In 1821, Percy Bysshe Shelley described the power of poetry on the heart of man, writing, “The great secret of morals is love…. A man, to be greatly good, must imagine intensely and comprehensively; he must put himself in the place of another and of many others; the pains and pleasures of his species must become his own. The great instrument of moral good is the imagination.”
Whether it was while living in captivity in Egypt, in exile in Babylon, under Roman rule during the First Century, or in secular, modern France, throughout the ages Christians have continually explored what it means to be faithfully present, engaged, and transformative within a culture that may not align with their vision of the good, true, and beautiful.
Social commentator Rod Dreher has invited believers toward a radical response to a post-Christian culture which he terms, “The Benedict Option.” Dreher recently described his approach in Christianity Today:
The first Benedictine monks responded to the crisis and chaos of their time by building a new community within which they could hold on to the truths of the faith. Only by living out positive asceticism in common prayer, work, and worship in intentional community could the monks be who Christ meant them to be for the world. We are not all called to be monks, of course. But we lay Christians have much to learn from the monastic example. Given this post-Christian new “dark age,” we small-orthodox Christians must pioneer new ways to bind ourselves to Scripture, to our traditions, and to each other—not for mere survival, but so that the church can be the authentic light of Christ to a world lost in darkness. This is the Benedict Option, and it will help us Christians to be . . . ‘distinct but not wholly apart’ from our post-Christian culture.
In the same issue of Christianity Today, Michael Gerson and Peter Wehner provided another option for a faithful populace who desire to remain presently active in the sphere of social concern and to contribute to the flourishing of a society that feels increasingly unfamiliar to them. The authors point Christians to the oft-cited example of 19th century statesman and social reformer, William Wilberforce, with the namesake approach, “The Wilberforce Option”—which seeks to leverage elites to make “Christian commitment synonymous with defending human rights against powerful social interests.”
At 28 years old, William Wilberforce wrote in his diary on October 28, 1787, “God Almighty has set before me two great objects, the suppression of the Slave Trade and the Reformation of Manners.” At a time when the American experiment was only just beginning, Wilberforce was setting out to reform an English society where oppression of the poor, degradation of women and children, alcoholism, and crude journalism and theater were all shockingly commonplace. Wilberforce, and the community he had founded, the Clapham Sect, took on the ambitious goal of helping England to reimagine their capacity for goodness, seeking to lift the poor and powerless from obscurity toward justice.
Wilberforce and the Clapham Sect designed a Reformation of Manners “campaign” which would target and leverage the elites of England to nationally and locally model a vision of virtue in the upper class that could then be reflected by the common man. Fellow Clapham Sect member and one of the most influential women of her day, the author and poet Hannah More, wrote:
Reformation must begin with the Great, or it will never be effectual. Their example is the fountain whence the vulgar draw their habits, actions, and characters. To expect to reform the poor while the opulent are corrupt is to throw odors into the stream while the streams are poisoned…. If, therefore, the rich and great will not, from a liberal spirit of doing right, and from a Christian spirit of fearing God, abstain from those offenses, for which the poor are to suffer fines and imprisonments, effectual good cannot be done.
To kick off their campaign on June 1, 1787, The Clapham Sect requested that King George III reissue the sovereign proclamation he first penned in 1769 entitled, “Proclamation for the Encouragement of Piety and Virtue and for the Preventing of Vice, Profaneness, and Immorality.” The proclamation was a strict, legalistic document that created a defined framework for virtuous living.
At the community level, Proclamation Societies were championed by influentials who sought to make goodness fashionable. As Chuck Stetson writes, “Wilberforce was not interested in simply putting a veneer of goodness over corruption and licentiousness. He was no fan of hypocrisy. Instead he aimed to reduce the allure of debased morals by lifting up the good, the true, and the beautiful as a model to be venerated. His aim was to restore genuine virtue and refinement at the core.” For Wilberforce, the “core” was the soul. However, he understood that the soul does not derive nourishment from intellectual pursuit, but from imagination, experiential beauty, and creativity.
