Reflections on Therapeutic Religion

Therapeutic Christianity is pervasive in the church, but particularly in Pentecostal and Charismatic churches – especially those that lean toward the “health & wealth” phenomenon. According to the health & wealth “gospel”, God wants us to be rich and healthy, so if we are not it must mean that we lack the faith to adequately receive God’s blessings. In such a worldview, God is the source of all good things; finding healing, peace, and success is just a matter of turning to God in the right way, with the right faith, and receiving them.

While health & wealth is the apex of therapeutic Christianity, it is obvious elsewhere too. I live less than a block from a Pentecostal church that, while it is not a health & wealth church, certainly believes that Jesus has the power to heal and that the Holy Spirit embodies that power in believers. I believe this too, but I’m not sure that I appreciate the digital sign out front that rotates through messages such as “Need healing? Come to our healing service!” or “Find inner peace. Sunday service at 10:30” or “Free kids camp! Starts at 10:30 am on Sunday mornings.” I agree that Christ can heal; there are long and deep Christian traditions and practices that promote inner peace; and parents are always looking for ways to stimulate their kids while giving them a few minutes of personal space. But this strikes me as shallow salesmanship, promoting Christ as a product, preaching what Jesus can give you rather than Jesus himself.

At the same time, North American society is almost satirically therapeutic. We live incredibly imbalanced lives, and then look for a simple and easy product or practice that can save us from our own mistreatment of ourselves. We tend to do it in binge doses and fads, drawing a new practice or technique from any source. For a while it was yoga, which was originally a deeply spiritual practice but has since been reduced, in North America at least, to calisthenics and stretching. Meditation is a fad that comes around every few years, renewing its appeal by drawing from a different branch of Buddhism. The religious roots of these practices has traditionally sent conservative Christians into a state of distrust and outright condemnation, because in some circles any therapy that does not come from a Christian source is suspect (though most of us are okay with doctors, of course). We produce Christian versions of yoga, and even devise Christian versions of meditation, completely missing the fact that Christians have been meditating as a religious practice for millennia. The point, though, is that all therapy needs to somehow be connected to Christ.

The craze right now is mindfulness, which is not the same thing as meditation, though meditation produces mindfulness. In our age of technological distraction, digital lives, and stress, we crave things like embodiment, focus, and peace. Mindfulness practices are usually some variation of meditation, but tend to emphasize being present: seeing and hearing the real world around you, noticing fine details, staying in one place for a long period, looking deep into the eyes of another person, hugging or kissing someone for a long period, etcetera. There is incredible value in this kind of emphasis on embodied presence.

In a few minutes I’m going to receive the eucharist, the body and blood of Christ in the form of bread and wine. Christians have a long history of emphasizing embodied presence, not only in our gospel of the embodied presence of God in Jesus Christ, but also in our understanding of vicarious representation, in which we see Christ in each other. The Holy Spirit embodies human beings, as God’s continued presence on earth. This is, at least to me, the most important and foundational notion of Christianity: that God is here with us, sanctifying our very bodies and this physical world with a constant presence. So every week I take a day in which I try to stay offline, I walk to church and enjoy the fresh air on the way, and I receive the body and blood of Christ. It is refreshing, empowering, and wonderfully therapeutic.

The difference between that therapeutic experience and what is promised on the church sign is subtle. I have to grant to the health & wealth movement that their emphasis on the way we receive from God has a bit of truth in it: our intentions, attitude, and even our very posture have an effect on the way we understand and approach God, even if our actions are identical. In the eucharist, I celebrate and consume Christ himself; in therapeutic models of Christianity, I am oriented to the therapeutic consumption, rather than being oriented to Christ himself. Health & wealth gets it exactly wrong: they emphasize approaching God in such a way as to receive/consume, and God becomes instrumental – a blessing dispensary. That’s why some theologians have taken to calling this kind of theology “therapeutic deism”, because the actual distinct person of God in Jesus Christ fades into the background and can be completely replaced by a general idea of a distant God who gives us what we desire or need.

I was recently listening to an episode of Note to Self, the tech podcast about being human, in which a former Google guru named Mang talked about why he changed careers from being a tech god to writing and educating people about Buddhist mindfulness as a way of promoting world peace. Mindfulness is all the rage in Silicon Valley, which eats up any therapeutic trend that promises to help maintain the levels of energy and creativity needed to succeed in a fast-paced innovation-driven environment. They pointed out that yoga and Buddhist meditation were once deeply spiritual practices that had been reduced to hollow shells, and I suddenly made the connection to therapeutic deism masquerading as Christianity. It appears that there is nothing unique in the way that Christianity is packaged as a therapeutic product to be consumed: we do it to everything. The distinction is that yoga and meditation are recognized as coming from spiritual practices, but are not generally equated with those spiritual practices, no doubt in large part because North American Christians still want to distance themselves from other religions. We remove them from their contexts and package them into products and classes. Meanwhile, the market for Christian-style therapeutic deism is not so much in DVDs and kiosks, but in actual churches where we put our money into the plate. Our therapy is the performance, our product faith itself (often without referent), and we pay for it like a subscription service – in weekly or monthly payments.

Mang took a minute in the interview to teach a very simple and practical mindfulness technique: focus intently on a single breath. Even driving down the busiest highway in Canada, being conscious of a deep breath was immediately calming and invigorating at the same time. I was also immediately conscious of a little bit of guilt in the back of my mind, because I knew that there are Christian practices that do the same thing and yet there I was taking instruction from a Buddhist. At a few times in my life I have been incredibly blessed by the practice of the “breath prayer”, a traditional Christian mindfulness exercise that combines breathing techniques with a mantra: breathing deeply while mentally reciting a short prayer in time with the breaths. This practice has the calming effect of the breathing, with the centring effect of drawing our focus to Christ. It’s a wonderful practice, but given my epiphany about therapeutic deism only minutes before, it seemed inappropriate.

I want the benefits of these simple techniques, and I’m glad that mindfulness is a craze because I think it’s important. But I don’t want to focus all of my efforts toward mindfulness on Christ because I don’t want to treat him as a consumer product. I know that I will not get the full benefits of Buddhist meditation unless, like Mang, I determine to work hard at meditation; just as doing yoga once or twice a week will not improve my physical fitness significantly. But I don’t really want those things anyway – I don’t want to be a Buddhist or a yogi. Like everyone else, I want quick fixes – and I don’t want to put that on Christ. Perhaps it is problematically colonial for me to be okay with bastardizing Buddhism for therapeutic purposes and not be okay with doing the same with my own faith, but I think it’s still better than the self-worship of bastardizing all things for the sake of my own sense of wellbeing.

