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Hans Denck’s response to James Davison Hunter (and Tim Keller)

April 7th, 2011 by isaac · 3 Comments

I read James Davison Hunter’s new book last year: To Change the World (2010). I’ve been thinking about it a lot over the past few months. This morning I read a passage from Hans Denck, an Anabaptist leader in the 16th century. Remarkably, Denck names the arts and the economy (as well as the government) as the sites of power in our world. Instead of simply locating power in the domain of government and politics, Denck is able to see that those who can influence the culture and the economy have worldly power. While Hunter (and the popularized version in Tim Keller) call Christians to maintain “faithful presence within” places of cultural, political, and economic power, Denck articulates a very different path:

And let no one look to the high-ranking people of this world, whether in government, in the arts or in the economy. He whose heart is directed towards heaven would do better to align himself with the despised and humble people of this world. Their lord and master is Jesus Christ, who became the most despised of all men and as a result was raised up by God the Father to reign over all creation. Woe to him who looks elsewhere rather than at this objective. The person who claims to belong to Christ must follow the path taken by Christ. (quoted in Hans-Jurgen Goertz, The Anabaptists, 143)

It’s all about Christology: about God choosing to be faithfully present among those rejected by the powerful, not among those who have the power to reject. As Karl Barth put it in his doctrine of reconciliation, Jesus Christ is the rejected One.

Tags: political power · reading corner · theology

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Derek Woodard-Lehman // Apr 8, 2011 at 6:21 am

    Hey Isaac,

    Greetings from Princeton. Thanks for the Denck quote. It’s quite interesting. Though my own Anabaptist sensibility does not run in the same direction. Or perhaps I just would want to talk with Hans about the details of what “the arts” entails. It’s one thing to eschew cultural power, especially as institutionalized in things like museums, major performance venues, and mass media outlets. But, for me, that disavowal has more to do with the economic entrapments that come packaged with such institutions than with the aesthetic or artistic per se.

    But apart from this sort of determinate renunciation his admonition, I think loses its traction. There is no place outside “culture.” Words, bowls, hoes, and lanterns are all cultural artifacts. Even the Amish use these. And that, to me, is the issue: use and effect, context and content. I wonder what Denck would say about this. What would he say about the humble and the despised who use the arts to cope with and to contest their humiliation and despoliation at the hands of the powerful? Mark L Taylor’s recent political theology is strongest at the points where he takes up these issues. Although, to be sure, Mark is anything but an Anabaptist in his theological outlook.

    I wonder what Denck would say

  • 2 isaac // Apr 8, 2011 at 7:26 am

    Hi Derek, thanks for visiting this blog, and for taking time to read and write!

    I think you are right on the money with wondering about what counts as “the arts” for Denck. I don’t know enough about 16th century philology to speculate. But you are right: we don’t exactly know what he’s talking about. I can get on board with thinking that he’s not eschewing aesthetics per se, but instead calling into question the link between crafts/arts and money.

    Of course there’s no outside to culture. I don’t Denck facilitates any kind of move to get outside of culture, whatever that could mean. Instead, I think the quote helps us pay attention to the political power that transacts through culture, business, and the government. And I think this question of power is at the heart of Hunter’s apology for occupying the positions of cultural power in our society. In contrast to his apology for worldly power, I like the way Denck calls us into the low places of power, at the bottom, among those despised by the cultural power-brokers. That’s all.


  • 3 Justin // May 1, 2011 at 4:35 pm


    I stumbled here while looking for a refried beans recipe and saw this post. I’m an Episcopal seminarian, and I just wrote a brief paper on the confluence of Denck’s writing on the nature and purpose of law with that of Thomas Aquinas. I find Denck’s writing to be both inspirational and somewhat tragic since he died so young. Anyway, thanks for the post, the beans, and the ongoing witness of Mennonite practice.