Tag Archives: culture change

Experience and Scripture

I’ve been reminded again about the struggles between Scripture and our experience. Today we see a tension between two major schools of thought: one which interprets Scripture based on human experience, and one which interprets human experience through the lens of Scripture. There are many variations on these themes, but that’s the basic tension.

I remember experiencing this tension when I was in school at Abilene Christian University. At that time, there were approximately 150 students from Thailand who were studying at ACU. They were almost all, if not all, Buddhists. Many were good people, morally sound and ethically strict. They cared about the poor and the suffering. They were fun people; I came to form some very special friendships.

For many of us, our relationships with these students presented a minor challenge to our theology. Were we willing to say that these wonderful people were lost without Jesus Christ? Many of them seemed to show more of the fruit of the Spirit than a lot of the Christians. Could we say that they needed something more than the faith they had?

This challenge has played out many times in many ways throughout the world. Many Christians have responded to this challenge by embracing some form of universalism or religious relativism. The result has been a church that de-emphasizes evangelism. Most of our people would rather build a house or dig a water well than talk to someone about Jesus.

The same struggle comes up in discussions about gender roles. It’s the rare person who begins with the Bible and works out to decide that traditional views need to be challenged. Most look at talented women they know, examine changing views in society about men and women, and then find a way to make Scripture line up with their experience.

Homosexuality and gender identity also bring this tension to a head. When gays and transgender people were mocked and ridiculed, it was easy for the church to reject them. As society has changed, the church is facing new realities. More LGBQT people want to participate fully in church without changing their lifestyle. They are loving, caring, spiritual people. How does the church say to them that there is only heterosexuality or celibacy?

So we face the struggle again and again. To value experience over Scripture is to be applauded by society, celebrated as open-minded and accepting. In his wonderful article “Why Pushing Right is Harder than Pushing Left,” Andrew Wilson explores these ideas and says:

So the things that make me and my church stand out are now the areas where we’re conservative: a high view of the gathered church, biblical authority, an orthodox view of hell, Reformed soteriology, complementarianism, and things like that. And for some reason, pushing right on these things doesn’t feel anything like as exhilarating as pushing left on the other things. It doesn’t draw the same whoops from the crowd, nor the same admiration for being courageous. (In fact, when I get called courageous at all, it’s usually for pushing left on something that most people approve of, even though this requires much less real courage than pushing right. It may just be me, but I think it requires far more bravery to say the things Al Mohler says than the things Brian McLaren says, even though the latter is far more likely to be admired for his courage.)

For now, I’m firmly in the camp of interpreting experience in the light of Scripture. It won’t get me a lot of applause nor acclaim as a forward-thinking champion of the downtrodden. But it will help me sleep at night. And feel at peace with my God.

Some reaction to Hunter’s book

I may do a more organized analysis. Let me offer up some initial thoughts right now:

  • Despite Hunter’s protests to the contrary, if an outsider were evaluating Hunter’s views, 9 times out of 10 he would be placed in the neo-Anabaptist camp. Where he sets himself apart from some neo-Anabaptist writers is in his offering of positive constructs for living (the discussion of “faithful presence”). However, there are others who have expressed similar views; Hunter can differentiate himself from some of the extreme writers in that camp, but sounds a lot like the more moderate ones. [By the way, I hate using terms like neo-Anabaptist. But I’ll stick with Hunter’s terms.]
  • As I’ve become increasingly convicted of our need to view ourselves as strangers and aliens, I find Hunter’s use of Jeremiah 29 to be highly appropriate. I fear that too many Christians want to try and turn Babylon into Jerusalem, instead of recognizing that we are living in exile. I prefer more of an emphasis on our role as ambassadors, yet I think Hunter’s teachings move in the right direction.
  • I’ll save some of the discussion about politics for later posts. I’m sorry more people didn’t join the interesting discussion Todd and I had over Christians and politics (back on Essay 2, Chapter 6), but this series has apparently numbed the brains of all who glanced at it.
  • I should make a comment on that fact, the total lack of discussion on this series. While I think more people read than commented, I also recognize what I stated in the very beginning: this was a selfish series. I needed to go back through Hunter’s book and analyze the ideas. The best way I knew to do that was to make myself blog it chapter by chapter. For many, it was far from interesting. That’s ok. It served the purpose for me. I’ll be incorporating some of these thoughts into a seminar I’m doing next week on “Christ and Culture.”

