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Cultural Elites | The Next Unreached People Group
Anti-Elitism and Anti-Intellectualism
In the last century, many serious Christians have fallen into the trap of striking an anti-elitist attitude, and often an anti-intellectual attitude, too. We can see how this happened; after all, it was the educated elites who, in the late 19th century, undermined the Scriptures, embraced Darwin, and soon thereafter came to champion a social Gospel at the expense of true biblical theology. Many Christians felt themselves besieged and, in reaction, retreated into a kind of defiant, populist stance, one that had its dukes up, as it were, and was often prideful, rather than humble. In this process, many of the most theologically serious Christians abandoned the mainstream culture to the secular elites, who were now alone on the cultural field, with no real opposition. So, of course, the culture got worse, as we have said, and the unchallenged secular ideas of the elites and intellectuals came to dominate more and more, flowering, one might say, in the Sixties, in whose secular and socially liberal “Boomer” shadow we all still live. Which, of course, made serious Christians yet further hostile to the mainstream culture, and certainly to the elites and intellectuals who dominated it.
One result of this hostility to mainstream culture, and to the secular elites who dominated it, is that Christians more and more abandoned “worldly” centers of cultural influence, taking their salt and light with them like peeved children taking their marbles and going home. So the cultural centers like New York City only slid farther into secularism, and farther from the values of the rest of the country. And because of the rise of the media culture in the last fifty years, the influence of these increasingly secular cultural centers only
. People who thought they could hide in small towns far from places like New York – found that their children were going upstairs to watch their own tv’s, and getting the values of New York and Hollywood elites anyway.
So Christians have become particularly hostile to cultural elites, whose unchallenged ideas were destroying the culture. And we have often behaved as though we somehow had God’s permission to hate these elites, because not only were they especially wicked, but also wealthy and powerful and famous. We have little difficulty bringing the love of the Gospel to exotic people groups, but elites are something else. Whom does Jesus love less? Which deserves hell more? Or is it that, like the Prodigal son’s elder brother, and like Jonah, it is God’s grace that we most fear? Have we seen the Pharisee, and is he us? If that’s true, then it turns out we are sinners, too, in need of God’s grace. Or did we think we could get to heaven simply by not watching HBO?
Of course Christians aren’t alone in their anti-elitism. Hating elites is as American as George Washington. The idea that they might hold the ideological keys to our culture is as distasteful as paying taxes to King George III. But scholars like James Hunter at the University of Virginia have shown it to be true, and the example of Wilberforce has proven it true at least once. But saying it’s true today is lonely and difficult, something like being a westbound ibex trapped in an endless herd of eastbound sheep. “The little people of history have been forgotten and stepped on and overlooked,” they bleat, “and it is their voice that must be heard! History has been written by the powerful few, and that must be changed!” And so we applaud Ben Franklin, the precocious candlestickmaker’s son who through sheer Yankee ingenuity rose to become an international celebrity and helped found this country. But we forget that only after he had risen was he able to help those who had not risen along with him.
Our history of anti-elitism explains much of why we’ve had little difficulty ministering to down-and-outers – or our own social equals – via evangelism, but have sneered at the elites who sneer at us, and at engaging the culture over which they have so much sway. But we should stop and ask ourselves what the world would be like if Wilberforce had done that. Among the most crucial moments in history was when Wilberforce, newly converted, went to talk with his old friend, John Newton, the slave trader turned pastor. Wilberforce was sure that becoming a Christian necessitated retreating from the world, and his elite circles. He knew that his friends in high society and politics would now mock him and his beliefs, and he knew that the temptations of the world were powerful, too, and would be easier to avoid if he retreated from the world. But Newton famously told him not to do this. Newton suggested that perhaps God would use him in politics and high society. Perhaps God had given him his talents and position for that reason. Wilberforce’s assent to Newton’s advice led to all that followed, led to the Clapham Circle, and to the end of the slave trade and slavery, and to the improvement of life among the poor, not just in Britain, but around the world. The social conscience we think of as a given among most people in Western societies can be traced back, in large part, to that conversation and that decision.
To reprise our cultural trickle-down theory, the worst thing about the anti-elitist approach is that it most hurts those at the bottom of the social ladder. By giving in to our pride and abandoning the elite culture of places like New York City Christians have hurt the rest of the culture by allowing a secular worldview to dominate the whole culture, just as it did in England before. Surely a God who would have us humble ourselves and pray for demon-worshiping cannibals would have us humble ourselves and reach out to pro-choice television anchors, too.
That is simply good missiology and would further the Gospel. In their way, the cultural elites of Manhattan and Hollywood are an untouched people group no less in need of hearing the Gospel than the cannibals of Irian- Jaya or the Auca Indians of Ecuador were just a few decades ago. As brave and diligent souls have over the last two millennia risked their lives and lost their lives, and have studied obscure grammars and translated the Gospel of John into the dialects of these and other vanishing tribes, so too we today ought to humbly set ourselves to the noble task of bringing the Gospel to these elites. We should think and pray about moving to those places where they gather, and we should try to communicate with them and learn their folkways and cultural shibboleths with the same diligence we have applied to obscure tribes. And if the Lord has not called us to live in those places, or to work in those industries, which are the front-lines in the struggle for the heart and soul of our culture, then we should pray about whether we ought to send money to help the ministries of those who have been called. And we all should know that we have certainly been called to support them in prayer.
Finally, we cannot delude ourselves into thinking that, simply because they live in America and speak English, these cultural elites have heard the Gospel already, and have rejected it. If the Gospel has not been translated into a language that they understand, and if it has not been brought to them by people with whom they have some cultural affinity, they have
heard it. These people do not speak the same language as thatched-haired evangelists on tv, nor do they know anyone who knows anyone who speaks that language. It is a foreign tongue, and they are deaf to it. Incredibly, some of them are even unaware of the Golden Rule and Who spoke it. But we cannot, like Jonah, decide they are not worth our trouble. That is not our call to make. What they do and what they know and don’t know affects our culture, affects us and our families and neighbors. We are part of that culture, like it or not, so let’s not escape it – since we cannot escape it anyway – but let us love it and help it as best we can.
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