I still have a lot to work out in this regard, but in the meantime I want to breathe deep and be present in a generic human way, and actually meet Christ in the eucharist rather than just enjoy the side effects. I don’t think that God desires me to smear Christ all over basic things like breathing, like butter over bread, but rather to consume Christ himself as the bread. I’m in no danger of becoming an accidental Buddhist, even if I appreciate the way that Buddhist teachings and practices help me to become more mindful; and I think that my relationship with Christ is strengthened by removing all temptation to treat him as a therapeutic tool, to seek him for what he can do for me. I believe he can heal me, but that’s not why I love him; I believe he brings peace, but I do not worship peace; and I believe that he blesses people in many ways, but I would love him if he did not. If learning mindfulness from Buddhists and yogis and gurus helps me to keep that perspective, then I’d say that in some sense they help me be a better Christian. This, I think, is much more helpful than the guilty thought in the back of my mind that I’m somehow cheating on Jesus in the way that I’m stretching or breathing.

Critical Theology by Carl A. Raschke

In Critical Theology: Introducing an Agenda for an Age of Global Crisis, Carl Raschke uses the analogy of a black hole to describe how everything we know or think we know approaches an event horizon beyond which we cannot see, but where we know there to be a massive power source of creative destruction. He was using the analogy to describe the disparate field of “religious studies,” but I think it’s an apt description of the book itself.

I enjoyed this book more than I understood it. This is perhaps to be expected from a book that does not intend to describe something as much as to predict the forthcoming emergence of a new philosophical perspective. Raschke sorts through important perspectives and methodologies of the past century, praising their strengths but pinpointing weaknesses, in order to lay out the need for a “critical theology” to properly assess and address the post-secular globalized context we now find ourselves in. He gives excellent overviews of the development of critical theory, political theology, the secular-theological approaches of Zizek and Badiou, and religious studies, showing how each has contributed but nonetheless falls short of being able to understand our current realities. Like postmodernism and postsecularism, Raschke’s agenda is therefore primarily negatively defined, often dealing in nuances so fine that it’s difficult to tell how he hopes we’ll move past an existing theoretical approach. Throughout, and as often happens when I read books that push my comprehension, I experienced moments of elation: brilliant vistas of complex and abstract insight. I really do think he’s onto something here.

The crux of his argument for a critical theology, building on the secular theologies of Zizek and Badiou, is the way in which the incarnation and cross of Christ changes everything, providing the event that empowers existing theories ranging from the semiotic to the psychoanalytic to the political. On that we certainly agree. What he wants to do with that, or how exactly the Christ event changes us by elevating otherness, is only loosely sketched; presumably it will be worked out in an entire era of theory. I look forward to it!

Technically/stylistically, there were a number of errors that made an already dense read a little frustrating. Abstract theory is hard enough without misspellings. I also felt that he could have brought his thoughts together into a stronger conclusion, particularly because a good summary of his thoughts would have made the book much more accessible to the lay reader. That said, if you want a jumping-off point to study critical theory, Habermas, Heidegger, Zizek, Badiou, Lacan, or political theology, this book gets just enough into each of them to spark interest. Perhaps I’ll dig into each of them at some point, and revisit this book with a stronger foundation.

Confronting Christian Hypocrisy


It was funny when he entered the race, ridiculous when he got his first Evangelical endorsement, outrageous when they kept coming in, shocking when so-called Christian leaders (apply the so-called to either term) defended his vitriol while he was popular, and downright shameful when, over the last several hours as scores of prominent Republicans abandon any pretence of supporting him, the Christians stand by him.

I feel sick, but I’m also angry. I want to look Franklin Graham, Eric Metaxas, James Dobson, etc. in the eye and say “That’s it, we’re pulling your card. Your claim to Christianity is revoked, you no longer have any right to identify with Christ.” But I can’t, because it doesn’t work that way. At the same time, I can and must call them out. Christians live with the call to offer grace and mercy and forgiveness, as well as the call to challenge injustice and expose hypocrisy. Doing them both at the same time is really hard, but it helps if we understand the situation.


When the Nazis came to power in a Christian country (yes, Germany was officially a Christian country), and ultimately when the holocaust occurred there, Carl Jung (famed German psychotherapist) described it as a type of “mass possession.” Why would so many otherwise decent people go along with such an awful regime doing such horrifying things? We are susceptible to something unseen, that thing that turns a large group of happy sports fans into a rioting mob, suddenly breaking windows and burning cars. That thing that causes otherwise stingy people to give to charities during disaster relief, leading to record amounts given; or that leads to people who haven’t watched a baseball game in their life suddenly wearing a Jays hat in public.

We’ve long known that we are susceptible to peer pressure, trends, etc., but in some cases even a rational modernist like Carl Jung resorts to religious language of “possession.” These invisible forces not only influence us, but they cause us to do things that we would not otherwise do, even things that go against our own values, and deafen us to the dissonance. Theologians throughout the 20th century picked up on this, and connected it to Paul’s language of the Powers and Principalities.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. – Ephesians 6:12

This kind of language points us to a struggle that is both internal (psychological, involving our will and virtues/vices) and external (social, involving social institutions). In both cases it is a struggle to maintain our freedom against a force that would overcome our very self.

Here’s the thing though: we make the Powers. Think about it: we elect a government, and we grant that government authority over us by consenting to its use of power. Walter Wink, the latest major theologian to write on the Powers, describes them as an emergent spiritual property that arises from groups of people who form social institutions, formally or informally. The Powers are social institutions, but they are also spiritual forces that exercise influence over us – often even more than we have over them! Long-standing major institutions, like governments or political parties or cultural institutions (like the Religious Right) are very powerful forces that demand a lot from their followers, including deep loyalty and obedience – whether they state it explicitly or not.

