How culture changes

Picture of horse & buggy in 2008

The view out my office window, July 2008

Changing people is one thing. Changing culture, it turns out, is quite another.

And yet a study of evangelicalism will show that one of our assumptions is that to change people is to change culture. We just need to change enough people. Our default strategy for culture change is evangelism, winning the world one-by-one, hoping that a tipping point will be reached where democracy reigns and our culture shifts to become what God designed it to be. The goal of this strategy is to change culture from the bottom-up.

Will our strategy work?

James Davison Hunter, in his book To Change the World gives two examples which clearly show that shaping contemporary culture is not a democratic, bottom-up process. In Hunter’s words:

  1. “Jews have never comprised more than 3.5 percent of the American population…Yet the contribution of the Jewish community to science, literature, art, music, letters, film, and architecture is both brilliant and unrivaled.”1
  2. “A similar story of influence can be told of the gay community. At most 3 percent of the American population, their influence has become enormous, again disproportionate to their size.”2

In contrast to these two communities, evangelicals make up about 12% of the Canadian population and 25% of the American population, but the two smaller groups have been able to effect much greater cultural change. Obviously the tools of democracy won’t make the changes we want to see.

How culture changes

Cultural elites

Culture change is initiated by cultural elites. They are philosophers, academics, and high concept artists who have the intellectual capacity and the social capital to initiate and sustain cultural change. They use their platforms and networks to set their agenda in motion.

Initiating cultural change

Cultural elites think at the most abstract, theoretical, high-brow level. They are largely unknown to the general public because their audience isn’t the general public, but instead other cultural elites and people who can use their positions of power or influence to convert the output of the elites into something more accessible to the public.

Disseminating cultural change

The output from the cultural elites is then disseminated through people who can interpret it and pass it along to the leaders and opinion-setters in society. Professors spread the new ideas in universities and publish peer-reviewed articles in law journals. Advocates pick up the ideas and publicize them to politicians and the public. Writers create screenplays based on their ideas and movie producers bring them to the masses.

Implementing cultural change

Finally, the public experiences the new culture as it is realized. The theoretical becomes practical and we start living the new culture. The high brow becomes low brow and the rest of the creative arts and literature communities jump in producing their interpretations of the new culture. Abstract morality is given legs, for example, in terms of what we choose for our own lives, what we promote in the public school system, and the type of volunteer work we do for our communities. When all this is happening, we can say that culture has been changed.

The following chart summarizes the components of culture change.

Elements of cultural change

Adaptation of Hunters Cultural Matrix from To Change the World

Scaling

Changing culture is never a task for loners and it can’t be accomplished with just one or two tactics alone. Culture change demands a multi-pronged holistic approach. It needs the whole package described above, every element working together, to make real, lasting change. Advocacy alone, for example, isn’t enough because it is not supported by the intellectual, philosophical, and aesthetic components of enduring culture change.

The matrix of people and institutions working together which Hunter describes is a very powerful strategy called scaling. Cause-related secular organizations take scaling very seriously because it works!

In the face of such a concerted effort by elites from different sectors all coalesced around a common goal, one-off legal and political victories won through advocacy don’t mean very much. Those wins just aren’t sustainable against a holistic campaign by the cultural elites that seems to come at the general public from all sides.

Looking through history, Hunter finds that:

“At every point of challenge and change, we find a rich source of patronage that provided resources for intellectuals and educators who, in the context of dense networks, imagine, theorize and propagate an alternative culture. Often enough, alongside these elites are artists, poets, musicians, and the like who symbolize, narrate, and popularize this vision. New institutions are created that give form to that culture, enact it, and, in so doing, give tangible expression to it….They do not gain traction in the larger social world until they challenge, penetrate, and redefine the status structure at the center of cultural life. Invariably, as we have seen, this process results in conflict.”

Christians and the elites

Christians are noticeably absent from the ranks of the cultural elite in contemporary society, unlike in the days of William Wilberforce and the “Clapham Sect,” when they themselves were among the cultural elites. Today’s cultural elites likely have no religious background at all and, as Eric Metaxas writes in his essay “Cultural Elites: The next unreached people group,” they are people who need to know Jesus.

We also don’t have much in the way of institutional or other support for abstract, theoretical, thought leadership.

  • Evangelicals, for example, have lots of institutions, but they were created to fulfill our own needs, not to influence culture.
  • What institutions we have are on the periphery of cultural production.
    • Our books, for example, aren’t reviewed by the major reviewers.
  • Physically, Hunter notes that Christian institutions are not located in the cultural power-house cities of New York and Los Angeles, but in smaller cities away from the limelight. The situation is the same in Canada. Lorna Dueck’s show Context, is an exception, being located right in the CBC’s Broadcasting Centre on Front Street in downtown Toronto. Lorna is located literally in the very centre of cultural production, and her show presents a thoughtful Christian perspective on issues of the day that everyone is thinking about. Her ministry deserves our support!
  • Our Christian cultural output (art, books, etc.) is for the popular market, not the conceptual or intellectual market.

