[My PhD thesis/dissertation has been published, and here begins a multi-post discussion about its content (after a bit of throat-clearing about the book’s audience). See the previous post for a bit more info on the book’s release…]
In his impressive study To Change the World, James Davison Hunter argues that culture is changed from the top down, not from the bottom up. Grass roots movements, though celebrated, rarely yield durable changes in society. Those who truly change the world are those within, or close to, the circles of power. Hunter shows in his book how standard Christian approaches to culture-transformation are flawed when they do not take power into account. For those who do take power into account, they approach it wrongly. But power is at the heart of cultural change. (What Hunter calls for is a model of “faithful presence.”)
One of the implications of Hunter’s work is that if a Christian wants to write something that alters thinking at the heart of a culture, her publishing plans should focus not on producing popular level trade books that market to the masses, but on specialized studies put into print by elite publishing houses. What is important is not the size of readership (even if such a target audience is more financially pragmatic), but a readership comprising power-brokers (or at least those on the fringes of the world’s power-brokering).
Is he right?
When it comes to politics, one could argue that, at the moment, bottom-up populism is having its revenge on top-down elitism. Donald Trump’s rise to the U.S. presidency could well be seen as a triumph of grass roots activism. Hunter might point out, though, that populist anger has merely been a pawn in the hands of competing power-brokers, one of whom has played the power-game of manipulating the populace better than the others…
In the academic world, publishing works largely along the lines of what Hunter suggests is happening in society at large. Academics (irregardless of subject area) want contracts with prestigious publishing houses, even if they know that the paying customers of the meager batch of copies printed will be primarily libraries and a handful of specialists with generous book allowances (or under-resourced doctoral students for whom book allowances are fanciful dreams). The best way for one’s insights to be disseminated is for the most respected handful of scholars in the field to endorse the work and commend it to colleagues and students.
As someone who plies the craft of biblical studies in the service of the church, as well as the academy, I am vocationally compelled to explore means of communicating any fruits of study (however meager!) to a more general readership, with some hopes of nurturing grass roots soil. To be clear, I certainly hope some power-brokers read the book. But I was not just writing for them.
I should add—I am not suggesting that only highly intelligent scholarly people can understand or appreciate the research in my book. What is true, though, is that those are the only sort of folks who might pay for such an expensive book with a simplistic sky-blue jacket.
So, for those interested, I will be putting up few posts at HR on what my PhD thesis/dissertation is actually about. Though it takes around 100,000 words to work them out, the main points are fairly straightforward. And here is one to begin with:
Gospel writing is an act of ecclesiology.
What I mean is this: the evangelists who wrote our canonical Gospels were not simply interested in telling us who Jesus was (and is), but also who the church is called to be. Gospel writing is not journalism. It is not reportage of data about the historical Jesus. And it is more than the theological presentation of Jesus’ identity. Gospel writing seeks to shape the identity of a people—the church—around the identity of Jesus. As we read Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, we should read asking not only “who is Jesus?” but also “who are we as his people?”
I am writing another book on this idea with Baker Academic. My thesis—Ecclesiology and Theosis in the Gospel of John—explores this question specifically “the Fourth Gospel.”
So what is John’s vision for the identity of the church in his Gospel? More on that next time…