Walter Wink

Walter Wink

There are two points we can take out of this to apply to Evangelicals who support Trump despite his obviously unrepentant sinfulness and demagoguery:

First, these people are caught up in something that they can’t control. Actually. Which is at least partially why leaders who scorned Trump as a buffoon during the nomination contest later endorsed him wholeheartedly. Sure, we could be cynical and say that they’re all faking it – but you can only say something so many times before you begin to believe it, and I really do think that these people believe what they say about Trump. Surely he believes what he says about himself. (I think Trump is caught up in this spiritual quagmire along with everyone else.)

Second, the Powers we’re talking about are the US government and the two major political parties. Even for non-Americans, we’re pretty much all involved in this. We are a part of this system, part of the group from which the spiritual Power emerges and over which it exudes influence. We are all complicit. Which is why we can’t just point fingers at the most grievous hypocrites and be done with it. We have to follow what Wink called “Jesus’ Third Way” – neither winning nor losing, but instead reconciling.

Solidarity with Christ

The thing about Jesus is that he managed to maintain solidarity with everyone. Not only did he refuse to get involved in partisan squabbling, religious or political, but he also lived and died with and for people in every station. He lived among the poor, and yet still moved among the rich. He died as an innocent victim, in solidarity with all victims; and yet he died a criminal’s death, in solidarity with criminals. We too are called to identify ourselves with the oppressed and criminals, saints and sinners.

Following Christ involves looking first at ourselves – because we are the criminals. As I said above, we are all complicit in this broken system that victimizes people. In that regard we also have to look at how this broken system hurts everyone involved: we are the victims AND the perpetrators, and so we need to recognize that those we tend to see as being the perpetrators are also victims, just like us. Recognizing that we’re all both perpetrator and victim gives us a solid base for solidarity. Because we cannot have real solidarity with Christ if we do not have solidarity with those with and for whom he lived and died.

Blind Guides

Naming the Powers, bringing them into the light to expose their injustice, is a painful process. After all, we’ve just established that it means looking inward and recognizing our complicity! But that also forms the basis for addressing injustice without becoming hypocrites.

Hypocrisy is the one thing Jesus refused to put up with, and he was in a position to tell it like it is. He addressed the Powers that ruled his world, refused to be complicit in them, and then called out those who blindly continued in their complicity but claimed to know better. We absolutely must address the hypocrisy among us, first in our very selves, and then in our brothers and sisters.

Tonight, James Dobson, who righteously condemned Bill Clinton’s sin of adultery after Clinton came clean and publicly repented, urged Christians to forgive Donald Trump for his sins (despite a non-apology) by way of voting for him. Rachel Held Evans tweeted that this is spiritual abuse, and she’s damn right about that. Should we forgive Trump? Sure. Trust him to represent the interests of women and people of colour? Absolutely not. Using Christian obligation to forgive as a way of directing voters is an egregious abuse of power, of the name of Christ, and of the people who trust you. Dr. Dobson, you are a blind guide, a white-washed tomb, and you need to repent.

That said, you’re always welcome among us. Not over us, but certainly among us. Because like it or not, we’re in this together. I will not follow you, but I hope you’ll join me as we follow Christ together.

The Church’s Mandate

American Christians are more political than just about any people on earth, and I actually think that’s a pretty good thing, so long as it’s well directed. The Church has a political mandate, but it has nothing to do with voting for a particular party or exercising cultural control.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was probably the most brilliant theologian of the 20th century, and that’s saying something. He was also hung by the Nazis. One of the things he was working on when he died was an essay on the Divine Mandates, which he named as Work/Culture, Government, Family, and Church. Each of these aspects of life is given a mandate by God, a reason for being, and they must all stay in balance with each other. Whenever one of them takes control of the others, the result is an idolatrous Power (using the language above).

Ironically, this is the cover of the biography of Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas. I can't figure out how he doesn't see the dissonance between what Bonhoeffer died for and what he supports in Trump.

Ironically, this is the cover of the biography of Bonhoeffer written by Eric Metaxas. I can’t figure out how he doesn’t see the dissonance between what Bonhoeffer died for and what he supports in Trump.

Each Mandate has its function in society. For example, Government is supposed to keep society safe and ordered, but it should not take on the role of Family (e.g., what kind of society would put all children in government care rather than their parents?). The Mandate of Church is to keep the other Mandates in line, either by using our prophetic voice to signal when one Mandate is over-reaching, or by standing in the gap for Mandates that are being subordinated or are failing to do their duties. For example, when a family breaks down, the Church provides a home and family care; when Work is unavailable, the Church provides food and necessities; and when Government breaks down, the Church provides social services. None of these things are the sole responsibility of the Church, but the Church can be a surrogate to meet needs neglected by the proper Mandates. And the Church is mandated to cry out at injustice and expose the Mandates that exercise their power inappropriately.

Right now in America, the Mandate of Church (in the form of right-wing Evangelicals) is in a very strange position. First, it has attempted to usurp both Government and Culture (via the Religious Right), and has melded with Government (via the Republican Party). As such, it has completely undermined its own prophetic voice, making it unable to expose the systemic injustices of the institutions it has aligned with – or the personal injustices of its candidate. To illustrate how deep this complicity goes, consider this: even as many high-profile Republicans have denounced Trump over the last 24 hours, Evangelical “leaders” have stood by him and glossed over his disgusting, self-centred misogyny. Evangelical Christians are more committed to the Republican Party than the Republican Party is.

That’s demonic. That’s idolatrous. That absolutely has to stop. We’ve lost our way.


Jesus Christ and his followers have a crucial role to play in our politics. Our job is to see the Powers for what they are, to reduce our own complicity as much as possible, and to raise a prophetic voice against systemic injustice. We need to keep our heads and resist the “mass possession” that has led so many to support a man who is the antithesis of Christ. And we need to call on our supposed leaders who have become blind to their own complicity to repent, and do so with the solidarity of Christ.

If we can do that, the rest of this election season will look very different. I’d like to see that.

Tribe, by Sebastian Junger

Tribe had me instantly hooked, and I think that it’s the most important book I’ve read this year. The scope of this book is amazing: in only 136 pages it covers issues ranging from war and PTSD to social institutions and politics to work/life balance and family to rituals in tribal societies. It seems like everything Sebastian Junger is talking about in this book is directly relevant to me and my thought processes in the last few years, which not only makes it clear why I found it so engrossing but also deserves explanation.

