James Davison Hunter at Messiah College

I did not get a chance to attend James Davison Hunter‘s lecture last night at Messiah College.  I was in Lafayette Hill speaking about my book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation? to the American Revolution Roundtable of Philadelphia.

But have no fear!  My trusty student assistant, Katie Garland, attended the lecture and provided me with a great set of notes.  What follows is my narrative reconstruction of Katie’s notes.

Hunter began by asking “What does it mean to be a Christian today?” and “How should Christians engage the world?”  The dominant approach that Christians employ today in their engagement with culture is activism, or the attempt to transform the societal structures by invoking a prophetic voice.  According to Hunter, Christians spend a lot of money doing this, but they do not accomplish much.

Hunter then described three leading paradigms that Christians use to engage culture. 

1.  The Christian Right or the “Defensive Against Paradigm.”  The objective of this paradigm is to retain a distinctive version of orthodoxy or orthopraxy.  The Christian Right has a proprietary relationship to American culture.  In its attempt to reclaim the culture, the Christian Right has created a complex empire of parallel Christian institutions.  Its goal is to hold back secularization until Christianity becomes dominant again.  This goal is accomplished by evangelizing unbelievers and launching attacks against the enemies of Christianity.

2.  The Christian Left or the “Relevance To Paradigm.”  The Christian Left, according to Hunter, is trying to re-symbolize Christianity to reflect modernism and secular life.  The Christian Left believes that all people become orthodox as the creed evolves to embrace what people already believe.

3. The Neo-Anabaptist or “Purity From” paradigm. Neo-Anabaptists believe that the world is irredeemable and the church must remove itself from the world’s contaminating influence.  It is rooted in the so-called “2 Kingdoms” view of the church and the world.

All three of these views, Hunter suggested, misconstrue the true challenges facing the church.

Instead, Hunter offers a fourth way (so to speak) called “Faithful Presence Within.”  This paradigm is rooted in the incarnation (“word became flesh”) and a God who pursues us, identifies with us, is good, true, and peaceful, is active, intentional, and wholehearted, and is ever present in our lives.

Faithful Presence requires Christians to:

  • be fully present to others in and out of the church.
  • be fully present and committed to tasks and work
  • be fully present in social influence. (family, neighborhood, place of employment).
  • do what they are able to shape institutions and individuals for Christ through faithful presence
  • enact Shalom and sacrificial love wherever God places you.

Those who want to bring change in society through prophetic preaching or radical activism may not necessarily like Hunter’s model.  He is calling for Christians to be patient and invest, over the long haul, in places and communities.  He is calling Christians to listen, understand, and serve others. 

I think Hunter’s message resonates with several themes that are often discussed at this blog.  First, Hunter’s vision is compatible with agrarian writers such as Wendell Berry who challenge humans to stay put and enact change at the local level. 

Second, Hunter’s vision is compatible with the kinds of things I have been saying lately about the study of history and the humanities.  The study of the past does not produce prophets or radical activists in the progressive, populist, or New Left tradition.  Rather, it produces world-changers who are skilled in the virtues of hospitality, civility, humility, and empathy because they have learned to listen before condemning and show charity before criticizing.

For me, Hunter’s vision for change is the most satisfying Christian paradigm for cultural engagement that I have encountered.

One thought on “James Davison Hunter at Messiah College

  1. Interesting, John. OTOH,

    “In his Christianity Today interview, Hunter said, “When Christians turn to law, public policy, and politics as the last resort, they have essentially given up on a desire to persuade their opponents. They want the patronage of the state and its coercive power to rule the day.” I doubt he would have said that to Dr. Martin Luther King or to William Wilberforce when they waged long and heroic battles against injustice.

    So while I continue to have great respect for James Davison Hunter, I hope he will respect as well that there are differences in the way our theological training has formed us. I am, for better or worse, what C. S. Lewis, Francis Schaeffer, Richard John Neuhaus, R. C. Sproul, Timothy George, the Calvin [College] faculty, and maybe in some ways most decisively Abraham Kuyper, have made me.”


    Come to think of it, if Frances Fox Piven is a desirable speaker for ideological diversity and “teaching the controversy,” Charles Colson might make for an even more relevant one.



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