How Does Culture Change?

© 2014 Robert Osburn

The remarkable Christian historian Philip Jenkins, a distinguished professor at Baylor University, ends his latest book The Great and Holy War: How World War I Became a Religious Crusade (2014) by suggesting that culture seems to change in jerky movements: sudden changes followed by long periods of stability.  He suggests that this is somewhat akin to the punctuated equilibrium that the late Harvard paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould claimed to find in the fossil record: long periods of slow evolution, followed by sudden explosions of species.[1]

Whether or not you agree with Gould, Jenkins may be on to something when he tries to explain changes in culture and society by using this concept of the punctuated equilibrium.  Wonderfully well-written, Jenkins’ book shows how European nations framed the Great War (as it was called then) in explicitly religious terms.  Those who most feverishly depicted the war in terms of a crusade, a holy war, or national righteousness were theological liberals and progressives.  The war’s length and its bloodiness were far beyond anyone’s wildest imagination, and so, by the end of the war, Western intellectuals turned against Christianity with more vitriol than even today’s Millennials.  Jenkins shows beyond a shadow of a doubt that in a matter of five years  (1914-1919) Western intellectuals, especially those in Europe, were transformed from confident Christian practitioners to shaken, shattered, lost souls.  Their vision of God, already shrunken by Enlightenment rationalism, science, and liberalism, was nearly extinguished by the war. 

From this case, as well as others that he has studied in the many books of history he has authored, Jenkins concludes that culture changes suddenly and dramatically before it settles into long periods of stability.  I think he has a point, and one need only look at the cultural revolution of the 60s (in the USA), when the Christian cultural consensus was abruptly jettisoned in favor of multiculturalism.  More recently, the much remarked upon success of the Gay Marriage movement has been like a cultural blitzkrieg.  From a Western Christian perspective, the last century has been brutal, but our point here is that seemingly major changes have taken place suddenly: at the end World War I, in the 60s, and now in the second decade of the 21st century.  Christians who live in other societies may well have their own lists of sudden religious or social transformation.

As Christians, how do we evaluate Jenkins’ proposal of punctuated equilibrium in culture and society?  The historical books of the Old Testament (primarily Judges-II Chronicles) seem to portray general religious decline punctuated by periods of religious revival, such as that under Ezra.  Parts of that history may qualify as a good example of Jenkins’ punctuated equilibrium, but Jenkins acknowledges that major wars and sudden natural violence are the major forces that quickly provoke major changes in religious consciousness and cultural norms.

Jenkins’ thesis makes sense when seen in light of incidents of God’s judgment.  For example, a massive flood breaks out upon the Earth and almost all of a mankind disappears (Genesis 6); nine plagues leave Pharaoh unyielding, until suddenly God violently wipes out all the oldest male children, after which the Jews gain their sudden freedom (Book of Exodus); and after hundreds of years of rebellion, God strips His people of their land and (586 BC) sends them into a long exile (Jeremiah).  When God judges (or the cultural equilibrium is punctuated), history takes a very different course. Do we see in this the sovereign hand of a God who judges even while He also offers grace?

This approach to history does not surprise Christian historian Steve Keillor who works from his modest abode in east central Minnesota.  For well over a decade, Dr. Keillor has championed the idea of providential history, having authored God’s Judgments: Interpreting History and the Christian Faith (2007).   Now at work on a multi-volume providential history of the USA, Keillor’s ideas resonate well with Jenkins’ theory of punctuated equilibrium. 

For those of us in early 21st century America, we would do well if we look at events of recent years as evidence of God’s judgment.  The suddenness of social change in the USA may well point to a larger work of God who works sovereignly in history with humans who also shape it.  The question for those of us who follow Christ in the West is: What should we learn?  And how now ought we live?

[1] Many Christians believe that what Gould identified as a part of the evolutionary process is actually evidence of God’s sudden creative powers during the period of Creation.