The central premise of Tribe is that human beings have spent most of our evolutionary history as tribal people who live in groups of around 50 deeply interdependent people, and that much of our social and psychological malaise today is rooted in the fact that this is no longer the case. Our wealth and technology have allowed us to become individualistic and self-serving, balancing the benefits of less physical need and disease with sharp increases in mental and social disorder. Money cannot buy us happiness, and in many ways it actually costs us our happiness.

Junger begins by reflecting on the fact that early European settlers in North America ran off to join indigenous tribes with alarming frequency, and even prisoners of war who had been taken by the tribes often refused to be repatriated into settler society, sometimes even sneaking back to join their former captors. Meanwhile, there was no traffic the other way: nobody was lining up to join “civilization”, even with all of its technological advances. Indigenous culture was very egalitarian and free; European culture was based on strict rules and laws that regulated every aspect of life under hierarchical structures of authority. Tribal life had relatively little work, while the pilgrims worked exhaustively. European settlers almost invariably held the notion that they were better off than the “savages” – but those who had experienced tribal life tended to never come back.
Junger goes on to talk about war and disasters. As a war reporter over the last 30 years, he’s seen a lot of war zones and noticed that soldiers, and even civilians in war zones, often miss the war. This is because they had such close and intimate bonds with the people around them during those difficult times, when common needs and the drive to survive tear down all social divisions and hierarchies. In the wake of an earthquake, or when a city is besieged, people look out for each other in ways that they don’t in good times. That social cohesion has an incredible psychological effect. During the Blitz of London, for example, the government had expected people to break down under the strain in large numbers, but the reality was that admission to mental hospitals went down. In a study of child soldiers, those children who returned from war to socially integrated societies mostly recovered, sometimes completely; but children who returned from war to socially stratified villages remained traumatized. Chronic PTSD, he suggests, is an issue of disordered recovery, not an automatic result of trauma; short-term PTSD is a normal response to trauma, but chronic PTSD, which is increasingly common even among troops that see relatively less action in war, has a lot to do with the fact that soldiers are unable to properly integrate into our individualistic, materialistic society where the close bonds they had with their unit no longer exist.

Why is this relevant to me? Aside from thinking a great deal about war and peace, trauma, social psychology, and policy, I have also recently made very large changes to my life because I have become disillusioned with the way that we live and work in our society.

Less than a year ago, I had a career. I had reached the Director level in my profession, and was making plans to pursue a PhD. I was doing everything right: at 30 years old I was moving upward, had a Master’s degree, had built my first house and had no other debt, and was married with one child. If I carried on that trajectory, “success” in life was virtually guaranteed. Except that in order to get that Master’s degree and that job, my wife and I had to move very far from our families; to pursue that PhD we would need to move farther still; and that my passions were only incidental to my career, so even if I could get a job in my field of study it would be low-paying and obscure, which meant that I would probably always be pursuing my passions at the expense of either my career or my family or both. My passions, then, took a backseat to family and career; and eventually, family took a backseat to career too.

No career is worth losing your family. It seemed that in order to pursue work that seemed meaningful, we had to be willing to be separated from our tribes. This seemed okay at first, when it was just the two of us, but as time wore on we missed our parents, siblings, and cousins. When I was growing up I was very close with a lot of my cousins, but at this point I haven’t seen some of them in over 5 years, and I’m not sure we’ve all been together in 15. Now we’re spread over three provinces, going where the work is or getting pushed out of places with high living costs. I miss them with a depth that shocks me to acknowledge. My parents come to visit, but their ability to travel is not unlimited, and video calls are no replacement for a tribe. Once we had a child of our own, the lack of close family bonds and support became so much more apparent; we felt we couldn’t be good parents without having grandparents around too. Because my son deserves his grandparents, and they deserve him.

So at the beginning of this year we moved away from our careers (my wife was also at the Director level in her department) and settled in my wife’s home province. Crashing on your in-laws’ couch for months, unemployed, is a far cry from working overtime at an “important” job, but it was surprisingly fulfilling. We had moved based on the instinct that our “successful” life wasn’t what it seemed, and even while my self-worth plunged on the basis of being unemployed and homeless, I found a growing sense of connection with my own little tribe, my wife and son, that was deeper and more powerful than any sense of purpose and self-worth that I had gleaned from my career.

My priorities have completed shifted this year. My goal is to find a job that allows me to be at home as much as possible, and I’m just starting a job that allows me to work only two days per week. I’ve been thinking about the need for jobs like that quite a bit over the past year: in an information economy in which information is cheap, producers of information either need a Guaranteed Livable Income (Mincome) or part-time work that pays a living wage but still gives them time to be productive in their own field. I’ve unexpectedly come across the latter, and I’m looking forward to being a family man five days a week and writing during nap times.

A few days after I was hired for this incredible new job packing cheese two days per week, and as I was still coming to terms with how that would reorient my life away from being centred on work and toward being centred on my family, I picked up Tribe and suddenly every hard choice we’ve made over the past year made sense. This book has given me a conceptual framework within which to understand and express why I was so dissatisfied with a seemingly successful life, why we were so motivated to put family first, and why, somehow, our society needs to find a way to help other people to make that priority shift if we want to address the growing social and psychological problems we face.

Tribe is a short, page-turning read about a host of pressing issues, translating anthropological and psychological research into a very accessible and concise narrative. Five stars.

You can listen to Sebastian Junger talking about the book here.

The Church as a Tipping Point

Malcolm Gladwell’s book The Tipping Point (2000) is a fascinating exploration of how ideas spread. Given its incredible popularity, it’s just as fascinating that we don’t seem to have done much with this information over the past fifteen years. I picked up the book thinking that it would be a good primer on the sociological notion of “tipping points” or “threshold theory” to explore in conjunction with Walter Wink’s theology of the Powers and Principalities (which turned out not to be the case), but the implications of this book for the church immediately jumped out at me. I’ll give a brief outline of the book, examine its implications for the church, and then explore the notion of the church as a tipping point in society.

The basic idea of Tipping Point is that ideas and behaviours spread like epidemics. A disease tends to spread slowly until a certain point, often called the “tipping point”, at which it starts to spread exponentially. The same thing is true of ideas or behaviours: a fad or trend is a behaviour or fashion or product that went from relative obscurity to being totally commonplace, usually in a short amount of time. Some trends stick around forever and become a real social change; others are fads that disappear as quickly as they began; but Gladwell is interested here in how they spread.

