The first time I read Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France, I thought it had to be one of the stupidest books written in the modern era. The rhetoric was so purple, so overbearingly ornate, the sentences so long, and the excuses for why the Glorious Revolution was nothing like the French Revolution sounded like so much special pleading.
Eight years later, and after four more reads of that great tome of conservative prejudice, the “Political views” line on my Facebook profile simply says: Edmund Burke
A lot can change in a man’s head between the age of 27 and the age of 35. I did a miserable job teaching Burke, and I have since gone back and apologized to the class who had to suffer through my incredulity. My great failure as a teacher that year was not representing Burke from the lectern. Instead, I represented my own thought— or just my own feeling, really. As I was struggling through Burke’s Reflections, I realized that my students weren’t really comprehending the book. In my arrogance I told myself they weren’t comprehending the book because it was gibberish, but in my heart I knew that my hatred and frustration with the book had blinded me to its logic and poetry. The same year, I was also dabbling in pacifist and anarchist philosophy. Small wonder I didn’t like Burke. A year later, I finally found anarchist philosophy untenable— largely because it was inspiring a godless hatred in my heart of all people better off than myself— and so I summarily abandoned my anarchist sympathies for a love of Charlemagne, and I still have that love to this day.
Several weeks ago, I saw an up-and-coming Christian artist state on Facebook that he had many ideas with which he wanted to “impact the culture.” The artist in question is in his mid-30’s and has more than a million fans on Facebook. Between ten and twenty thousand people like anything the man says within a few hours of his saying it. While I cannot begrudge him his success, I have to wonder just how firm in his convictions this fellow is. If he “impacts the culture” with his mid-30s ideas, what happens when he changes those ideas in his 40’s or 50’s? Does the culture which he has “impacted” somehow change along with him, or is the culture stuck in the condition into which he changed it? Would a man in his 50’s be proud to have impressed the ideas he had in his 30’s on thousands of people, or would he embarrassed to have done so? I only ask because I am still deeply embarrassed to have so grossly misrepresented the thought of Edmund Burke to a class of just a dozen students. What I should have done was trusted the Western canon, assumed that Burke was wiser than I, and sought to question and not condemn.
Simply put, at the age of 27, I was hardly qualified to “impact the culture” because my own thought was nowhere near maturity. Someone who is a mere 27 doesn’t have enough chips for the ante at a hand of Impact the Culture. He can bluff with plastic coins, but how does he expect to pay his debts if his impact proves destructive? How do you unring the bell of bad cultural change? What apprehensions does the young man have about his qualifications for changing the culture? Is the young man so unaware of the world that he cannot find the project of an older and vetted member of society to support? Even the young anarchist who throws his lot in with an older and wiser anarchist can, at very least, more easily navigate the rookie mistakes. And how is the young man certain that he understands what culture is such that he can commit to changing it? Can a man who has not proven himself up to the task of disciplining a teenage son honestly be expected to chide and correct a culture? We’ve all met the new student who wants to “fix this place” before he has the phone number memorized. We’ve all met the young man in love who is going to “save that girl” before he knows her middle name. But love is patient, and love does not insist on its own way, and love suffers long. God is in heaven, you are on earth, so let your words be few. Do not tell God of all the great things you will do. God is in His temple, let all the earth keep silence. Do not be quick with your mouth, and do not be hasty to utter anything before God. Take four or five or six decades before you decide what you will do with the power— should it be given you— to alter the lives of old men and widows and the little children of strangers. “You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed,” as the Fox says, and how will a man be responsible for taming culture?
I am not commending everyone under 40 sit on their hands. Rather, everyone under 40 ought to be doing the work of those who have lived long enough to see culture clearly, who know their own ignorance, and who have labored long enough to sense the curvature of the earth. At 35, however, I am barely acquainted with my own ignorance and the place still looks flat. The role of the young man is to point at the past, at the headstones and the heavens. As per Chesterton, in “The Ethics of Elfland”:
Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.