Maybe those of you who have somehow read this far in the series will have some thoughts to add. If not, we’ll probably look at some other ideas over the next few weeks.

Essay 3, Chapter 6: Toward a New City Commons

The final chapter in James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World is entitled “Toward a New City Commons.” The abstract of this chapter, from Hunter’s website, reads as follows:

Christians are to maintain their distinctiveness as a community in a manner that serves the common good. A theology of faithful presence calls Christians to enact the shalom of God in the circumstances in which God has placed them. In Jeremiah 29, the Israelites were called to practice shalom when God commanded them to pray for the welfare of their Babylonian captors. The enactments of shalom need to extend into the institutions of which all Christians are a part and, as they are able, into the formation of new institutions within every sphere of life. The church will not flourish in itself nor serve well the common good if it isolates itself from the larger culture, fails to understand its nature and inner logic, and is incapable of working within it—critically affirming and strengthening its healthy qualities and humbly criticizing and subverting its most destructive tendencies.


This chapter alone is worth the price of admission. If you can’t afford to buy the book, go find it in a bookstore, then read the last chapter. It contains a summary of the rest of the book and makes Hunter’s final arguments. His suggestions of how to apply his theology are based around Jeremiah 29, where God is telling the captives in Babylon that they must make the best of their time in Babylon (meaning that their return to Jerusalem would not be very soon). As Hunter describes it, “He was calling them to maintain their distinctiveness as a community but in ways that served the common good.” (p. 278) I fully agree with his application of this passage to a church living in exile, finding a way to faithfully live in Babylon. (Too many people seem to want to view the church as living in Jerusalem)

As the church waits for the restoration of Jerusalem (New Jerusalem, that will descend from heaven, not the one that men squabble over today), Hunter says that the church must live with and even cultivate certain tensions:

  • With itself. This is the tension between wanting to do good and wanting to use the world’s methods to achieve that good. Hunter says that the church must abandon the old vocabulary for culture engagement: redeem the culture, advance the kingdom, build the kingdom, transform the world, reclaim the culture, reform the culture, change the world, etc. This is the language of conquest and domination, not the language of Jesus’ way of influencing the world. Instead of “winning the culture wars,” Christians need to learn to live in exile in a post-Christian culture. They must reject the desire for domination and the politicization of everything. Hunter says that “it may be that the healthiest course of action for Christians, on this count, is to be silent for a season and learn how to enact their faith in public through acts of shalom rather than to try again to represent it publicly through law, policy and political mobilization.”
  • With the world. The church must affirm the good in culture and withdraw from that that is evil. The church must affirm the central role of the local church and emphasize the task of spiritual formation.

In the end, the church must see that our task is not to change the world. Hunter states, “To be sure, Christianity is not, first and foremost, about establishing righteousness or creating good values or securing justice or making peace in the world. … But for Christians, these are all secondary to the primary good of God himself and the primary task of worshipping him and honoring him in all they do.” (pp.285-286)

He ends the book with the powerful statement that “by enacting shalom and seeking it on behalf of others through the practice of faithful presence, it is possible, just possible, that they will help to make the world a little bit better.” (p. 286)

Essay 3, Chapter 5: The Burden of Leadership: A Theology of Faithful Presence in Practice

“The Burden of Leadership: A Theology of Faithful Presence in Practice” is the fifth chapter of the third essay of James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World. The abstract of this chapter, from Hunter’s website, reads as follows:

Everyone exercises leadership to varying degrees for we all exercise relative influence in the wide variety of contexts in which we live. By the same logic, we are all also followers in a sense, for even where we exercise leadership, we are held to account—we follow the dictates, needs, and standards of others.

