Saturday, September 15, 2012

D. G. Hart has a talent for asking annoyed rhetorical questions about a "transformational" view of religion and culture

I don’t like to pull the expertise card, but I do know a little bit about the history of Protestantism and the record is never as stellar as the whoopers claim. Some good things happened here and there. But some good things happen in my home from time to time. Does that mean that Christianity has the wonder-working powers that Doster claims? And what about the times after the good times? What about America after Witherspoon, England after Wilberforce, Scotland after Chalmers, the Netherlands after Kuyper (not to mention Ephesus after Paul)?

At some point, dreamy accounts like this are going to need to show their homework. Until then, critics of the transformationalists will counter with articles like, “Knowledge: Why Christians Must be Informed.” 

One comment stuck out both for its length and for its content:

Jed Paschall

Posted September 14, 2012 at 2:38 am | Permalink


The question of historiography is an important one, and I am not so sure that those in the modern day that are transformationally inclined have a balanced outlook on Christian political and social activism in the past, and what impact this might have for social and political change in the future. For instance, if we look to one of the examples that transformationalists like to tout as a model of how Christianity wields a good influence on the culture at large in the abolition of slavery in both Brittan and the US, I think it is fair to say that to a certain measure, abolitionists motivated by their convictions attained some important accomplishments in their societies. However, even in the absence of slavery, Great Brittan did not cease to be brutal in its colonial exploits – all one needs to do is examine the histories of areas such as India, China, and Africa in the 18th and19th centuries to see that while society may have improved to a degree when Wilberforce finally saw slavery put to an end in Brittan to see that the savage impulse of imperialism coursed through the empire. [emphasis added]

In America, understood by some to be the “City Set on a Hill”, this semi-eschatological self understanding of the US as the ushering in a new, and brighter epoch in world history, worked well for the WASP majority. [all emphases added] However, during the time after abolition and the Civil War, the US western expansion displayed similar impulses to empire as Brittan as they crushed the Native American populations, exposing the Indians to all sorts of inhumane treatment. Heck, the brutal mistreatment and exploitation of the Native Americans (who weren’t always innocent themselves) continued during and after the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Great Awakening – which makes one wonder if societal transformation for good (in the US at least) couldn’t at least be translated into the good of WASP’s, who suddenly got religion; because I am not sure if the Huron tribes were as affected by the 1GA as New Englanders were. Hitler himself conceded that the American model of the Reservation was highly influential upon the Nazi conception of the concentration camp. So it is not as if, even if abolition was the pinnacle of Christian activism in society, that society was somehow transformed into something more Christian.

Some of the aims of Christian transformationalists aren’t bad things. However, a little sobriety in evaluating the accomplishments of past Christian social activism might do some good. Heck, I would love to see a Christian activist just come out and say, “You know, the world’s always going to be a mixed bag of changes for good and the persistence of evil – but I feel like I can make a positive contribution in this cause, even if the whole world isn’t changed as a result.” Something like that would be easier to take than the triumphal reading of history and rosy vision of the future.

I've highlighted a few details that stand out.  It may be the easiest thing in the world for WASPs who have benefited the most in terms of influence or who have an incentive to trade on a transformational mythology of a "Christian history" to talk on and on about how they are going to "redeem" or "transform" culture.  Can we be sure that there isn't any stink of entitlement residing within this kind of mythology?

Another comment proposed was that Christians who insist on the transformationalist paradigm have a conundrum on their hands if the people who transform culture happen to be atheists.  I suppose at that point one could make an appeal to what is often called "common grace" but then it's no longer really in the domain of what Christians are proposed to be or need to be doing to transform culture.

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