A social epidemic is the result of one or more of the following: “The law of the few” (certain types of people who make ideas contagious); “The stickiness factor” (what makes an idea stick with us enough that we pass it on); and “The power of context” (an environment that encourages or causes a particular behaviour).

The Law of the Few

We’re well familiar with the law of the few, which states that 80% of the work is done by 20% of the people. When it comes to spreading social epidemics, Gladwell distinguishes three categories from within the 20%: Mavens, Connectors, and Salesmen.

A Maven is someone who is in the know – the type of person who nerds out on a particular subject, learning about it for its own sake, collecting bits of information like they’re pokemon. The Maven is the person you go to when you have a question or need advice on a particular subject. We all have a friend who is a “car guy”, who probably isn’t a mechanic but knows everything about every model of car, and if you were going to buy a car you’d probably get their advice. Mavens do the hard work of digging up the idea or information that influences the idea.

A Connector is that person who knows everyone. They have a million acquaintances, and if they hear that you’re headed for a lovely holiday in Cleveland (because who doesn’t love The Cleve, and your travel maven friend has already told you all the best spots to hit there) they’ll give you the contact info for someone they know there who can give you a personal tour and put you up for the night. Connectors bring together not only a wide range of people, but often people from a variety of fields or walks of life, which means that they can connect ideas as much as people. Connectors get people and ideas together, where they can proliferate.

A Salesman is someone who can, well, sell an idea. They have an infectious personality that impacts people on an emotional level, often just by being in the same room. These people are influential not because of what they know (like the Maven), or who they know (like the Connector), but by merely being themselves. Through unconscious things like micro-motor mimicry and social/psychological cues, we take these people and their ideas seriously and find ourselves agreeing.

The Stickiness Factor

But no matter how good the salesman, no matter how connected or complex the knowledge or idea, it has to be something that sticks with people if it’s going to spread. It is very important to note that stickiness has nothing to do with the actual truth or value of the idea: some of the most important ideas in history remain open secrets, simply because the way they’ve been presented doesn’t stick with people. Meanwhile, some really terrible ideas and falsehoods are almost universally accepted because they connect with people on a fundamental level.

Stickiness is largely about psychology, and the examples Gladwell uses are Sesame Street and Blue’s Clues, both of which were designed by child psychologists to be sticky for kids in order to keep their attention and, hopefully, teach them something. Each episode of these shows is thoroughly analyzed by a team who studies the reactions of children in test audiences, including tracking their eye movement and distractability, their response to repetition, etc. Gladwell’s point is that many of the things that make kids love these shows, and that make them remember them, are counter-intuitive. Nobody believed, for example, that taking long, long pauses and speaking slowly would make for an interesting show: adult attention spans are geared toward fast-paced shows with lots of content. But not only does Blue’s Clues have a snail’s pace, they play the same slow episode five days in a row, and kids love it. Those aspects of the show play directly to a kid’s developing brain, in which a slow pace and repetition helps kids develop the ability to construct sequences, form concepts, and remember things.

Gladwell’s point is not that we should all watch Blue’s Clues (though it might not hurt), but rather that the psychology of what makes something stick with us is not always obvious. We need to understand our audience and present our message accordingly. Some tricks: the more your audience can relate to the message (even something as simple as connecting the idea to their own town or neighbourhood), and the more engaged someone is (making them play a game with the information, or even just take notes with a physical pen and paper), the more something will stick. Teachers and preachers and politicians and advertising agencies have all studied this, and we’re getting very good at making messages stick.

The Power of Context

One of the things that shapes us and our thoughts the most is the context or environment around us. We talk a lot about the impact of nurture, as though parents can program their children (“raise up a child in the way that they should go…”), but we tend to neglect or ignore the rest of our context (peer influence, political climate, physical environment).

As an example of the power of context, Gladwell looks at the New York crime wave of the 80’s and 90’s, which declined very suddenly and rapidly without a clear cause. One criminologist suggested the “broken window effect”: a broken window in a home or business gives everyone passing by the impression that nobody cares for that building, and even that nobody is in charge (i.e., nobody takes responsibility to fix it). This functions, on a subconscious level, as a type of permission: nobody did anything about one broken window, so maybe I’ll break a window too. Using this theory, New York authorities launched a campaign to clean up major crimes like stabbings by tackling little crimes, like graffiti and fare jumping in the subway. Attention to little things in the environment had a major effect on the people, and major crimes reduced drastically. (I should point out that Freakonomics has challenged this theory, but it’s a digression here.)

Another example Gladwell gives of the way context shapes our behaviour hits close to home. A study of this concept featured Seminary students who were giving lectures on the story of the Good Samaritan. Before their lecture was supposed to start, some were told that they had extra time while others were told that they were already late. On the route to the lecture hall, the experimenters had positioned someone dressed as a homeless person who pretended to be in obvious distress, so that the seminarians would have to walk right past them. Of those who were told they had extra time, 63% stopped to help the person; of those told they were already late, only 10% stopped to help. Obviously these pastors-to-be are aware of the command to love thy neighbour as thyself – they were going to teach others to do that very thing! – but something in their context shaped the way their eyes saw the scene, their perception of other people and needs in relation to their own.

Some Criticism of the North American Church

I don’t want to spend a lot of time on this, because I don’t think I want the church to be a social epidemic like a fad (I think one of the reasons that it’s so shallow in North America is because it is pretty fad-ish already), but there are some obvious things we can learn here to address the much lamented notion that the church is in decline in North America.

