Most of you know that I’m pursuing my Doctorate at George Fox University. Love the school, the profs, the peeps. For my dissertation I will be writing a few books from my research on caring for the poor, ministering to orphans, and the theology of Hope. Hopefully, you can learn along with me. I’ll do the hard work!
From time to time, I will be posting about the books our cohort is reading that have to do with culture, church, and Christianity. You can follow all our posts and blogs if you like on the Dmin site.
The first book is To Change the World by James Davison Hunter.
He is interested in how Christians, and Christianity change culture. Can we change it? Is it even possible? The short answer is yes, but not the way we think. The predominant view of most American Christians is three fold: (1) “real change can proceed individually-one by one (2) Cultural change can be willed into being and (3) Change is democratic-it occurs from the bottom of from ordinary citizens (p.16). In other words, we can all be a William Wilberforce.
Hunter says this is dead wrong. These things are important. So are “the renewal of hearts and minds of individuals, worldview education, social and political reform. It is simply to say that these things are just not decisively important if the goal is to change the world.” (p. 27)
Instead, culture is changed first from the “powerful elites” of society. These elites operate in “well-developed networks and powerful institutions” (p. 41). Ideas are important, so are individuals. But “not because they are inherently truthful or obviously correct but rather because of the way they are embedded in very powerful institutions, networks, interests, and symbols.” (p. 44)
Point number two: individuals don’t cause culture change, institutions do.
Take how Christianity got its start for example. “Christianity’s early growth occurred through the interconnected cities of the Greco-Roman empire, cities that were often at the crossroads of important trade routes. The institutional setting of the expansion, however, was the network of the Jewish Diaspora synagogues.” (p. 49)
Back to the powerful elite concept. Hunter believes the spread of Christianity was also due to the fact that wealthy people financed the cause. It wasn’t poor fisherman like Simon (Peter) and John, they needed those with influence and money. “In each (city) Christians had made their way into elite circles of wealth, power, and culture. In each there were Christians prosperous enough to act as benefactors and the churches relied on them as such. (pp. 50-51) “It is also not incidental that with very few exceptions the church fathers-including Justin Martyr, Anthony the Great, Tertullian, Ambrose of Milan, Jerome, Basil the Great…John Chrysostom and Augustine-were born into families that were either prosperous, highly educated or of high social standing.” (p. 51)
I’ll stop at this point, but I must admit this flies in the face of everything I’ve been taught. I work with the poor for crying out loud, the least of these, and we teach them that their lives matter. They can change the world, God can use them, they are important.
A few things to consider here: (1) The Holy Spirit can use an institution, an individual, or a donkey. That fact remains true. We cannot limit God and how he works or what he does. (2) I do believe there is truth in what Hunter is saying. Even the many missionaries I know need the support of those with financial resources (the wealthy, the elite) to help them do what they do. You can’t make it as a missionary without funding. (3) And this is the most valuable for me: We all need institutions. I know many hate that word so let me change it, we all need community. Yes, God works through institutions. Be it a church, the UN, organizations like Children’s Hopechest or a community of friends. There are no lone rangers who change the world. Everyone has a community of friends behind them.
Last, I don’t think this takes away from the importance of the individual. I will never stop telling people they can change the world. God made us in His image. We have ideas and abilities that are far above what we can conceive because the Spirit of God lives in us. Keep believing you can change the world.
I know this is a bit long, and heady, but I would love to hear your thoughts. What do you think about Hunter’s conclusions?