To Change the World

This is the title of a book I am reading by James Davison Hunter (written in 2010) that I will  post a full review on in the next week. But the title and some of his introductory material caught me up short. “Changing the world” is rhetoric I’ve lived with one way or another since my high school days. Hunter talks about this language and how many causes use this language in their rhetoric. I really cringed then waiting for him to cite the organization I work with which has in its vision statement “world-changers developed”. Thankfully, he didn’t, but he definitely caught my attention.

to change the world

What Hunter is exploring in this book is how culture changes and he says some challenging things that I am chewing on as I read the book and await the conclusion of his argument. He believes that the approaches  taken by many groups are misguided because they focus on individual change–either in ideas or practices–change the individual and you can change the world sort of stuff.

He makes a series of assertions (eleven in all) at the beginning of the book about culture change that challenge this idea. I won’t list all of them but here are several that caught my attention:

Proposition Five: Cultural production and symbolic capital are stratified in a fairly rigid structure of “center’ and “periphery”.  For example, a publication from Oxford University Press, even if it sells 1000 copies has far more “capital” than a publication from Zondervan that sells 100,000.

Proposition Six: Culture is generated within networks. He argues against the “great man” theory of culture change and suggests that relationally dense networks, especially interlocking networks among elites bring about culture change. Wilberforce is an example, working within a network of politicians, industrialists, ministers, and social activists at the top of British social hierarchy to abolish slavery.

Proposition Ten: World-changing is most concentrated when the networks of elites and the institutions they lead overlap. One of the implications of this is such overlapping networks take time to form. We often want change and we want it now, or in the next three to five years. Yet it may take thirty years of patient work of a network of people to effect such change.

Hunter, speaking of, and implicitly to, contemporary Christian efforts of various stripes believes that most of these have occurred outside the cultural centers of influence, and have been oblivious to how elite networks actually shape culture. This reminded me of a discussion of the question of who were the public intellectuals who represented Christian faith in the world of higher education and in the wider culture. We discussed what qualities we might look for in such people. Here were my thoughts:

  • A fundamental belief in and commitment to faith in the public square and Spirit-given passion and courage for this work.
  • Credentials that give credibility. 
  • This has to be supplemented with quality work in their field of endeavor whether it be science, technology, the arts or public policy.
  • A broad fluency in the wider world of knowledge in areas of science, economics, sociology, technology, and more. I don’t think someone can be a public intellectual without being a voracious and omnivorous reader!
  • Articulateness in the idioms of the culture evident in written, oral, (and in many settings) social media settings. They must be able to speak to without speaking down to thoughtful non-academics.
  • Theological acuity that can translate the great truths of redemptive history and the kingdom of God into the political, cultural, social realities.
  • Cross-cultural competence that consists both in a growing cultural self-awareness, and a growing engagement with the cultural diversity in one’s own country and the wider world community. (I think this last is vital in transcending the political punditry that passes for much “public intellectual” work in my own country.
  • For someone who exercises this role at a national level, it involves those whose presence is regularly welcomed in our national media, both more popular and more serious. In the US this can range from Times op-eds and magazine articles in The Atlantic to visual media such as The Charlie Rose Show for serious conversation and Colbert  for more popular influence (I think of N.T. Wright’s interviews on this last outlet).

What is striking as I look at the list is that the one example of a person who I think might qualify is from Great Britain. It is troubling that for most thoughtful American Christians, their only other candidate might be C.S. Lewis, and he has been dead fifty years and is also British!

A word at this point might be in order about the “Christian” framing of this discussion, particularly for those who don’t identify as such. Any thoughtful and moral person wants the world to be a better place and cares about human flourishing. In a pluralistic context such as ours, what this looks like will certainly be contested and negotiated and all of us will pursue the flourishing of people and society according to our own lights. Often Christian efforts have been pre-emptive on the political fringe  rather than participative with others in the culture-shaping centers of our society. As Mark Noll argued a number of years back in The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, we simply haven’t done the intellectual and professional work necessary to enter the public discourse. In other words, I am not proposing some effort to “Christianize” society but simply that we not settle for short cuts to avoid the hard work of joining others in seeking social and cultural goods.

As I reflect on Hunter’s book and my list, it seems at least two conclusions are apparent. One is the need for scientists, artists and those who work in business, law, and public policy and other disciplines who will give themselves to faithful excellence in their work and who skillfully use whatever platforms they have to exercise influence toward “the good society” (whatever that is, which is a challenging question for “world-changers”). As I noted earlier, this is not something that happens overnight but over a lifetime. Faithful excellence often leads to greater and greater spheres of influence.

The second conclusion for me was the vital importance of cultivating cross-professional networks of like minded people who engage with each other and and develop their influence in the wider culture. We often think individually when we need to think “network”. I think an effort promoted by my own organization called the Emerging Scholars Network a good beginning for those who work in academia. Equally, I think it important to develop skill and facility in sharing one’s work and ideas in appropriate networks outside the faith community, not in an adversarial sense but in the sense of “what am I missing and how could this be better” which is good intellectual discourse at its best.

In that spirit, I would love to interact more with others who think about this “world-changing” stuff to know what you think of these ideas, what’s missing, and what could be better. And if you’ve gotten this far, thanks for reading a longer-than-usual post from me.


One thought on “To Change the World

  1. Pingback: Review: To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World « Bob on Books

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