Jeff Haanen

Category

Culture

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CultureWork

A Gift to the World

 

Several weeks ago, I sat down to share about the DIFW vision with a prospective donor. As I began to explain our mission, I could tell there was a mental obstacle.

“So, you can’t evangelize in schools or business or the government,” he said. “So what it is exactly you’re trying to accomplish?”

Before I could reply, the conversation moved to Chick-Fil-A and Hobby Lobby, and the contentious religious liberty issues surrounding the overt faith of their founders. Though I’m personally encouraged by the Cathy and Green families, I could tell that our organization was being sucked into a culture war, one that tends to see the Church as almost a drain on a liberal, pluralist society – one that impinges on the  rights of the individual.

But instead of getting drawn into the culture wars, I instead decided to say what has been true for millennia: the church is a gift to the world. There’s a reason why we chose the title “A Gift to the City” for our recently release 2015 Impact Report. It’s worth remembering that for centuries, Christian men and women have seen their work as an opportunity to bring life to society. The Church has long been a blessing to all – both Christians and people of other faiths (or none at all).

How has the church been a gift to the world? A few examples come to mind:

1. The Church gave us the first universities.  The University of Bologna (1088), the University of Paris (1150) and the University of Oxford (1167) all were born out of Christian cathedral schools and monastic schools, dedicated to not only training clergy, but also learning about law, astronomy, medicine, music, math, and the “trivium” – grammar, logic and rhetoric. Say what you will about the drawbacks of medieval Europe: all modern institutions of higher education have a historical debt to Christians believing that investigating God’s world could benefit society at large.

2. The Church gave us the foundations for capitalism. No, it didn’t start with Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations. Nor was it due to the Protestant work ethic. Rodney Stark has convincingly made the case in The Victory of Reason that the free market enterprise system was flowering in 12th century Italy. The supposed “dark ages” bloomed with inventions like the water wheel, horseshoes, fish farming, the three-field system of agriculture, eyeglasses and clocks. Why? There’s a good reason that capitalism didn’t arise in China, Islam, or the global south. Stark explains, “All of these remarkable developments can be traced to the unique Christian conviction that progress was a God-given obligation, entailed in the gift of reason.” Innovation, the power of reason, and the moral underpinning of capitalism (of which trust is the most important) all flowed not from either Roman law nor Greek idealism – but from Christianity.

3. The Church gave us the framework for human rights and democracy.  Christianity offered to the world a doctrine which would forever reshape our political life: all people are made in the image of GodEveryone. Though a form of democracy did start in ancient Greece, we see in Plato’s Republic that his version of democracy is one we wouldn’t want to see anywhere today: a republic where only property owners could vote, where women and slaves were property, and where philosopher kings ruled. There was voting, for sure. But certainly not a government of the people, by the people and for the people.

The roots of democracy we enjoy today come principally from the Magna Carta, composed in the Christian West. (Which is one reason why today’s Chinese Communist Party leadership doesn’t want it touring around their neighborhood.) First drafted by the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Magna Carta (1215) originally limited the rights of kings, but was later used in the Glorious Revolution and the American Revolution as precedent for protecting the rights of all people. Though nearly all societies have, at times, had their leaders approved by the people, the theological doctrine that all people are made in the image of God was the original source of one’s human rights – far before secular versions arose in the Enlightenment (See Terry Eagleton’s Reason, Faith and Revolution). Though the Church has also been guilty of violating human rights (i.e., The Inquisition), it has also been the source of the protections and rights we enjoy today in a liberal democracy. (If you need more convincing here, read Marcelo Pera’s Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians. It’s stunning.)

4. The Church gave us the birth of science. Isaac Newton did more theology than science, and Francis Bacon not only gave us the empirical method, but also worried that his methodology would be used by demons to distort its good intention. Sounds weird, but they lived in both the worlds of Christian theology and scientific inquiry. Talk of investigating the “book of nature” was a Christian idea – that we could see who God was both through Scripture and in his creation (Ps. 19, Rom. 1).

Often we only hear half of the story – that the Church opposed Copernicus’ heliocentric universe and persecuted Galileo, the “father of physics” and observational astronomy. But truth be told: Galileo’s run in with Pope Gregory XIII was more political than scientific (the Inquisition thought his biblical interpretation looked Protestant). His insights were initially adopted by Pope Gregory and used to revise the church calendar in 1582. Galileo himself believed that God had given us reason, senses and intellect and expected us to use them as tools to interpret Scripture. Galileo writes, “For since every truth is in agreement with all other truth, the truth of Holy Writ cannot be contrary to the solid reasons and experiences of human knowledge.” Generations of scientists, from Blaise Pascal to George Washington Carver (including a large number of prominent scientists today, like Francis Collins), are motivated by their faith to do science.  Again, Stark makes the case that it’s the doctrine that God, the Logos, is a God of reason that led to science erupting not in China, Islam, India, or the Americas – but in the Christian West. Controversial thesis, I know. But hard to ignore the civilization in which the scientific revolution took place.

