Jesus said “streetwise people are more shrewd in relation to their own kind than the sons of light. I want you to be smart in the same way.” Are we? Shrewd begins with understanding the times. If Christians are exiles in a land of exile, the fourth implication is that too few of us have sufficient cultural capital to leverage – and are not working to amass it.
In exile, Nebuchadnezzar’s first order of business was selecting a few select Jews to learn the language and literature of Babylon. He “ordered Ashpenaz, the chief of his officials, to bring in some of the sons of Israel, including some of the royal family and of the nobles, youths in whom was no defect, who were good-looking, showing intelligence in every branch of wisdom, endowed with understanding and discerning knowledge, and who had ability for serving in the king’s court; and he ordered him to teach them the literature and language of the Chaldeans” (Dan. 1:3,4). This was very shrewd.
The first wave of exiles included those who had previously served in King Jeconiah’s court back in Jerusalem. The sons of Judah were not your ordinary run-of-the-mill Jews. Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah had amassed what Pierre Bourdieu calls cultural capital. Just as substantial amounts of economic capital enable individuals and institutions to have clout, cultural capital gives a select few significant influence. Bourdieu wrote that no more than a handful of center institutions and elites enjoy this level of influence. For example, Apple has cultural capital in the digital world. Brad Pitt has become influential in urban renewal. In the same way, every Jew in exile had the same mission but only the sons of Judah had earned sufficient cultural capital to influence the Babylonian elites.
An individual with cultural capital constitutes a class of leaders that Jon Berry and Ed Keller call the “influentials.” In their book, “The Influentials: One American in ten tells the other nine how to vote, where to eat, and what to buy,” Berry and Keller cite findings from research indicating that it’s always around 10 percent of any given population that enjoys disproportionate influence over the other 90 percent. These “influentials” are not necessarily wealthy, or made up of CEOs. They are a diverse group, largely college-educated, that has earned cultural capital. “Influentials” are drawn to other “influentials,” collaborating with one other as engaged activists.
Nebuchadnezzar was shrewdly looking to compound the influence of his courts by finding collaborators who brought a value-added proposition. This is called “compound interest,” the greatest invention in human history according to Albert Einstein. In finance, interest is normally compounded on a daily, quarterly, or yearly basis. The more often interest is compounded, the larger the principal will grow and the greater the interest the new principal will produce. Compound interest is how many amass personal fortunes. It is also how cultural capital is amassed. The sons of Judah had served in Jerusalem’s courts day in and day out, compounding interest on their cultural capital. Jesus makes the same point in the parable of a master who entrusted his workers with talents. To everyone who amassed more capital, “more shall be given” (Mt. 25:29).
Compound interest requires time and an unwavering investment strategy. In 1994, when Mark Noll wrote “The Scandal of The Evangelical Mind,” he chided evangelical anti-intellectual tendencies. His book opens with this line: “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Noll stirred some evangelicals to begin amassing cultural capital by earning degrees from elite universities. In 2011, Christianity Today asked Noll to assess the overall impact of his book. He noted that “things are moving in the right direction” but continues to be concerned about two stubborn tendencies in evangelicalism – populism and immediatism. Looking back, I can see when I haven’t been very shrewd in assessing the impact of these two on organizations I was trying to assist.
Populism is a good premise – God places equal value on everyone – but a bad conclusion – everyone therefore enjoys an equal amount of cultural capital. I wasn’t very shrewd in trying to assist organizations that said culture change is not a matter of institutions and elites but is a bottom-up, grassroots process. I have repeatedly met resistance in the evangelical community toward the idea the “influentials” enjoy more cultural capital than others. They condemn it as elitism. This however confuses elites with elitism. Elitism is the belief that certain persons or members of certain classes or groups deserve favored treatment by virtue of their perceived superiority. Elites on the other hand have earned capital and have a greater responsibility to put their talents to use for the good of all. They are not superior. Confusing elites with elitism is like confusing community with communism. Communism is idolatry – it elevates community to the status of an absolute. Elitism is sin because it treats elites as absolutely best. Populism confuses the two, throwing the baby out with the bath water. It’s a problem since it undercuts the effort required to amass cultural capital.
“Equality has no place in the world of the mind,” wrote C. S. Lewis. “Beauty is not democratic; she reveals herself more to the few than to the many, more to the persistent and disciplined seekers than to the careless. Virtue is not democratic; she is achieved by those who pursue her more hotly than most men. Truth is not democratic; she demands special talents and special industry in those to whom she gives her favors. Political democracy is doomed if it tries to extend its demands for equality into these higher spheres.” Nebuchadnezzar was very shrewd in recognizing his kingdom was doomed if he tried to extend the demands for equality into higher spheres.
Shrewd leaders also know institutions are doomed if they try to apply quick remedies to difficult problems. Nebuchadnezzar knew the sons of Judah could not contribute until they had learned the language and literature of Babylon. Becoming fluent with Babylonian idioms would have required a great deal of time. Immediatism however undercuts the time and effort required to earn this kind of cultural capital. “Immediatism is the idea that if there is a problem,” Noll notes, “we have to solve it right away.”
Shrewd churches leverage their cultural capital or they work hard at amassing it. Mormonism is doing this. It started out in 1830 with zero cultural capital. Zilch. It has become the fourth-largest religious denomination in America, tracing the same growth curve as the Early Church according to historian Rodney Stark. Mormon vitality is attributed to sacrifice and service as well as having amassed cultural capital. In The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, David McCullough writes of Mormon artists who in the 1880s enrolled at the Académie Julian, one of the most elite art institutes of that day. “Their expenses were provided by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in return for work they would later contribute, painting murals in the Temple at Salt Lake City.” For over 150 years, Mormonism has worked hard at amassing cultural capital in publishing, politics, media, and business. A faith tradition that was once in exile is increasingly viewed as a player.
Seeing the church as operating in exile is helping me learn to be shrewd. I have recently had the privilege of assisting a number of young Christians including Amanda, a thirty-year-old working at Morgan Stanley in New York City. She told me she wants to change the finance industry. Not simply individual financiers but the entire industry. Amanda is doing the heavy lifting of amassing cultural capital. She’s a shrewd believer, part of a church with the right DNA. Her church works within a time frame of generations. It measures the most important thing – the flourishing of the city. It sees the need for cultural capital. If these kinds of churches become commonplace over the next several generations, we’ll likely see more believers like Amanda. That would be good news, since Amanda is being shrewd in the way Jesus wants all of us to be.