Saturday, April 30, 2005

Response to Questions on 'Top-Down' Social Change 1 

A number of questions and some objections have been raised in feedback to my post on James Jordan’s argument for top-down social change. Within this post (which will be followed by another, shorter post) I would like to clarify the manner in which I understand Jordan on this point, by making a number of observations in response.
There are different ways in which we can understand Jordan’s assertion that social change comes from the top-down. I do not believe that this assertion is intended to rule out the possibility of powerful social movements arising outside of the ruling elite in a given society and going on to transform the whole of the society. As some have pointed out in response, the early Church arose in such a manner (I will have more to say on this subject later on). One could quite reasonably argue that most movements that go on to transform society have started, in some manner or other, outside of the ruling elite. The elite tend to be too conservative to spearhead radical social change. Jordan is not primarily, in my reading of him, arguing for the ‘top-down’ model as the temporal pattern of change (i.e. that all change begins with a change in mind on the part of the elite in a given society). Such a claim would be highly debatable. Although Jordan does seem to hold that (temporally) change on the part of the elite generally precedes that of the main body of the masses, I do not think that this is his main point. Rather, Jordan’s principal point concerns the normative structural pattern of change (perhaps Kuhnian distinctions between revolutionary and ordinary science have some place in the discussion at this point). To employ an analogy: an agent can be introduced into my body at many possible points. I could inhale, ingest, touch or inject the agent. However, the speed, scale and pattern of its spread within my body are greatly dependent on the point at which and manner in which the agent is introduced. On occasions this might mean the difference between life and death. The various systems that are at operation in my body can be invaded in various ways. However, the success of this invasion will be limited if certain strategic and central organs or functions are not taken over. A particular disease may advance far in my bodily system and yet still be conquered, because it has not been able to overrun a crucial organ, function or process with my system. A ‘populist’ approach to evangelism is similar to an understanding of a disease that focuses on how many individual cells (or whatever) have been overrun; an ‘elistist’ approach is one that focuses on how successful the disease has been in compromising bodily systems. It seems to me that Jordan understands society as being analogous to such a body. The normative structure of society grants particular controlling power to an elite. It is possible to transform society, even though we start from outside of the elite. Nevertheless, if we are to be truly successful in bringing about lasting and effective social change we must either convert or replace the elite. If our evangelism is merely directed at converting the masses, without a corresponding concern for developing or converting an elite, we will fail in the goal of long term social change. Without the development of a robust elite of our own, and ministry to the elite of the societies that we are trying to reach, the success of our labours will be short-lived. It is possible to survive the persistent hostility of the existing elite and still bring about lasting social change. However, this social change will come as we create a rival to the existing elite, a counter-elite. Whether we convert the existing elite, or create a new elite to take its place, our approach should always be ‘elitist’. The long-term effectiveness of our evangelism is not so much measured by how many people we reach, as by how far our evangelism succeeds in taking over the systems of authority, thought, culture and influence that exist within our society. If we neglect to develop our own elite and address existing elites we will never be effective in bringing about the transformation of our societies. Many evangelicals have proclaimed the gospel to the masses in the past, only to find their work blighted by the ability of elite liberal scholars to take over the minds of their best young men.
