I have written critically in the past about James Davison Hunter’s approach to not really changing the world. In the last analysis, his tag phrase “faithful presence” ought to be a means to victory, not a goal in itself. If we make it a goal, it is as though the coach settles for getting his team to just show up for the games, and the end result of that approach is what theologians used to call a “losing season.”
But my purpose here is not to dig through those old bones. One of the points that Hunter made very well, and which I appreciated very much, concerned the role of elite institutions in accomplishing whatever transformation might occur. Quite properly he leans against the idea that reformation is necessarily a grass roots “proletariat” sort of thing.
I actually think that the necessity of this kind of grass roots reformation is a bit of propaganda from the other team that we have bought into, and which has been greatly debilitating. In Rodney Stark’s book, The Rise of Christianity, he has a powerful chapter that demonstrates the explosive growth of Christianity was actually centered in the middle and upper classes of Roman society. The idea that Christianity grew so rapidly because it appealed to the downtrodden, the disenfranchised, the outcasts, and so on, was an idea that was floated early on by Friedrich Engels, and yes, that one, the Communist Manifesto guy.
The problem is that the data just doesn’t back that idea up. Christianity was an urban movement, and it was dominated by the educated and literate. Paganus was a word that referred to country bumpkins, and became associated with attachment to the old ways — hence, pagan. The preaching of the gospel attracted not a few prominent women (Acts 17:4). Members of Caesar’s household believed (Phil 4:22). Erastus, an important city official at Corinth, was a believer (Rom. 16:23). Lydia and Philemon were good examples of wealthy householders who were attracted to the gospel. One of the leaders of the church in Antioch had graduated from Eton with Herod (Acts 13:1). Stark shows how 1 Cor. 1:26-28 has been over-interpreted, and besides, Paul there says “not many,” not “not any.”
The same kind of phenomenon occurred in the Reformation. As C.S. Lewis put it, “The fierce young don, the learned lady, the courtier with intellectual leanings, were likely to be Calvinists” (Eng. Lit. in the Sixteenth Century, p. 43).
But this brings us to the rub. Why does the idea that only the dispossessed would risk everything for Christ seem so compelling to us? Well, we think it is easy for them because they have nothing to lose. But while it is true they have no influence to lose, they also have none to use.
This is why, for well-placed Christians, there is resistance to overcome. We know for a fact that the world is sticky, like pine sap, and we do get attached to it. When we are attached to something valuable, we could use it, but only by risking it. Thus the well-connected are in a position actually to do something, but they are also a group of people who really do have something to lose. But once that resistance is overcome, and many of the well-connected believers start to push their chips to the middle of the table, reformation begins.
This is another way of saying that the work of reformation requires leadership, but there is no such thing as Christian leadership without sacrifice and risk.