Chesterton drafts heavily off Burke’s claim that society is “a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.” I would wager that many good men who want to impact culture would agree to all this, and I very much doubt that the classical Christian educator zealous to “change culture” is a really a rogue looking to do everything his own way.
At the same time, when a school embraces the rhetoric of changing culture, moving culture and impacting culture, how do they expect their students to imitate this cultural change-making power? If the culture of the school is built around “changing the culture,” does the school want obedient students or students who will similarly try to change the culture of the school? Or does the school say, “Change the culture outside the school, but don’t change the culture inside the school”?
I suppose some might argue that all actions within a culture change a culture. Perhaps the difference between Roe V Wade and the purchase of a Snickers bar, so far as cultural change is concerned, is a difference of degree and not of kind. While I am not convinced this is true, supposing it were, my disinclination to “impact the culture” remains intact, for what worries me is not fluctuations of culture but the intent of one man to go out and willingly, specifically move an entire culture from its current location to the location of his choosing. If purchasing a Snickers bar changes culture, it does not change culture in any knowable or manageable way. I very much doubt that someone who says, “I want to move our culture” would first think to go out and buy a piece of candy— although I suppose some people have such delusions of self-importance. My concern for those who want to “move our culture” has less to do with fear that they will actually move it than it does with the fear they will hurt themselves. If a friend told me he was going to try to push down the Sears Tower with his bare hands, I would not worry for the Sears Tower but for the friend. However, I might fear for the Tower if my friend tired of his ineffective methods.
As someone who has been part of classical Christian education for a very long time, I have often heard and read and listened to people who are passionate about “impacting the culture.” These are people who mean well, however, I am not convinced they have much considered the pros and cons of impacting the culture. They often seem to assume that impacting the culture is good, and the only question is how to do it. They speak as though the simple desire to “impact the culture” is proof that a man is qualified to do it.
The very notion of “changing the culture” often implies an ability to radically alienate oneself from culture so as to view culture from the outside and handle it as though it were an object. The man who changes the culture yields to the same cold, critical distance as the man who insists all things be seen through a worldview; the man who is far away enough from the world to view it can neither be heard nor seen by the world, so a fat lot of good he’s doing the world way out there. The man who is close enough to the world to be seen or heard is not actually viewing the world, but merely the house across the street; he ought to be glad he’s back in human company, but humble enough to admit he hasn’t a clue what the whole thing looks like in perspective. Is the man who tries to change culture not also a receiver of culture? And if such a man tries to “move the culture,” how can he be sure he is not merely trying to pick himself up by the scruff of his own neck?
To sum up, while I am skeptical that “impacting the culture” is even possible, if it is possible, it is a task best left up to those with wisdom, not merely those with energy. How we talk about “impacting the culture” shapes what we believe about authority, submission, maturity, responsibility, patience, service, humility. The young man who is itching to “impact the culture” ought to call to mind the freshman itching to be student body president. Are you sure you wouldn’t rather campaign for a reluctant, but more qualified senior, perhaps?
I would add, though, for those old enough and sage enough to “impact that culture” that, as Lewis notes in God in the Dock, cultures are like nations, which is to say they are ephemeral and passing. It is a mistake to think that a nation is more important than a man, and it is just as faulty to think a culture is more important than a man. A man will live forever, while nations and cultures are creatures of a day. The greatest Christian political act, according to Lewis, was not the institution of good policies, but the conversion of a man’s neighbor. What is the greatest Christian cultural coup, then? The publication of another one of our world famous books about the family? The creation of a moral movie market which can put the squeeze on R-rated Hollywood fare?
Write the book. Make the film. Teach the class. Paint the picture. But do so to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, not to seize power.
For other articles on different visions of cultural change, readers may enjoy Have We Unwittingly Sainted Julian the Apostate? and Can We Make Classicism Into A Fan Club Instead of a Movement?