Faithful presence in practice is the exercise of leadership in all spheres and all levels of life and activity. It represents a quality of commitment oriented to the fruitfulness, wholeness, and wellbeing of all. Faithful presence generates relationships and institutions that are fundamentally covenantal in character, the ends of which are the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth, beauty, belonging, and fairness—not just for Christians, but also for everyone. It is an assault on the worldliness of this present age. The burden of shalom falls to leaders.


In this chapter, Hunter redefines the Great Commission in social, rather than geographic, terms. “Go into all the world,” according to Hunter, also means to go into every area of life, every occupation and realm of social life, not just going into every physical nation.

The argument is made that every person is both a leader and a follower, to different extents in different areas of life. We all have to learn Christian leadership, learning to lead without falling into elitism. Much of this goes back to the proper use of power which Hunter discussed in Essay 2.

In the second part of this chapter, Hunter speaks of a covenantal nature to our social relationships. In his words, “The practice of faithful presence, then, generates relationships and institutions that are fundamentally covenantal in character, the ends of which are the fostering of meaning, purpose, truth, beauty, belonging, and fairness—not just for Christians but for everyone.” (p. 263)

The third section looks at faithful presence as practice, the idea of intentionality in pursuing excellence in our lives as part of our service to God.

The fourth section addresses the burden of leadership. Again, this is not about occupying positions traditionally considered as leadership, but the way in which everyone influences those around them. Christians are to be influencing the world to bring God’s shalom to the world around us.

(Sadly, this is a chapter where Hunter tries to make his ideas practical, yet it turns out to be one of the hardest chapters to explain in concrete terms. The following chapter contains a summary of the book and does a much better job of explaining what Hunter is trying to say)

Essay 3, Chapter 4: Toward a Theology of Faithful Presence

“Toward a Theology of Faithful Presence” is the fourth chapter of the third essay of James Davison Hunter’s To Change The World. The abstract of this chapter, from Hunter’s website, reads as follows:

The 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. It is the way the Word became incarnate in Jesus Christ and the purposes to which the incarnation was directed that are the only adequate reply to the challenge of difference. Pursuit, identification, the offer of life through sacrificial love—this is what God’s faithful presence means. At root, a theology of faithful presence begins with an acknowledgement of God’s faithful presence to us, manifested through religion, vocation, and other spheres of influence, and that his call upon Christians is that they be faithfully present to him in return. This model stands in opposition to the “defensive against,” “relevance to,” and “purity from” paradigms, Hunter suggests a model of engagement called “faithful presence within.”


Moving forward from the above description, Hunter mentions three areas where Christians need to be “faithfully present”:

  • To each other. Hunter isn’t talking about Christians being present for other Christians; he’s talking about the Christian’s relationship to strangers. He doesn’t mean merely through benevolence, but through participation in all human institutions. Just as God has shown us, we are to pursue others, identify with them and offer sacrificial love.
  • To our tasks. Hunter says the key to this is found in Colossians 3, where Paul talks about doing whatever we do “as working for the Lord.” He asserts that what we do has value when done for God, apart from any other benefit it may have. The most important is that we do our best in order to please God and be obedient to him.
  • Within our spheres of influence. We wield “power” and must not do so thoughtlessly. We can’t conform passively to the world. Hunter explains, “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.” (p. 247)

Hunter then compares this approach to the three political approaches he has previously described. He sees the “relevant to” approach as being insufficient because it is in the end indistinguishable from the world around it, except for maintaining high moral ideals. The “defensive against” approach sees no value to worldly tasks except how they serve evangelistic purposes. The neo-Anabaptists place no value on tasks done outside the church and can therefore offer no advice to those who have to work for a living; the heroes invoked by the neo-Anabaptists are almost exclusively people who have dedicated themselves to work supported by the church.

So what does “faithful presence” look like? In the first place, Hunter says, Christians attend to everyone they come in contact with, believer and non-believer. In our tasks, Hunter explains, we give priority to substance over style, enduring over passing, depth over breadth, and excellence over packaging. In this way, God is glorified and we gain a glimpse of the coming kingdom. Finally, Hunter says that everything we do must promote shalom, God’s peace, among those around us.

Hunter offers two more chapters that seek to explain further his view of “faithful presence”; I’ll try and save my response for then. But you don’t have to! Feel free to offer comments, questions, etc.