Another objection that has been raised against Jordan’s ‘top-down’ claim is that ‘bottom-up’ revivals have effected more long-term social change than ‘top-down’ social movements have ever done. The example of the Evangelical Revival under Wesley and Whitefield is given. I hardly think that the Evangelical Revival is a good example of ‘bottom-up’ social change. To begin with, the Revival did not start with common men off the street. Men like Wesley and Whitefield were far from regular laymen. They were both educated in Oxford University and had considerable intellectual prowess. Wesley was a gifted linguist (he wrote grammar textbooks in seven of the eight foreign languages that he knew) and was also well-read in the Patristics. His study was broad as well as deep. He read widely in philosophy and science and authored books on history and medicine. Wesley started off with a very elitist high church mindset. Even in 1745 (eight years after his evangelical conversion) one finds Wesley arguing that the ministry of bishops in the Church of England is dependent upon the pope as the Bishop of Rome. Wesley benefited from many of the elitist structures already existing within Anglicanism. The early Methodist leaders also gave attention to ministering to the elite within the society of their day (opportunities being opened up by people such as Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, who was held in high regard by many in the nobility and by King George III himself), though not without a great degree of success. Whitefield and Wesley preached to many within the aristocracy in their day (quite often to private congregations composed solely of members of the nobility) and so retained a ministry to every level of society. Wesley was strongly in favour of hierarchical structures in Church government and provides us with good examples of an elitist approach at work. Throughout his life Wesley sough to develop strong hierarchical structures. We should not be surprised at the far reaching effects of the Revival, when we take into account such things as Wesley’s establishment of the circuit structure and class-meetings, which served to give the Methodist movement a strong hierarchical structure and cohesion as a movement. The attention that Wesley and the Methodists gave to education should also not be overlooked. Wesley was a fellow of Lincoln College in Oxford for twenty five years. He taught Greek and the classics. He founded a number of schools. He insisted that his lay preachers study for five hours a day. The education provided by the Methodist movement served to create a new middle class. Wesley’s approach to evangelism was decidedly ‘top-down’. This may still seem to be a strange conclusion to some. Explaining why I believe this to be the case may help to clarify what is meant by ‘top-down’ evangelism. Elitist evangelism should never ignore the masses. The leader of any society must be the servant of all. Any elite that is not concerned with the evangelism of the masses is failing in its ministry. The ‘top-down’ approach to social change is not argument for the neglect of the evangelization of the masses; quite the opposite. Elitist evangelism presents us with a particular way in which to reach the masses. Elitist evangelism approaches the evangelization of the masses with an appreciation of the necessity of reaching existing elites and creating new elites. The effects of mass evangelism will be short-lived unless they are accompanied by the formation of effective top-down hierarchies. Wesley sought to develop hierarchical structures within which gifted men could be advanced and new leaders could be groomed by existing leaders. Wesley sought to cultivate the gifts of the various members of the Methodist churches and societies. He tried to establish hierarchical structures to ensure that power would not be exercised by those who sought to compete for it or grasp at it (as is so often the case in an egalitarian ‘bottom-up’ church structure). Rather, power would be given to those who submitted to the existing leadership within the hierarchical government of the churches and societies and had cultivated the character necessary for advancement. Wesley may not have converted the ruling elite in the Britain of his day. However, he did seek to create a new hierarchical structure of his own. He sought to groom future leaders on every level of society with his emphasis on education and with his establishment of structures to encourage the cultivation and training of new preachers for his churches and societies. The scale of social change brought about by the Wesleyan Revival cannot be understood apart from a recognition of all of this. We must not forget that Wesley was at heart an Episcopalian, who applied a ‘top-down’ understanding of social change to his evangelism.
Christian evangelism should always go for the head. The early Church followed this pattern. Lest we forget, the early Church did not primarily spread through children’s clubs and women’s coffee mornings. I am sure that the early Church provided for the catechesis and training of its children. It is also quite clear that women played an important role in the early Church. The Church has a God-given responsibility to minister to all people. If the leaders of the Church abdicate this responsibility, we should not be surprised when God raises up others to take their place. Nevertheless, the early Church appreciated that successful evangelism aims primarily for the head. For this reason they seem to have focused on the conversion of men and heads of households (not all heads of households are men — e.g. Acts 16:14-15). Modern evangelicals seem to adopt a democratic, egalitarian approach to evangelism and have failed to recognize the strategic importance of adopting a top-down approach. Often with this has come a ‘lowest common denominator’ approach to evangelism that avoids the mind altogether