in society.
First, an assist leader has the big picture—a full-court awareness. A person or institution needs a comprehensive grasp of one’s field of influence: whether large or small, national or local, elite or common. It matters not on what court one is playing, whether the neighbourhood food co-op or the Sundance Film Festival. A good assist leader keeps his head up as he brings the ball down the court. His own ball-handling skills or individual scoring opportunities do not preoccupy him. He is the consummate team player. His entire focus is setting up others for success. It is for this reason that Hunter quotes Jeremiah 29:7, “Seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
Second, an effective assist leader knows the strengths and tendencies of all his teammates. He has a good knowledge of and rapport with his teammates. This translates into a working relationship of trust. Many of our past engagements with and language about secular society tend to erode trust rather than build it up.
And finally, a good assist leader is able to make a pinpoint pass at just the right time in order to set up his teammate to score. If a pass does not lead to a score it is not counted as an assist. The metric of success is not the assist leader’s pass but the other player’s score. Very few churches have assist-leader metrics, where the church’s success is measured by the evident success of the nonchurched community leaders.
Consider the example of believers in Portland, Oregon. The Pacific Northwest is known as one of America’s least churched regions. And yet USA Today religion columnist Tom Krattenmaker argues that there is “the strong likelihood that Christianity’s best face is showing up here in the unchurched Mecca not in spite of the city’s secularism and skepticism, but because of them.” Portland is a place where love of neighbour is being made visible in the spirit of faithful presence.
A group of pastors and Christian business leaders went to Portland’s openly gay mayor and asked how they could help. They organized a Season of Service, raising $100,000 to curb dropout rates in the schools. Even when the mayor was faced with a highly public sex scandal, they stood with him. The mayor later thanked the coalition and called Portland “Jesus’s favorite city.”
This has not solved all the problems in Portland. But it has created a new openness for witness and service. It has demonstrated the reality of Jeremiah 29:7. Moreover, it represents a radically different spirit from many other examples of evangelical cultural engagement. Here the Christian community abandons the usual culture war rhetoric, personalizing their service to issues that mattered most to their community’s leaders, and did so in a manner that required sacrifice. Genuine love, sacrificially offered in the name of Christ, needs no argument as it is intuitively realized.
Shalom occurs when the church leads the league in assists. Everyone wins, even if the church itself doesn’t lead the league in scoring. When the church acts in this way, culture-shaping institutions in the wider world respond to the church and respect it. Faithful presence means being an assist leader within one’s own particular sphere of influence, small or large. It means setting up others to succeed. It means adopting an attitude of humility. It is time, perhaps past time, to take up this mantle in our own areas of calling. Revisiting is a valuable book in that it renews the public conversation around these pressing themes.