One of the fields of historical study is the history of ideas. In almost all cases I have ever read, an author concentrates only on the ideas; he does not describe the historical circumstances in which a particular idea faded, or triumphed, or never had any effect at all.
Robert Nisbet once had a great phrase: “Ideas do not beget ideas the way that butterflies beget butterflies.” To discuss the history of ideas, the author should in all cases discuss the historical settings of those ideas. He has to ask and then answer the basic questions: what, when, where, who, and why — in that order. To do this, he needs to do four things:
Follow the confessions.
Follow the organizations.
Follow the money.
Follow the media.
This is virtually never done. It is extremely hard work, and people who write about the history of ideas want to deal only with the ideas. To explain how and why a particular idea either became dominant or else faded, the historian must be able to understand the historical setting of the ideas. Those people who specialize in the history of ideas are rarely capable of doing this, or else have no intention of doing it.
This is not simply an academic debate. If any group or movement wants to counter a bad idea, its planners had better have some awareness of the historical conditions of the day. They must plan a strategy for dealing with the reigning ideas. But activist groups rarely plan strategies for refuting ideas. Groups are interested in the practical means of changing the hierarchies of power, but they assume that the ideas will take care of themselves.
Ideas never take care of themselves. People come up with ideas, defend them, extend them, and then gain followers who are prepared to implement them.
There must be sound theory and sound practice. They must be consistent with each other. A Bible with no church has no lever. A church with no Bible has no fulcrum.
EVANGELISM AND THE CORRELATION OF FORCES
This is why anybody who wants to change the thinking of a society has to understand the broad picture, meaning the social, economic, intellectual, and especially religious forces that are dominant in that society.
Then the individual revolutionary or evangelist has to devise a plan that will work within the context of the existing social order. This will vary, nation to nation, and culture to culture. It involves hard work. It involves taking risks. It involves applying the general theory to specific cases. If the general theory is wrong, the plan will not work. If the plan does not deal with important social forces, the plan will not work. It is hard work to devise a plan that is both consistent with a general theory and is also relevant in the prevailing social context.
Foreign missionaries have done this for centuries. This is what the missionary has to do. Missions organizations have become very good at doing this, especially in backward societies. They commit money to this. Young men and young women commit their lives to it. They labor in difficult circumstances. Many of these missionary efforts fail. But every once in a while, there is a major triumph.
(For the rest of my article, click the link.)