and addresses itself solely to the feelings. As a result the existing power structures within our society often remain largely unchanged. [Evangelicalism’s susceptibility to personality cults is a symptom of many of these deeper problems. When you consistently fail to transform the hierarchical structures of society and develop strong structures of your own, you will end up increasingly reliant on the short-term benefits of charismatic leadership.] Even when we do reach those at the head of the different structures within our societies, the message that we present them with is far too shallow to be of any real use to them in the fulfilling of their roles in leadership. Their mindsets will tend to be shaped by other forces. Take, for example, the family. Many evangelical Christian fathers and husbands today learn how to run their families more from the surrounding ungodly society than from the Church. The Church does address these fathers, but seldom as ‘fathers’. They tend to only really be addressed with a message about how, as individuals, they can enjoy a personal relationship with God. They are not adequately trained for the exercise of their demanding role. Due to evangelicalism’s almost exclusive concern to convert detached individuals, to the neglect of forming Christian families and other such social structures, the Church often merely floats like oil on the water of the more determinative structures within our society. The shallow message and populism of evangelicalism result in its limited impact on the deeper structures and higher powers within our society. As Jordan points out, evangelicalism has marginalized itself by abdicating its duty to minister to the head/elite within society. Evangelicalism has also failed to cultivate new elites of its own. Society often views the Church as a place for women, children, the uneducated and the physically and emotionally infirm. Ann Douglas comments on the manner in which liberal pastors in the nineteenth century began to focus on the time of death as the greatest opportunity for their message winning an entrance:—
The clergyman’s chance, like the woman’s, was now coincidental with the weakest moment of his parishioners. No longer confident that he could meet his congregation at their strongest or impress its ablest representatives—the men of intellect and talent in their stores, counting-houses, and courtrooms—the minister increasingly fell back upon an inner parish of women and those men who had been reduced to playing the woman’s role; his congregation consisted of those who were feeling rather than thinking.
A similar approach seems to have been adopted by many sections of the evangelical church in our own day.
In arguing for elitist theology, Jordan is not arguing for some ivory tower attitude on the part of theologians, nor is he arguing for obscurantism. Jordan is also far from arguing that laymen are stupid. A few pages before his treatment of episcopalianism, he writes as follows:—
Presbyterian seminary students are taught, sometimes directly and sometimes indirectly, that laymen are stupid and can only be fed pabulum. (Laymen must take a lot of the blame here too, of course.) Thus, the student is told to take a text of Scripture, process it through some “analytic/synthetic” method (or some other method), reduce it either to one big point or three points, spruce it up with artificial illustrations (from some illustration book), and thereby mush out some general thoughts on the passage. Somehow, it just isn’t “preaching” (or rather, “PREACHING”) if we simply go through the passage verse by verse and explain it, drawing together conclusions at the end. Not only does such a method give out far too much content for the cretins in the congregation to take in, but it also has the obvious disadvantage of sticking right with God’s own words. Who wants that? How much better to use the process, reduce, and spruce method? (By the way, I’ve never found laymen to be all that dumb, particularly when they have an open text in front of them. Even if they are, it would be better to teach God’s word and trust the Spirit to bring people up to that level, than simultaneously to insult God and feed processed leftovers to His sheep.)
What Jordan is arguing is that, although the common man should be challenged to think more deeply on theological issues and should not abdicate this responsibility simply because of the existence of professional theologians, the common man will never be sufficiently equipped to understand theology on the level at which much of the most important theology is written. I know few laymen who could really digest Zizioulas, Milbank, Van Til or even Wright to a degree that would enable them to understand the inner workings of their theology. Whilst the works of some of these theologians (Milbank in particular) may be, not unfairly, charged with an unnecessary degree of opacity, I fail to see how some of the most important aspects of their thinking can be made easily accessible to the grandmother in the pew. In addition to this we must recognize that much theological discourse necessarily demands a deep knowledge of biblical languages, philosophical discourse, ancient history, sociology and the like, which simply cannot be attained by the average Christian (even by determined dilettantes like me). This does not mean that such elitist theology is to be avoided. Elitist theology is essential for the health of the Church. The practice of theology is part of the Church’s mission. Theologians serve to mark out the Christian Church from other communities. They serve as apologists. They serve to educate and train the whole of the Church, so that it will be more effective in its mission to each level of society. Theologians also serve as the conscience of the Church, challenging the Church to retain the distinct identity that is God’s gift to it in Christ. They exercise a ministry for the sake of