October 20, 2010
To Change the World 2: The Untold Story of Christianity
Christianity has long been “Exhibit A” of populist movements changing the world. Two thousand years of history clearly show these people on the margins transforming their societies through the power of the gospel. Right? Why then is James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World so negative about the ability of a widespread impulse in ordinary people to transform society?
Look, we say, Christianity started as a rag-tag group of disenfranchised fishermen, tax collectors and prostitutes far outside the elite structures of the Scribes and Pharisees, let alone the Roman centurions and governors. Obviously Christianity changed the Roman Empire dramatically in three hundred years—and the face of Europe and the world in the millennia following. So, we say, don’t talk to us about populism being weak and ineffective.
Hunter, however, tells a different story, not of a popular movement but one driven by those in the upper strata of society. The early Christians made ample use of established power networks—the synagogues—as they traveled the Mediterranean basin. Paul himself was an elite, highly educated Jew. In addition, many early Jewish Christians were Hellenized—Greek in speech and culture—and so were part of the dominant Roman culture of the day. Besides that, very soon both Paul (according to Acts) and Peter (according to tradition) made their way to the geographic power center of the Empire itself: Rome.
Likewise many of the early church fathers (Justin Martyr, Clement, Origen, Tertullian, etc.) were among the small percentage of highly educated residents of the Empire, and often resided in centers of cultural power and influence (Alexandria, Carthage, Rome, etc.) They and others penetrated the elite educational system of the day, turning it to their own purposes. (Rodney Stark offers a similar narrative in The Rise of Christianity.)
After the Empire was beset by barbarians, Christian missionaries “deliberately followed a strategy of converting from the top down” (p. 59). Starting with kings and princes, the missionaries were able to quickly bring the subjects of these royal figures to the faith.
The Reformation was also ignited by elites—in this case academics. Luther, Melancthon, Bucer, von Staupitz and many other professors led the movement.
Wilberforce, a more recent hero of evangelicals and those seeking to push forward social change, was friends with the Prime Minister of England and many other powerful figures in the British government—in which he served for many years.
Rag-tag? Hardly, says Hunter. If you want to talk about changing the world, as a different Paul would say, now you know the rest of the story.