  1. We’ve cut out the theology mavens. The North American evangelical church has a history of anti-intellectualism, and while the extent of this viewpoint varies from one denomination to the next, at the parishioner level it is extremely common. In my own tradition (Pentecostalism), one of the founders of my movement quit school because he believed that his learning was interfering with his ability to be led by the Holy Spirit. Theology mavens still exist – there are more seminarians than there are churches to pastor – but they often sit quietly in churches where their input is not welcomed, much less sought out. Increasingly, they leave evangelical denominations for other traditions in which their knowledge is valued, following the “Canterbury Trail” to the Anglican tradition, or the “Road to Rome” (Roman Catholicism), or increasingly, seeking the contemplative and mystic traditions of the Orthodox church. The church is full of highly important knowledge and ideas, and there are plenty of theology mavens to spread them around, but they’ve been almost systematically silenced or marginalized. (One solution, I would argue, is to increase education requirements for clergy; in my experience, churches that have highly educated clergy do not have the same level of anti-intellectualism.)
  2. We’ve limited the connectors. A connector is a person who has their feet in a lot of different circles, but the insular nature of North American evangelical culture tries to bring all aspects of society into a shared, smaller, christianized circle. Rather than Christians rubbing shoulders with people with different backgrounds and ideas at business events, we have Christian business events. Christian music, movies, societies, businesses, publishers, shipping companies (yup, even there)…for a connector in the church, there may only be one circle: the church itself. We have never lacked for connections within the church, but we should not be surprised at our lack of connections to the world when we’ve worked so hard to create a subculture that is insulated so thoroughly from it.
  3. We’ve overstated the abilities and responsibility of our salesmen. One of the things that Gladwell points out is that when marketers saturate one particular form of connection, it becomes so commonplace that we tune it out. We screen our calls to avoid telemarketers, and filter our emails to avoid spam, and refuse to make eye contact with people handing out flyers (or preaching redemption) on the street. The Protestant church has always emphasized the role of preaching, and the North American evangelical church in particular has always celebrated our preachers. We have no lack of salesmen, and we’ve honed the craft to an incredible extent, but I think we’ve saturated the potential for that format. Even for faithful Christians who attend weekly, how many remember even decent sermons a few hours afterwards? (I must admit, I don’t.) Further, without theology mavens to continually bring forward new theological ideas, our salesmen (preachers) often end up recycling content, or writing topical sermons with little theological grounding, depending more on their salesmanship than on the stickiness of the message.
  4. We’ve tried too hard to make our message sticky, and in the process made it stick even less. I’ve been seeing a culture war within the church over the past decade or more, between those who want to accommodate the message to the outside culture and those who want to control the inside culture. It seems to me that both sides of that equation are using Christian subculture as the metric, defining their message as either cultural or counter-cultural in relation to a culture that is just as far from Christian tradition as it is from mainstream secular culture. In my experience, the churches that are actually reaching out to the people around them aren’t concerned with a Christian subculture at all, whether to reinforce it or differentiate themselves from it; they’re just busy being like Jesus in the world. And that sends a message that was always, and remains, incredibly sticky.

But the thing I most want to talk about, if you can stick with me a little further, is the role of the church in forming the context or environment in which we all live.

Hacking the Context

One of the big messages of The Tipping Point is that effective social epidemics (and social change) is usually very subtle. You can’t just put up billboards or run a political campaign to change the world. The most subtle influence of all of those mentioned is context, and I think that’s where Christians can have the greatest impact – not to make a “Christian” environment or nation, but to make a better one, and in so doing to glorify God. Let’s look at the examples that Gladwell uses.

New York’s crime wave dropped off suddenly, and Gladwell attributes that to city officials putting more resources into sprucing the place up a bit and enforcing vandalism laws effectively – but it took them a decade to catch on. What if the church, seeing degrading conditions, voluntarily stepped into the breach and spruced up their neighbourhoods themselves?

In another example, Gladwell looks at the way that the spread of syphilis in Baltimore fluctuates not only based on the weather (it slows down in winter, and picks up again in summer), but also based on how well-staffed medical clinics in the area are; when medical budgets were cut and lineups at clinics increased, people who had syphilis had less access to the clinic and might be passing the disease for several additional weeks before discovering they were infected. But there was a time when churches funded needed medical services in their community – why wait for politicians to address needs?

We have given over responsibility for our context to the government, and then organize politically to try to control the government. The point of the church as an organized entity, though, is to serve the needs of others as Christ did. Jesus could have lobbied the government of his day to purge the Gerasenes of idol worship in order to improve that context, but instead he went over there and cast out demons. The majority of the Gerasenes did not benefit directly from Jesus’ visit (they were terrified and asked him to leave), but you can bet their lives improved now that a legion of demons were no longer terrorizing them in the form of a crazed man who slept among the tombs and wailed through the night. In that sense, the concrete action of Christ helped them far more than any government action there could have. Their environment was transformed in a positive way.

I recognize that not every church is in a city with a crime wave or syphilis epidemic, but I do wonder what our towns and cities would look like if churches took responsibility for their neighbourhoods and addressed those contexts without waiting for government action. Do the people who live in our neighbourhoods even know we’re there? Aside from seeing the programs advertised on our church signs, do they notice us at all? Is the neighbourhood better off for having us there? Do the neighbours benefit from our presence?

I’m not saying that every church needs to advertise their presence all over the neighbourhood – quite the opposite. Nor am I suggesting that the church should be a hub of gentrification, fixing shutters and repainting walls whether people want it or not. But I know that there are needs everywhere, and with some careful thought we can address the needs in our sphere of influence without hammering people over the head with programs and sermons, and actually improve our context with results disproportionate to our effort. But that means finding out how we fit into our context, how we affect our environment. Hard work, but worthwhile.

What do you think? How can your church serve as a tipping point to improve the context of your neighbourhood?

A Church Referendum

Last week I wrote elsewhere about how a referendum, while a useful tool of democracy, is only a tool – and one with serious limitations and weaknesses which make it a poor choice for something as complex and important as deciding what type of voting system Canada should adopt. Last month, the church we’ve been attending had a referendum over the question of whether to allow women to be elders; this morning, more than a month later, there was still a lot of talk about the frustration and anger and grief that resulted from the “No” vote. This seemed to me to be a good case to discuss the limitations of a referendum as well as to talk about church governance models in general.

Church Governance and Democracy

I appreciate democratic forms of governance, even in a church. They arose in the church long before European governments gave up their monarchies, largely in response to the oppressive hierarchies of the Roman Catholic church. The Reformation provided a break from the RCC that went beyond theology, especially among the Radical Reformers (the Anabaptists), and among Protestant churches there are a variety of different forms of governance. Some vote about almost anything, while others elect representatives to serve as Elders, sometimes also called Board Members. Some choose a pool of good candidates and then draw lots to see who will be appointed, as in Acts. The powers of the Board of Elders vary from church to church, and Deacons play varying roles with varying levels of power in different churches. At some point, all of these types of governance were justified with Scripture, and were considered important enough to cause division between groups that were theologically very similar – which is in part why there are so many types of Baptist today. But for the most part, governance bodies are dry and boring, mostly only relating to financial matters and building maintenance.

