by Thomas Keppeler, Ph.D., Pastor of Global Outreach, Elmbrook Church
Last week a group of about 20 leaders from in and around Elmbrook Church spent a few hours interacting with John Seel of The Clapham Institute and James Davison Hunter, the author of To Change the World – The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World. Hunter’s new book is an incisive critique of the dominant ways the Christian movement—and in particular Evangelicalism in North America– goes about the task of influencing and seeking change in culture and society. We had a very robust and delightful four hours of discussion on the critique, ideas and arguments James lays out in his book. We also had the privilege of hearing both John and James’ personal stories of faith and vocation—and in particular the circumstances that led James into “backing into” writing this book. Both John and James exuded thoughtfulness, humility, seriousness, grace and enthusiasm during our discussion over the many questions the book raises.
In sum, James Hunter argues that the underlying assumptions upon which the church today (and in particular the Christian Right, Christian Left and neo-Anabaptists) approaches changing the world are fundamentally flawed and erroneous. As a result our many efforts will never result in changing the world—and indeed have unintended consequences. Hunter points out that the use of power is self-corrupting and that all three movements are compromised and co-opted by the very power they seek and exercise. He characterizes the “tone” of the church’s cultural and social engagement as being wrapped (and warped!) by an ethos of ressentiment, a French word that involves a combination of anger, envy, hate, rage, and revenge.
Hunter suggests both theologically and sociologically, a more accurate foundation of cultural change. Whereas the predominant assumption within Christian circles is that if you change people’s beliefs and worldview, over time, the sum total of those changes in individuals’ beliefs and worldview will result in cultural change. He asserts that this view is sorely mistaken. Rather, ideas and ideals change culture when they are linked to institutions (emphasis mine). Culture formation happens at the interface of ideas with institutions. Hunter also points out, that cultural change nearly always occurs from the “top down”, that the work of world-making and world-changing are, by and large, the works of elites: gatekeepers who provide creative direction and management within spheres of social life. He also sadly notes that Christians are conspicuous by their absence in such spheres of social life.
Hunter offers (in his words) his “gesture” of a new paradigm for how the church postures itself to culture and society: In contrast to “defense against”, “purity from” and “relevance to”, he suggests an engagement of “faithful presence within”. He writes:
A theology of faithful presence is a theology of engagement in and with the world around us. It is a theology of commitment, a theology of promise. At root, a theology of faithful presence begins with an acknowledgment of God’s faithful presence to us and that his call upon us is that we be faithfully present to him in return. p. 243 Only be being fully present to God as a worshipping community and as adoring followers can we be faithfully present in the world. This plays out in three critical ways. . . to each other. . . to our tasks. . . within our spheres of influence. pp. 244-248
As I have read, re-read and then discussed with Hunter, Seel and my colleagues, let me suggest a few thoughts, questions and observations for us to consider:
1. Faithful presence is not a substitution for verbal witness, nor is it anti-evangelism, rather faithful presence suggests that words, especially church/Christian vernacular in our larger society, have become to varying degrees unintelligible because of the growing dominance of pluralism today. As I write this I wonder if it is not just about finding new ways to articulate gospel truth today, rather, is there a deeper question that should give us pause.
2. As a church and as individuals, how do we, how do I, embody or “incarnate” truth in my/the world? As a former missionary that worked 18 years in two different cultures and languages, Hunter’s articulation of faithful presence seemed intuitively obvious to me. At its most reduced level he is calling communities and individuals (but not just individuals) to live out a robust theology of incarnation.
3. Faithful presence is not just something to be understood individualistically, but also communally. Practically speaking how is our church, as a member of the broader community, a blessing in promoting the flourishing and common good of the city and county we live in as well as in its institutions? What does it mean to seek the welfare of the city to which we are sent as exiles?
4. Hunter suggests we need to we find a new language for how we engage culture and society— perhaps a language less dominated by coercion, domination and take-over. I agree.
5. We need to abandon or at least rethink what I see as a rampant “short-termism” in ministry both locally and globally. Let us reflect more seriously about our commitment to be faithfully present and abiding to people, institutions and communities over the long haul.
6. At Elmbrook, how can we articulate and live out a more biblical theology of vocation that diminishes or does away with the dualism that exists between “secular-sacred”, “full-time ministry-lay”, etc.
7. Faithful presence suggests we consider ways that we can be rooted more in relationship and place as Christ followers and think carefully how technology and virtual worlds actually hinder authentic presence and having a sense of place.
Perhaps most compelling, is that my reading and ensuing discussion with James Hunter, John Seel and my colleagues, continues to give me serious pause to consider a more creative and robust theology of incarnation as it pertains to my life and witness in the world I inhabit. In addition, as a worshipping community, as families and as individuals, what does it mean to embody the Gospel in our pluralistic world? Do our structures and programs at Elmbrook Church hinder this “embodiment of the gospel” or help foster it? How can Elmbrook become an even more effective “plausibility structure” for upcoming, future adult generations (the children and youth of today) who will live out their faith as exiles, in our increasingly pluralistic world.
Thank you, James Hunter for your courage in writing this book. This is an important conversation for all of us as we seek to live rightly and wisely in this ever-changing world.