Making Progress

July 23rd, 2018

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“The scandal of the evangelical mind is there is no evangelical mind.” That was Mark Noll’s frank assessment of evangelicalism in 1994. We’ve since been making progress, evident in new works such as the Society of Christian Scholars.

In 1994, Mark Noll’s “The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” was published. Dr. Stan Wallace took it seriously. I’ve known Stan for many years. We believe center institutions are critical for changing the world. But these institutions must share a common vision and collaborate to make the world a better place. That is why the Society of Christian Scholars is being established. I asked Stan to tell us about it:

We all want to be faithful to our Lord’s command to see the gospel redeem all that is broken. How can we best see this happen, from the local to the global?

Few seem to know. Our ideas on culture change are often based on anecdotes, assumptions, and conjectures. We mostly assume that cultures change “one life at a time.” As more and more come to believe in Christ, eventually there is a critical mass, and the entire culture is transformed.

But is this the correct story? The data indicates it is not. For instance, the vast majority of the United States population rejects secularism. Therefore, if the traditional view is correct, the United States should already be changed for the better. Yet we are getting more secular, not less.

Not long ago a research project was completed to answer this question. Dr. James Hunter is a sociologist at the University of Virginia, so studying cultures and how they change is in his area of professional expertise. Oxford University Press published his findings in To Change The World.

Hunter concluded cultures change “top-down” not “bottom-up.” He found that those who are influencing cultures hold positions in important cultural institutions (including education, media, government, and the arts). Furthermore, they create social networks to leverage their individual influence for widespread change.

For example, the Jewish community comprises less than 3.5% of the American population. Yet their influence is far-reaching, even in the face of rampant anti-Semitism. This is because they have worked to obtain positions of prominence and leverage their influence through social networks.

A second example Hunter offers is the LGBT community, which is approximately 3% of the population. This tiny minority is having unparalleled influence in all levels and aspects of culture, for the same reasons.

If Hunter is correct (I believe he is), we must move beyond a primarily “bottom-up” approach to seeing our cultures and world redeemed. To this end, a new endeavor is being established to support those in one important sphere of cultural influence—higher education.

I have visited universities in 42 countries and interacted with professors from at least two-dozen other nations. Worldwide, I find Christian professors whom God has raised up to serve in their universities “for such a time as this.” (Esther 4:14). They are men and women who Love God and seek to make him known among their students, colleagues, and countries, from their positions of influence.

Yet most are not having the widespread cultural influence they desire. Why not? Few are in a social network to leverage their influence. They’re isolated, as church historian George Marsden put it,

Contemporary Christian scholarship will not realize its potential unless it can establish a strong institutional base. Isolated individuals in university culture can make impressive efforts here and there, but unless their voices are united, they will be lost in the general cacophony of the contemporary academy. (George Marsden, The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, p. 101)

To meet this need, the Society of Christian Scholars is being established. Our aim is to connect Christian professors worldwide to better leverage the gospel’s influence in key institutions of higher education. We seek to help cultural influencers “come together with their varied resources and act in common purpose” as Hunter writes, with the hope that in so doing, cultures “[will] change and change profoundly.” (To Change The World, p. 43)

The Society of Christian Scholars has been nine years in the making. Since 2009, 42 Christian professors from 25 nations have helped give it shape. After much planning and prayer, we anticipate launching on March 1, 2019. Our website is now online and pre-registration is open (https://societyofchristianscholars.org).

If you know of Christian scholars who might be drawn to the vision of the Society of Christian Scholars, please let them know. The Society is one way to make progress in correcting the effects of the scandal that Mark Noll cited in 1994. For a longer discussion of today’s column, as well as support for the claims Hunter makes, see my recent blog post here. Grace and Peace, Dr. Stan W. Wallace, President and CEO, Global Scholars

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4 Responses to “Making Progress”