Arguing about church governance models at the Westminster Assembly of Divines.

Until they aren’t. Churches are used to being divided by mundane issues such as what colour the carpet should be or which side of the sanctuary should house the organ, elevating those things almost to the level of theological importance; but what happens when a church Board, or the congregation, has to decide on matters of theology?

That was the case at this church. The issue of women in leadership/eldership has long been a contentious issue of theology, and was contentious enough that the denomination refused to hand down a single position, instead allowing individual churches to decide the matter for themselves. This was presumably to avoid conflict and schism in the denomination, but by passing the buck the denomination only passed the potential for division down to individual churches, which lack the authority to decide upon it.

Elitism and Democracy

I have been accused, in my recent post about the nature of referendums, of making an elitist argument: “you don’t trust the Canadian people to make the right choice,” I was told more than once. And to some extent that’s correct; I don’t trust the Canadian people to have enough knowledge of the complex models of political engagement involved to make an informed choice about which model of electoral reform would maximize the value of each vote. I argued that a referendum is good for deciding on a value or opinion, but not for writing policy, which should be left to experts. The same is true in the church, and we have a long history of saying so.

The reason that the Anabaptists went to democratic models in the first place was because the church had historically been ruled by elites so far removed from the everyday life of the congregation that they could not even relate to, let alone value, the lives of their people. The church had a system of education and worship that actually kept people from reading the Bible for themselves, continuing to use Latin long after the language had otherwise died out among the general population as a way of safeguarding the Bible from misinterpretation (though sadly not from their own misinterpretation). The idea was that biblical interpretation was such a central aspect of life that uneducated people could not be trusted to interpret it for themselves, similar to the notion that Homer Simpson should not be in charge of safety at a nuclear power plant – such things take expertise, and should not be taken lightly. We require a certain level of expertise for all sorts of things in life, especially things with the power to harm others or disrupt lives, so doctrines which relate to the eternal destiny of human beings was left to the elite of the elite.

The Reformation changed this to a large extent, with reformers translating the Bible into numerous languages and printing it so that some people could own their own copy. This surely came at least partially from the revelation that the Catholic hierarchy could also not be trusted to correctly interpret and communicate the Word of God, and that opening it up to the people would not only provide access to this wonderful text to the masses but would also create more room for accountability. But the reformers themselves, and even later Protestants, did not give up the notion that we must be educated before we can accurately interpret the Bible. In Ethics, Dietrich Bonhoeffer (a 20th century Lutheran who certainly urged extensive use of Scripture by all Christians) said “Scripture belongs essentially to the preaching office, but preaching belongs to the congregation. Scripture must be interpreted and preached. In its essence it is not a book of edification for the congregation” (294-95).

The notion that all Christians have equal understanding of Scripture simply because we all have equal access to it is more of an American evangelical idea that really proliferated through the 20th century. Fundamentalists in particular largely believe that “God said it, I believe it, and that settles it.” The idea is that the Bible is written directly to us, for our salvation, and is therefore perfectly understandable without interpretive models. Face-value readings are all that is required to know exactly what God meant in a book written thousands of years ago in a different country and language. This view ignores the fact that we really do have interpretive models whether we recognize it or not, and it also gives the impression that anyone, regardless of their training, can interpret the Bible just as well as anyone else. It throws out experts altogether.

I’ve studied theology formally for eight years, and have continued to study it on the side since graduating with my MA. I get irritated sometimes when long-time church attenders with no formal study of Scripture under their belt take a know-it-all tone with me, as I’m sure people with PhDs and long teaching experience sometimes are irritated at my more passionate assertions that turn out to be incorrect. “Knowledge puffs up,” sure, but we can get pretty puffed up without any real knowledge too, and I know my irritations are minor compared to some of the issues that come up when we throw out our theological experts in favour of a model of interpretation wherein expertise means nothing. I’ve seen Bible and Theology professors have to ask for professional courtesy from their colleagues from other departments who disagree with them about interpretations of texts – something, it was suggested, that would probably never happen in the other direction. A theologian, no matter how accomplished, would probably defer to a trucker or mechanic about how to install a drive shaft, but I’ve been in Bible studies where truckers and mechanics scoff at educated people before sitting down to interpret ancient texts.

A Referendum on the Facts

A referendum is useful for matters of values or opinions, but when it comes to deciding issues of policy or theology there need to be experts involved. A referendum can never decide what the facts themselves are, as if reality is decided by vote. In the case of women in ministry, it is a theological issue concerning the reality of what Scripture is saying. It is a matter of determining exactly what Paul was talking about in a few key texts, and why. It is a matter of facts, not opinions.

When facts are in dispute, informed opinions about them are relevant. If we have no real respect for expert opinions, and believe that the text is equally understandable by someone with an advanced degree in the subject and someone who just picked up the text and read it at face value, then all opinions can be considered informed opinions, and a referendum is a fine way to resolve disputes about contested facts. But if there is a reality that doesn’t depend on the opinions of people who may or may not have even reflected on the relevant texts before, or understood their own cultural and systemic biases, or explored the original context and interpretive history of the texts, then perhaps we should rely more on the views of those who have studied the matter in depth.

I don’t think that this church holds to a strong fundamentalist view of interpretation, nor do I think that it is well-stocked with Bible scholars. Instead, it is a normal church stocked with average people: teachers, tradesmen, truckers, gardeners, marketers, engineers, etc., who read their Bibles about as much as any other Christian and have about as much theological education as most (usually limited to a few church Bible studies). They are not inherently misogynistic, but they have deep cultural roots, and for many this issue is a canary in the coal mine, a sign that liberal values are overtaking their own. This does not make them bad or stupid people (they’re quite lovely, so far as I know them), but it should give a general sense that they are not those who are best qualified to decide this issue of biblical interpretation. Their elders are representative of the church, and are similarly unqualified to weigh in with expert opinions on the relevant passages; again, this does not imply anything bad about them, but merely that they are not career scholars on this subject (and nor should they be – that’s not their function as Elders).