A modern equivalent of the 19th century Proclamation Societies would be today’s celebrities, who represent a myriad of backgrounds and affiliations and to whom the masses still look for signals on behavior, fashion, or en vogue terms and language. As was certainly the case during Wilberforce’s era, culture is upstream of politics and catalyzes social transformation in unparalleled ways. This stands to be seen today when cultural icons use their artistic and social platforms to speak out about important issues in order to motivate their fans. The ONE Campaign, founded by U2 frontman Bono, has worked to alleviate poverty and AIDS in Africa and boasts over 7 million members demanding change from our leaders. Their most recent strategy will encourage presidential nominees to pledge their support for the U.S. foreign aid budget. Not only do artists like Bono use their celebrity to shape culture through initiating campaigns and social movements, but they also create cultural products like film, theater and music that speaks to modern day issues in a way meant to inform our minds and move our hearts.
No other single member of the Clapham Sect understood or leveraged the power of creativity as richly as Hannah More. Although many point to Wilberforce as the leading member of the group of reformers, it has been noted that she was everything Wilberforce was, and then some. Wilberforce and More enjoyed a friendship that lasted nearly 47 years, and as the only female member of the predominantly male Clapham Sect, More was uniquely positioned at the intersection of social reform, rising Evangelicalism, and the arts.
[pq]No other member of the Clapham Sect leveraged the power of creativity as richly as Hannah More.[/pq]
During More’s life, writing was one of the only professions open to women outside of the church and home, and with the rise of Puritanism, the value of individual human experience to express legitimate truth came to be accepted and celebrated within English society. It was in the midst of these providential circumstances that the power of the female pen, and particularly, More’s works of fiction, nonfiction, poems, and plays made their way onto the stage of history.
More’s creative contributions to the abolition of the slave trade were said to constitute one of the earliest propaganda campaigns for social reform in English history. Dr. Karen Swallow Prior of Liberty University notes in her biography of Hannah More entitled “Fierce Convictions,” that More’s works of imaginative literature ensured that the issue was not hidden from anyone’s eyes. In making the unseen (or ignored) seen, More sought to use images, creative words, and dramatic experience to create empathy and inspire imagination of a reformed vision of the future—a future England that would uphold justice, equality, dignity, and virtue.
More understood that if society was ever going to alter its trajectory, the elites would quite literally have to see words and images play out a new narrative in front of them through which they might find themselves transformed—not unlike many of U2’s lyrics or powerful films and literature that seek to comment on modern society and the injustices we see today. Jesus, too, understood the power of art and storytelling, which is why He often presented his most poignant lessons in parables. One might also notice the impact of a reading of the Book of Psalms, a collection of song lyrics, through which creation, the fall of man, and redemption of the mortal soul are all aptly explored with a deeply emotional tone.
However, lest anyone criticize More for focusing on the elites to the exclusion of the common man, the extensive work of her Cheap Repository series should be celebrated for the popular success that it enjoyed among the lower classes and poor. More’s entry to professional life began with her work as a schoolteacher alongside her four sisters in the Bristol region where she not only taught classes but also helped to establish schools for girls and the poor. It was this personal work that enabled her to author the Cheap Repository series with the purpose “to improve the habits and raise the principles of the common people, at a time when the temptations, moral and political, were multiplied beyond the example of any former period.” These readers were not only a literacy development tool, but simultaneously instilled character and virtue.
Her thoughts from this series of work were published anonymously in 1788 under the title, “Thoughts on the Importance of the Manners of the Great to the General Society,” which was so popular that a second edition sold out in six days and the third edition in only four hours.
More’s theory of change was hierarchical in its assumptions: she believed if the leaders of society reformed themselves, the common man would follow. However, as Dr. Prior highlights: “Yet More’s life shows that the facts and our wishes can produce great stories when serving things much grander than ourselves, and that the stories we tell ourselves and others matter. This is the power of the moral imagination, the kind that Hannah possessed and used to move the world.”
In asking how a Christian might, as Dr. James Davidson Hunter cheekily put it, “change the world,” might we consider an engagement option that doesn’t withdraw us into monastic roots, but rather allows us to live within society as a constant, faithful presence? What if we, like Hannah, engaged culture by relying upon story as the mechanism for the discovery and renewal of truth, virtue, and justice? What if we let artistic expression be the conduit for our message of change instead of secluding ourselves away from an already highly polarized society?
One might term this approach, “The More Option”—a means of asking “more” of ourselves as the prophetic minority within a culture whose brokenness seems to increase in direct proportion to the foreignness that we feel within it.
What is clear in seeking to heal wounds, prick consciences, and inspire a reframed future of the possible is that inspiring empathy and cultivating compassion can only be achieved in a place of shared value and understanding, a place where the imaginative tools of art, creativity, and experience are used as the initiator, not the byproduct, of social transformation.