That Takes Some Idiot

James Davison Hunter’s next chapter is a very fine review of cultural changes throughout the church’s history. He plainly demonstrates the importance of many of the active agencies that effect true cultural change — the place of networks, the role of elites, the contribution of wealth, etc. Hunter reviews some of the great shifts in the time of the early church, in the Reformation, and also in successive awakenings and revivals. He does a wonderful job with it too.

My only trouble is the role he apparently wants this to play in his larger argument.

“What one can say now with some conviction is that the common view of cultural change (sketched out in Chapter 2), in fact, does not offer a useful account of any of the major periods of transformation we have reviewed here” (p. 77).

All this is quite true, but I think it is also beside the point. The people that Hunter critiques are not academicians surveying the history of change, but are rather individuals trying to accomplish change. These are completely different activities. I hesitate to find myself quoting Marx with approval, but he pointed to the philosophers who had merely interpreted the world, when the “point was to change it.”

What Hunter shows is that cultural change is enormously complex, even more complex than he is able to indicate. “As I have repeatedly affirmed, the unfolding of history is infintely complex” (p. 77). But one of the twisty-turn complexities is this one — the people who make history are rarely competent to write it. And the converse is also true — those who are competent to write histories after the fact are rarely those who were the movers and shakers who made history. Historians Who Shaped History would be a slim volume. The occasional exception comes along — Churchill, say — but his promise of nothing but “blood, sweat, and tears” was pretty reductionistic when compared to his History of the English-Speaking People. But it was the former simplistic formula, and others like it, that inspired a people to fight heroically, and not volume after volume of nuance.

Here is another illustration. The fact that Chesterton hardly ever footnotes anything does not keep him from showing up in a lot of other people’s footnotes.

It has been wisely said that any event, once it has actually happened, can be made to appear to have been inevitable by any competent historian. But historians rarely call the shot beforehand. That calls for some idiot. When some simplistic soul charges hell with a bucket of water, he occasionally gets away with it. When he does, he and his platoon of six doughty men change world history and they all get the Congressional Medal of Honor. Once this has happened, I have no doubt that biographers and historians would be able to come in and find all the complex factors that Hunter is pointing to. But these complexities are not what are appealed to in the trench before these men go over the top. What is said there is more likely to be something like the famous exhortation at Belleau Wood — “Come on, you sons of bitches, do you want to live forever?” Somewhat lacking in intellectual refinement, wouldn’t you say?

In other words, I am not disagreeing with Hunter’s analysis of historical changes in culture. I agree with him emphatically. I think I am just applying it to more than he does.

Think of this another way. Suppose that 20 years from now there is some great, earth-shaking event in American history. Suppose further that it represents a demographic shift that is traceable (by our competent historians, newly arrived) back to certain memes that arose in the heyday of the Religious Right. What does this show? It shows that everything is complex, including agents of change, some of whom say and do simplistic things.



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