The only person in the church who is reasonably expected to have a strong enough credential to weigh in on the issue is the pastor, and if I understand their church governance structure correctly, he doesn’t have a say in this, though he can make recommendations. The denomination is adequately stocked with pastors and professors who could weigh in on this, but they declined to do so as a body, again likely because of the politics that comes with it. But the fact that church politics can get in the way of biblical experts clarifying a biblical text in a Bible-believing church shows how deeply flawed this notion is that we can all read the Bible and be experts enough that our opinions can settle disputed facts of deep interpretation. Some issues are so contentious that they undermine not just the very notion of expertise, but even the authority of an international denomination.


Some people are quite upset. I don’t blame them; I can’t imagine being told that I’m a second-class citizen in the Kingdom of God, or that my God-given gifts are inappropriate for service to the church because of my gender. As a newcomer and non-member of this church, it’s not my place to say anything (and I don’t get a vote anyway); but as a theologian and someone who analyzes systems and institutions, this is a great example of a falling power. An institution becomes fallen when it undermines its created purposes in order to maintain its own power or self-perpetuation. A denomination that shirks its role in providing expertise and authority in theological matters is shooting itself in the foot, and forcing churches to decide matters of biblical interpretation by vote rather than by determining truth. In the process, more than half of the church population is made unavailable for service to the church as elders, and the theological implications of this decision for women have yet to be worked out. The message this morning, from a series of elders in announcements, sermonettes, and prayers, and then from the pastor in the sermon, and from the choices of songs, was a resounding call for unity; the subtext was “can we all just move on now?” That’s the thing about a referendum, though; they always come back around. This issue won’t go away until it’s resolved, and a referendum isn’t capable of resolving it.

No Buts

I’ve started attending a Bible study at my church, working through Romans. This morning we were talking about Romans 3-4, but I missed last week, so I read 1-4, and I was glad I did; after Paul’s greetings, his argument in the first four chapters is fairly unified: no buts allowed.

This is one of those passages that surprises me when I take my time and think it through, because I realize that I’ve been reading it and taking the opposite point from the one he’s making. For example, it’s easy to read Romans 1 and focus on the list of sins there; this chapter is also especially prominent in the debate about homosexuality for that reason. Taken in isolation, chapter 1 is a vision of life without God, of profanity and depravity that has no place in a church. It’s very easy for us Christians to read that and be glad that we’re not like those awful, sick people who hate God.

In context, though, Paul isn’t talking about irreligious people; he’s talking about the Gentile Christians in the church in Rome, for whom all of that was part of their culture and religion before they became Christians. Even so, we think, we’re glad that we were raised Christian and don’t have all of that nasty sin in our lives.

But Paul doesn’t let us off the hook, because then in chapter 2 he moves on to the Jewish Christians in that same church, and tears them apart for thinking those very same things. His scathing diatribe against hypocrisy points out that we (the religious) are in absolutely no position to judge others because we are similarly sinful. Our religious pedigree doesn’t matter.

It’s at this point that I’m prone to read this and think “I’m glad I’m not one of those religious Jews who depend on the Law,” forgetting already that I had previously counted myself on that side when I was disdaining those who did not have the Law to break.

With a small aside in chapter 3 about how having the Law does provide some advantage for the Jews, he rolls right on with his argument: that we’re all sinners, and nobody is righteous. This is where, taken in isolation, we get to feel some quality Christian guilt, “for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” I memorized that verse in Sparks when I was a little kid, having no idea what it meant, and I wonder now how we manage to keep it so disconnected from its context.

We’re all willing to acknowledge that everyone is a sinner, sometimes even wearing this as a badge of honour because it is so central to evangelical Christianity – that everyone needs Jesus, even us. But we’re not able to identify with the two groups that Paul is referring to leading up to this key verse; we stand at a third point, from which we have managed to look down on both Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians.

What’s worse, we actually question their salvation, which we can only do by chopping off chapters 3 and 4 almost in their entirety. Paul goes on to say that, because we’re all sinners (as he has pointed out in chapters 1 and 2), we can neither boast nor judge. In one place he formulates it as “so that every mouth will be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.” That is, under the law or not, we’re all going to stand before God for judgment, not each other. But he continues, and makes it clear that it’s not just that we cannot earn our own salvation and therefore not brag, or that we are all sinners and therefore cannot judge, but that we cannot speculate about the salvation of others because of the nature of salvation itself.

Salvation, or redemption through righteousness by faith, is described as something that existed before there was a Law to obey. By referring back to Abraham, Paul points out that the Law is not a precursor to salvation but rather a sign of it. But the sticking point for me in this reading is the nature of Abraham’s faith: it is not that Abraham believed that God existed, which was a given; it is not that Abraham believed the Scriptures, which had not been written; rather, it is that Abraham “believed God.” He took God at God’s word. That’s it. God made Abraham a promise, and Abraham believed that God would make good on it, and God credited that to him as righteousness.

What Paul is saying about faith is that simply believing God when God says that we are redeemed is enough.

But…but…but. We fight Paul when we read this book, setting up objections that he tears down one by one. He shows us life without God, and we feel good about ourselves and say “but we’re not like that.” And he says “yes, you are.” Then we say “but we’re not like those Jews and Pharisees” and he says “yes, you are.” Then we say “oh yes, we all need salvation (especially those other people), but we need to do the right things;” and he says “there is nothing you can do to earn this.” Then we say “right, but we need to believe the right things,” usually meaning that someone must have our precise notion of all of the Bible and church doctrines, and he says “you only need to believe, like Abraham, that God is faithful.”

Jesus talked about people like me when he told a parable about workers being hired in the town square. The landowner came by the square every hour to hire more workers, so that some were hired at the first hour of the day and some even at the last hour of the day. At the end of the day every worker received the same wage, whether they worked all day or just one hour, and the ones who worked all day were very upset about this; they hated the generosity of the landowner, who paid them a fair and agreed-upon wage but also gave the same wage to those who had done less. Salvation, Jesus points out, is not fair; it is grace.

We’re wired to desire fairness and hate unfairness, but grace is always and by definition unmerited, unfair. So we read a gospel of grace, and come up with all sorts of reasons to excuse ourselves to receive grace (because we need it), and all sorts of excuses for why others should not receive it. We’re full of buts.