Hunter argues that the church's dominant ways of thinking about cultural change are wrong, naïve, and misguided. In contrast to two popular Christian proposals, culture cannot be reduced to ideas (and the values that arise from these ideas) or artifacts. Culture is more complex than this. "[C]ulture is a system of truth claims and moral obligations... embedded within narratives... [and] grounded in the social world... in concrete institutional form" (33-34). Though popular preachers argue for change from the grassroots up, this is not how culture works: "Even where the impetus for change draws from popular agitation, it does not gain traction until it is embraced and propagated by elites" (41). Thus, it is naïve to think that any culture can be changed in five years or even the space of a generation. "Culture is endlessly complex and difficult, and it is highly resistant to our passion to change it, however well intentioned and heroic our efforts may be" (47).
In contrast to "changing culture" Hunter calls us to be a "faithful presence" within culture. Christians must reject the culture's understanding of power as domination over others and use power for the good of others. Both progressive and conservatives are guilty of desiring "their religious agenda to be enforced through the power of the state" (147). Christians must seek to conceive of power in way that does not lead to political domination.
Likewise, Christians must reject the conflation of public life to politics. When "identity becomes so tightly linked with ideology that partisan commitment becomes a measure of their moral significance; of whether a person is judged good or bad" we have identity politics at its worst (105). "This turn toward politics means that we find it difficult to think of a way to address public (by which I mean collective, common, or shared) problems or issues in any way that is not political. Politics subsumes the public so much so that they become conflated. And so instead of the political realm being seen as one part of public life, all of public life tends to be reduced to the political" (106). There are problems people care about that cannot be solved by politics. Indeed, we know we have conflated public with politics when fairness, equity, justice, and liberty "have come to have little or no meaning outside the realm of politics" (172).
Hunter concludes: "Over against the [Fundamentalist's] 'Defensive Against [the culture],' [Progressive's] 'Relevance To [the culture]' and [Ana-Baptist's] 'Purity From [the culture]' paradigms, I would offer an alternative: 'Faithful Presence Within'" (237). Each perspective captures something important, but at the expense of something else: "The concern to be 'relevant to' the world, 'defensive against' the world, and 'pure from' the world all, in certain ways, speaks to authentic biblical concerns. Yet the desire to be 'relevant to' the world has come at the cost of abandoning distinctiveness. The desire to be 'defensive against' the world is rooted in a desire to retain distinctiveness, but this has been manifested in ways that are, on the one hand, aggressive and confrontational and, on the other, culturally trivial and inconsequential. Finally, the desire to be 'pure from' the world has entailed a disengagement and withdrawal from active presence in huge areas of social life" (223).
As the prophet Jeremiah taught Israel in exile, we should seek the welfare of the city of Babylon (see Jeremiah 29:4-7). Israel could have withdrawn, been hostile, or simply assimilated with the alien culture, but instead, they were to be God's faithful people in the midst of hostile territory. The book of Acts is proof that the church can be a faithful presence even when it lacks "financial, intellectual, and cultural resources" and has "few defenders among elite classes" (49). Anyone interested in engaging with the culture in distinctively Christian fashion, must read this provocative book!