  1. Dave T says:

    The point is made that Jews and the LGBT community have great influence in spite of low percentage numbers. I know what LGBT contributions are to culture. What would you say are specifically Jewish contributions? If those contributions are a “leveling” of prestige and honor such that Jews are no longer marginalized as they once were, I get that. LGBT contributions are similar. Devout Christians are losing ground and being marginalized – but is restoring a “leveling” of prestige and honor a target goal? Where are the unique world-changing contributions from Jews and the LGBT community? I still don’t see it. Devout Christians function like good soil, fruitful in works of mercy and compassion, sustaining the foliage of society even if marginalized by it. “The plants are pretty but the dirt isn’t” but without the dirt you got nothing. I think Hunter overlooks the soundness of Christian soil in our society. I applaud Hunter’s project and how Stan will build on it but isn’t Hunter overlooking a lot of what has been mattering? If New Testament narrative says anything it’s that Jerusalem’s leadership was judged corrupt and Jesus mentored its replacements. Sound Christian leadership leads top-down but it must lead soundly. There is no substitute for it but there is no glory to be expected from it either. More power to you Stan – and that leadership starts with your fidelity – and I know that your “soul-soil” is all-out for Him.

  2. John Seel says:

    I am certainly in agreement with Professor Hunter as to the nature of cultural change. This minimally requires an appreciation of the dynamics of a particular field of inquiry, in this case the academy. It is unlikely that a parallel Christian professional association will have any influence within the academy. In fact, membership could prove a detriment to one’s career and influence therein. We need more influence say within the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton rather than a new tribal association with no leaders from center institutions. This is not the answer to the problem outlined by your commentary.

  3. Bob Moffitt says:

    Mike, I believe Hunter has an interesting perspective in terms of cultural change coming from the top. But, I don’t see how this point of view connects with the message of Scripture. An example is II Chronicles 7:14 which tells us that when God’s people live the way he directs, He is the one who brings that change. This doesn’t exclude leaders at the top, but it is not dependent on them.

  4. Stan Wallace says:

    Dear Dave, John, and Bob,

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments. I’ll reply briefly to clarify several points.

    Dave, I apologize if I communicated the objective of the Society of Christian Scholars is to gain honor and prestige for Christians. It is not. I agree with you that this should not be our goal in anything we put our hand to.

    Hunter’s point in using the Jewish and LGBT examples was not their cultural prestige, but simply that, though small in number, they have both had significant influence on culture. Specifically the Jewish community has done so through contributions in the fields of “…science, literature, art, music, letters, film, and architecture…” (p. 20).

    For the Christian, the objective of seeking cultural influence is being faithful to the cultural mandate of Genesis 1:28 to care for all of God’s creation, leading to its flourishing. In terms of culture, this means seeking the shalom of all people. One way we do this is by creating a culture that fosters human flourishing and the common good (by developing and promoting the good, true, and beautiful)—c.f. Jer. 29:5-7. I enjoy Mike’s blog because he so well illustrates what this can look like in our own culture. The Society of Christian Scholars hopes to further this end globally through the influence of those called to academe.

    John, you are absolutely correct to point out the necessity of being in and understanding the academic milieu in order to have such influence. Many of those involved in establishing the Society of Christian Scholars are leaders in center institutions, and thus understand the importance of being integral members of influential institutes and similar entities. This will both have a redemptive influence in these contexts, as well as advance their careers as they make substantive contributions in their institutions. But to do so they have determined the Society of Christian Scholars is necessary to be equipped for this task, in both the local and global contexts. If Hunter is correct, this will certainly influence the academy.

    Bob and Dave, you are both wise to clarify that God works through all believers who are faithful where God has planted them (a point Hunter also makes later in his book). But as you say so well, Bob, “This doesn’t exclude leaders at the top, but it is not dependent on them.” However, Evangelicals have tended to frame cultural influence as an “either-or” rather than a “both-and.” From this, we have tended to devalue (or worse) the influence of those in leadership (see Andy Crouch’s excellent Playing God: Redeeming the Gift of Power for more on this).

    This imbalance must be corrected. It is imperative that we find ways to serve those “at the top” effectively. This is all the more important if Hunter is correct that they have such overwhelming influence in culture.

    In fact, we have many examples in Scripture of God using those who stewarded well their positions of influence, such as Ester, Daniel, and Lydia. The Society of Christian Scholars is being established for those with similar influence today “for such a time as this.”

    Thank you for considering my reply to your thoughtful questions and observations.

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