I spent last night at Queen’s Park, Toronto with people a whole lot smarter than I am. The event was called To Change the World, and it was put on by the Work Research Foundation, a fascinating organization. It was a stimulating evening.
To Change the World has been on the road all across Canada. The speaker was Dr. James Davison Hunter, whom I liked instantly. I can’t do justice to what he said, but I will give you the short version here. It’s still long but it’s all good stuff that could stimulate thinking for some time.
Part of the creation mandate is to engage and positively influence the world. The legacy of God’s people doing this is ambivalent at best.
Many efforts to influence our world are ongoing with good intentions and sincere efforts. But is that enough?
Our efforts to affect change in society are based on the dominant ways of thinking about culture, which are wrong.
The Dominant View of Culture
The common view is that the essence of culture is found in the values of individuals. Civilization is an accumulation of personal values and worldviews. In this view, the right worldview leads to right choices. To change society, we need to change the worldview of individuals. Change enough individuals and society will change from the bottom-up. One person can make a significant difference.
This is the view held by James Dobson, Charles Colson, and is the one we normally accept. It emphasizes evangelism, politics, and social reform movements (all of which are good). When society doesn’t change, we think that it’s because Christians aren’t trying hard enough or living decisively enough, or that if we just had more Christians things would be different.
Summary: In this view, Transformed Individuals lead to a Transformed Society
The Problem with the Dominant View
It takes more to transform individuals if you want to transform society. Most North Americans have a faith commitment, yet there is little talk of transcendence in culture. If culture is the accumulation of personal values, why is society so secular?
On the other hand, small communities have had a large impact on society. Two examples are the Jewish community, which is a very small percentage of the population but has made a disproportionate contribution; and the homosexual community, which again is small but has significantly impacted the culture. (As a side note, Hunter noted that most of the gains of the homosexual movement in the States took place in the conservative era of Reagan and Bush Sr.)
The dominant view is based on German idealism, which maintains that something unseen (ideas) is primary. Idealism leads to a naiveté to culture and how it operates. Every strategy based on idealism will fail.
An Alternate View
It isn’t enough to transform individuals or have great ideas. People say, “Ideas have consequences.” This is only partly true. Not all ideas have consequences.
Some have more cultural capital than others. Culture is not the accumulation of individual values. It is better to think of culture as a thing than an ether, manufactured by institutions and the elites who lead them.
Although we see great men and women shape society (Luther, Wilberforce, Freud, Nietzsche), the reality is that these individuals did not act alone. They were surrounded by a network of others who shaped, resourced, and popularized their views. An individual apart from a network is not enough to transform society.
Cultural capital is about quality, not quantity. Those at the center, where the influence is greatest, have the most influence. For example, USA Today sells more copies than the New York Times, but the Times has more cultural capital and influence.
Cultural change takes place from the top down, not the bottom up. Change always begins with the elites and percolates throughout society. Culture and power is primarily about how you define reality. This is concentrated among the elites.
World changing is most intense when different forms of capital and networks overlap.
Cultures are profoundly resistant to change. We have to change our horizons; it takes multiple generations to change culture.
When significant changes take place in culture, it can only be described in retrospect. If you can describe a cultural change, it has already happened. Cultural change is too complex for five-year plans.
The renewal of our hearts and minds is important and necessary, but not enough. To change the world is to take power seriously – not power in a conventional sense (manipulating people or events), but the power to define reality.
Jesus reserved his harshest criticism for the elites who defined reality in his day (the Pharisees and religious leaders).
We need to follow Jesus who offered an alternate definition of reality, embodied that definition in his life, embedded it in a network (the church), which moved to the center of influence in that society (ultimately Rome).
This will be much more effective than simply trying to transform individuals or creating a parallel Christian culture. The problem with the parallel Christian culture is that it is has little capital in mainstream culture, and is largely based on celebrity and self-sustaining institutions. It’s time for a new paradigm. (Hunter noted that Christians have retreated from cultural centers: Christianity Today from Washington, DC to Illinois; Focus on the Family from Los Angeles to Colorado Springs.)
We need ideas and institutions.
What if we stopped viewing the Great Commission as just geographic and saw it culturally? To go into all the world would involve going to culture. Where is the faithful Christian witness at the Toronto Film Festival, the Globe and Mail, the Liberal Party of Canada, at the Toronto Stock Exchange?
Lasting cultural transformation comes not from the majority, but from the few but powerful who have the opportunity to influence society through their relationships and institutions.
Much to think about here. If you’re interested in hearing the briefing yourself, you can order it from the Trinity Forum (currently on sale for $5).