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Culture-changing Power

by Berry Friesen (October 2, 2017)

I’m working on a writing project—an introduction to YHWH—for my grandchildren.  If I can pull it off, it will be something they can absorb as young teenagers.  Mostly, my introduction consists of biblical quotes. 

Recently my work on this project has focused on the gospels and the stories of Jesus.  Aspects of those stories still puzzle me.  Jesus perceived himself to be YHWH’s anointed, the Messiah who would save the Jews (and thereby the rest of the world too).  He showed no interest at all in the Roman Empire or imperial forms of power.  So what was his approach for carrying out his rescue operation?

As we read the gospels, we notice several features of Jesus’ approach: the healings, teaching large crowds of people, sending out the disciples two-by-two. Most prominent is how it all ended:  Jesus’ willing acceptance of a gruesome, public death. *

Both Mark and Matthew hint that midstream in his ministry, Jesus’ approach shifted as a result of an meeting with an entourage of Pharisees and Sadducees from Jerusalem (see Mark 8:11-13 and Matthew 16:1-4).  The meeting ended abruptly with Jesus walking out.  Thereafter, Jesus began speaking to his disciples about rejection, the cross and death.  What was pivotal about that encounter?  Apparently, Jesus had been hoping for far more from the religious leaders than they gave him.

A 2002 speech by University of Virginia professor and author James Davison Hunter may throw some light on this. Hunter contends that enduring cultural change does not occur through mass movements or via grassroots campaigns to win converts one at a time. Instead, it is led by people with significant cultural capital (e.g., the elite) who are embedded in social and professional networks of the similarly endowed and who leverage their influence through important economic and political institutions. **

Thus, Hunter contends:

“Long-term cultural change always occurs from the top down. In other words, the work of world changing is the work of elites; gatekeepers who provide creative direction and management to the leading institutions in a society.”

“World-changing is most intense when the networks of elites and the institutions they lead overlap. Implied here is the overlapping of the different forms of capital – cultural capital overlapping with economic capital and/or political capital.”

What exactly is “cultural capital,” this prized commodity the elite possess? Hunter says:

“It starts as credibility, an authority one possesses which puts one in a position to be taken seriously. It ends as the power to define reality itself. It is the power to name things.”

Back to Jesus.  Assuming he held the same understanding of cultural change as Hunter, we can see why his meeting with the Pharisees and Sadducees was pivotal.  Jesus hoped they would join him in launching a transformation of the Palestinian Jews into the salt of the earth, the town set upon a hill, the lamp high on the lamp-stand (Matthew 5:13-16).  But they refused Jesus’ invitation.

Is there space for Hunter’s analysis in our understanding of cultural change? Does his emphasis on “the elite” undermine our emphasis on community empowerment?  Are the two emphases complementary?  These are some of my questions.

In exploring these questions and others, we need to clarify the kind of “power” we are talking about—what it is (or can be) and how it unfolds and proliferates.

Hunter speaks to this:

“To change the world is, at some point, to take power seriously. I recognize that power is an uncomfortable subject for people of faith and all people of good will who quite rightly celebrate service in the cause of the needy, the estranged, and the common good.

“But the power we need to take seriously is not power in a conventional sense. Politics will never be a solution to the challenges we face . . .

“Rather, it is the power to define reality in ways that sustain benevolence and justice . . .  In any case, articulating a reality that sustains benevolence and justice and exemplifying its meaning in time and space is the burden of leaders. In this respect, we do well to remember as a corrective and a caution that Jesus reserved his harshest criticism for the ruling elites of his day, not least Sadducees, Pharisees, and scribes — cultural elites whose power was not used well.”

“The power to define reality:” did you catch that?  Hunter says that’s the key to changing the culture.  Yes, this rings true; it is what the empire does every day of the year—telling us what to talk about (e.g., Trump, North Korea) and how to frame the discussion (“little rocket-man Kim Jong Un”).

Who are the “elite” in our time and place who embrace this role as change agents? Here are the people who come to mind for me (as well as the change each seeks).

--Colin Kaepernick, pro football star who first “took a knee” (end police brutality against minorities)
--David Gushee, evangelical ethicist and author (full gay/lesbian inclusion in the church)
--Steve Bannon, banker and media executive (a nationalist political party)
--Tulsi Gabbard, army veteran and congresswoman (an honest war on terror)
--Russell Moore, Southern Baptist leader (end conservative support for Trump)
--Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Peace (VIPS), former government “security” insiders (more honest and accountable government)

As is obvious from this list, not all efforts at cultural change point in the same general direction.  Nor are all successful.

Who would you add to this list?  And who might you identify as a change agent in the cause of forging a new American identity—one shorn of American exceptionalism and the imperial pursuit of domination?

Or maybe this theory of top-down change isn’t worth our time.  What do you think?
*   For prior discussions of the culture-changing power of Jesus’ surrender to death on a Roman cross, see “Virtually Christian” and “What Jesus Changed.”

** In 2010, Oxford University Press published Hunter's book, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World.


  1. Those who make the mistake of embracing top-down change - power over - make the error that Christ refused when offered the kingdoms of the world, if only he would bow down in the fallen system of hierarchy. That it was offered by The Accuser is indicative of its basis on proffering the false belief that a sought after good end supposedly justifies a current bad means. The truth is, at any particular point, the bad means is the experienced end.

    Since elites only emerge with a consensus that gives them power, it's difficult to sustain a Great Man theory of history. Are Donald Trump or Vlad Putin the cause of our troubles, or symptoms of it?

    Like the first instance above, deception plays a heavy role. The radical ploy for changing the direction of a society is to seize the points where the narrative is taught, both formative and sustaining. That is, to occupy key positions that control education, media and mass communications, and to monopolize and censor. The problem is, the liars become infected with their own delusions and no good end is ever achieved, as bad means can only be consistent with a bad end.

    Truth does exist, with its only advantage in a cacaphony of lies that outnumber, being that deception remains deception and doesn't create any reality except an incoherent dysfunction.

    1. Paul the apostle comes to mind as an example of one who gave substantial attention to the cultural elite. He "won" two or three audiences with Roman governors (and converted one of them). He eagerly sought an audience with the emperor. In none of these encounters did Paul wield top-down power, but he addressed all as under the Lordship of Christ and probably (as I see it) saw potential strategic gain in the encounters via increased social legitimacy for the gospel of Messiah Jesus. We could say Paul's approach bore bitter fruit in the Constantinian era, but I for one would not say the Constantinian result was inevitable. Would you?