Culture shaping at the abstract, theoretical, high-brow level currently just isn’t a priority for Christians, so it doesn’t look like the situation will get any better soon.

  • Hunter found that, in 2004, four secular foundations alone provided over $200 million in grants to secular arts and culture. The largest Catholic and Evangelical foundations gave a total of $10 million.
  • On top of that, one secular foundation alone gave $12 million for individuals (called ‘geniuses’) working in scholarship, invention, and social innovation. The Catholic and Evangelical foundations gave nothing to support our promising people.

The only Christian think-tank in Canada that I can readily think of is Cardus. They are doing a lot not only in thought leadership on big picture societal issues, but also in promoting the value of religion to the Canadian public. They also deserve our support!

Imago Arts Canada is another ministry worthy of support. It promotes Christian art, advocates for the arts, has addressed social issues, and promoted science/religion dialogue.

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Solutions

So, what’s the way forward?

Theological

Jeremy Begbie writes in For The Beauty Of The Church that when the New Testament writers write about a vision for the future, they move from the future to the present. They start with what “God will finally do,” and then “dare to claim that this future can start now.” The Holy Spirit invites us to share in his work of re-creating the present in light of that future. This is what Jesus did when he announced the in-breaking of God’s kingdom. Right where he was, he lived life the way it should be lived.

Begbie notes five aspects of the future described in Revelation 21 which we should reflect on and see what we can do to introduce them into the present:

  • The Spirit unites the unlike – there is a diversity of peoples and nations in heaven all united under God.
  • The Spirit generates excess – God’s provision is more than enough to meet the needs of the nations.
  • The Spirit inverts – the rewards of heaven are not based upon the way we earn rewards in this present life.
  • The Spirit exposes the depths – sin is exposed for what it is, and the reality of suffering is acknowledged, and then tears are wiped away and replaced with joy.
  • The Spirit recreates – the world is liberated from all that isn’t right.

Let these five observations about God’s future become a matter of prayer and reflection, and see where the Spirit guides you.

Faithful presence

Hunter Baker, in The System Has a Soul, and James Davison Hunter in his book, both call for us to have a faithful presence in our society. Baker describes what that looks like, saying:

“A faithful presence involves offering critical resistance to those things that do not lead to human flourishing, and making an extended effort to retrieve social goods that have been lost or are in danger of being lost. But all of this should be done without any real effort to impose….Faithful presence means that we pursue, identify with, and labor toward the good of others.”

Again, make this a matter of prayer and reflection. How could you and your ministry have a faithful presence where God has planted you?

Engage & join the cultural elites

If we want to join the cultural elite and contribute our own ideas to the mix, we need a three-pronged strategy:

  1. First, we should treat the cultural elites as an identifiable people group who have not yet heard the Gospel, and engage them. They need Jesus as much as anyone.
  2. Then we should get behind and help advance the careers of Christians who have the potential to be among the cultural elite. Mentoring and scholarships would be key components of this strategy.
  3. Finally, we should build our institutional capacity in the fields of education, philosophy, and the arts to support our cultural elites.

This last point is brief, but it holds within it a huge, complex project similar in scale to the one developed by Billy Graham and his cohort in the 1940s. Have you a heart to do something similar today? What can you do to make it happen?

Key Thought: Christians need to build the full mix of cultural resources if we want to participate in the development of our culture.

  1. Hunter cites a book that documents this point written by David Hollinger, Science, Jews, and Secular Culture, Princeton University Press, 1996.
  2. Hunter notes that most of their success came during the conservative presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George Bush.
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Thoughts on How culture changes

  1. Ron Easton

    While I don’t disagree with the premise of your article I worry about the Gospel being lost in the midst of a desire for social change. Your reference to Billy Graham and his cohorts is a good example of what we want to see but the example of the liberlization of the church’s theology in the early part of the 20th Century is an example of forgetting or minimizing the gospel in favour of social influence or change. Changing our theology to accommodate culture for the sake of influence must be guarded against.

    Reply
    1. John PelloweJohn Pellowe Post author

      Hi Ron, thanks for your comment. I share your concern over culture influencing theology. It must be the other way around, but the danger is that culture change is so subtle and pervasive we must really be on our guard to be sure we keep it right. Billy Graham and his group were trying to find a better way between the liberal theology of the social gospel movement (mainline Protest for the most part) and the withdrawal and separation from society of the fundamentalist movement. My post next week will give the example of how the ancient church stayed true to its theology, and precisely because of its theology, was able to effect great social change in its time. You’ve raised a caution that must be taken most seriously. Thanks!

      Reply

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