the whole Church. Every Christian must be a theologian to the degree that God has gifted them. The roles played by the theologian are roles that we all need to play to some degree or other. Theology is the task of the Church as a whole; it is not merely something to be practiced by the theological elite alone. The elite do not fulfil their theological task in order to excuse the rest of the Church from any theological role. Rather, they exist to equip all within the Church to exercise their respective theological tasks. As the Church recognizes that God has especially gifted particular of her members and granted them deep theological insight, she calls them to exercise their ministry in higher positions, as servants to the Church as a whole. It is the task of such theologians to ensure that the Church does not become misled in its mission. In other words, it is the task of such theologians to preserve the authority of Scripture within the Church and to ensure that both the Church as a whole, and individual interpreters of the Scripture in particular, are continually held accountable by the Word of God. Whilst there is a simplicity to the gospel, theology is often far from simple. The complex and difficult task of the theologian is to ensure that the gospel retains its true simplicity. If it were not for the work of theologians the gospel would, quite literally, be all Greek to laymen. It is the theologian’s task to present the gospel to the various members of the Church in a manner accommodated to their understanding. To the theologian also falls the task of mental ground-clearing, challenging the hardened mindsets that prevent the gospel’s simplicity from been appreciated. This ground-clearing is hard work, there are many deeply ingrained ways of thinking that resist the inculcation and growth of true orthodoxy and orthopraxis. As many authors have observed, evangelicalism has not always been the best at producing theology. Many evangelical churches are infected by an anti-intellectualism and resist the idea of elitist theology, producing only material designed for a popular audience. Tim LaHaye may sell over 75 million copies of his books, Bruce Wilkinson may sell over 15 million, but ‘elitist’ theologians like James Dunn and John Milbank will, in the long run, I believe, prove to have the greater effect. Writers like Wilkinson and LaHaye, for all their popular appeal, will not change the world. They have opted out of process of historical change. Mediocrity seldom has a lasting impact. However, one should never underestimate the significance of an elitist theologian (think of all the balls that someone like E.P. Sanders set rolling). Elitist theologians do not take writers like Wilkinson and LaHaye seriously (I am using these two writers as classic examples of evangelical populism; many others could be listed). In fact, despite their huge popularity, they do not feel at all threatened by the presence of such men, although they are (or at least ought to be) concerned that people are being led astray by them. Wilkinson and LaHaye are not going to change the course of history, no matter how many people read them. Their material lacks the theological backbone necessary to actually persuade anyone who has really studied theology for any significant period of time. I might add that they are also of little interest to those who have not imbibed certain of the values of American culture to some degree or other. The power of the works of evangelical writers like Wilkinson and LaHaye tends to reside in the manner in which they largely adopt their readers’ starting points and take on board their assumptions (assumptions, I might add, that owe more to seculiar Americanism than to anything distinctively Christian). Writers who swim with the spirit of the age, and lack the strength to resist the various social currents, do not change history. The widespread appreciation of writers like Wilkinson and LaHaye merely manifests the pervasive character of certain cultural and religious values within American society. They do not significantly change the mindset of society; rather, they serve to expose the scale of previous changes in the mindset within our society. They are largely at the receiving end of the history that the various elites have created. Elite theologians know this and so they generally ignore them. Writers like Wilkinson and LaHaye are more like the symptoms of the disease than the disease itself. They only receive their readership due to the lack of biblical teaching in many churches. All of this said, popular Christian literature has an important place. Jordan recognizes this. His point is that such literature is far from the most important theological literature. Popular Christian literature will generally lack the necessary weight to challenge and break the ruling anti-Christian mindsets (that is, when it is not in thrall to these mindsets itself). These mindsets need to be challenged at the highest level and few Christians are sufficient to be able to challenge them there. Christian leaders also have a responsibility to produce good popular literature to replace the foul swill that is offered in many Christian bookstores (Tom Wright is an example of a leading theologian who has done a lot of good work in this area). Laymen should also be taught to think more deeply. This is probably the best response to writers like LaHaye and Wilkinson. A little rudimentary biblical teaching should be sufficient to inoculate people against false teachers of their ilk. If they were given more education I see no reason why most laymen could not begin to digest the works of many leading theologians. Elite theologians should never forget that their task is one of service to the Church as a whole in its theological task. They cannot remain indifferent to the failure of the laity to fulfil its theological role.

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