5. The Church gave us the art of Michelangelo and the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel is perhaps history’s greatest work of art. And Johann Sebastian Bach would often sign his symphonies Soli Deo Gloria (to God alone be the glory), one of the five “solas” of the reformation.  Handel would often do the same. Artists for generations have drawn fuel from their faith – from Leonardo Davinci’s The Last Supper to contemporary artists like Makoto Fujimara. Bono isn’t half bad either.

6. The Church gave us the Civil Rights Movement. It also bears mentioning the Martin Luther King Jr was a Baptist preacher. The fundamental drive for Dr. King’s leadership in a nonviolent movement to correct “America’s original sin” (slavery, and hence racial discrimination) was a Christian notion of love – even love for one’s enemy. This was first and foremost a movement of churches – and only secondarily was it political. The Civil Rights Movement would have been impossible without the Church.

We could go on and speak of the monks in Ireland washing the feet of travelers and setting the precedent for modern hotels, or Basil of Caesarea creating arguably one of the first hospitals (at a time when many Romans abandoned the sick or dying in plague ridden cities – see Stark’s The Rise of Christianity), or heroines like Florence Nightingale who essentially founded the profession of nursing out of a sense of duty from God’s call.

Though any Christian would be quick to confess that we’ve sinned deeply in the past (the Thirty Years Wars comes to mind) and today as well (the tragic segregation that remains in our churches), we can’t forget: the church has long been a gift to the world. 

So, with that, the question of the Church’s role in the world need not focus on fear-based arguing about losing a position of relative influence in the now post-Christian West. Instead, as those inspired most fundamentally by the grace of God (grace=gift), we can instead ask, What has God put in my hands that I might give to another? Instead of just going to church to get “filled up” by worship music and a sermon, might the Triune God actually use the Church to be the conduit of his abundant life to the entire human family (John 10:10b)?

Featured Photo: Christ Feeding the 5000

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Culture

Greatness and Grace

Today Christianity Today published my interview with New York Times Columnist David Brooks on his incredible new book The Road to Character. Here it is in its entirety:

 

The New York Times columnist asks what it takes to build character in a ‘Big Me’ culture.

Interview by Jeff Haanen /

 

Several years ago, David Brooks hit a wall. Although his résumé sparkled—a columnist for The New York Times, a political commentator for PBS and NPR, and the author of best-selling books like Bobos in Paradise—his inner life felt impoverished.

Brooks’s quest to fill that hollowness culminated in his latest book, The Road to Character (Random House). He pairs sketches of historical figures like Augustine and Dwight Eisenhower with analysis of our culture’s retreat from biblical notions of sin and righteousness. Jeff Haanen, executive director of Denver Institute for Faith & Work, spoke with Brooks, a cultural Jew, about recovering the classical quest for virtuous living—and great men and women who can light the way.

Throughout The Road to Character you distinguish between “Adam One” and “Adam Two,” or the “resumé virtues” and the “eulogy virtues.” Can you explain the difference between the two and how they influenced your project?

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik made this distinction between Adam One and Adam Two. Adam One is the career side of ourselves, and Adam Two is the internal side, the spiritual side of ourselves. The crucial thing is that they operate by different forms of logic. Adam One operates by a straightforward, economic logic: Input leads to output, and effort leads to reward. Adam Two operates by an inverse logic, basically the logic of the Beatitudes: The high will be made low; you have to give to receive; you must lose yourself to find yourself.

I didn’t have a midlife crisis or anything, but I came to realize that I pay too much attention to the Adam One side of my life, and that I’m not articulate enough about my inner life. I came to a realize that career success doesn’t actually lead to happiness. It doesn’t lead to the deepest fulfillment. I started looking for something more.

You note that since roughly World War II, we’ve lived in a different “moral country.” What’s changed?

Most people believe the big cultural shift happened in the 1960s. But when I investigated the books and culture of the late 1940s, I found that the transformation happened then. There were tons of best-selling books, and some movies, arguing that the notion of human sinfulness was outdated, and that we should embrace the idea that we’re really wonderful.

When you lose awareness of sin and start thinking that, deep down, human beings are pretty wonderful, you lose the struggle of character building. Building character is not like being better than someone else at a career. It’s conquering your own weakness. But you won’t make that effort if you lose a sense of what your weakness is and where it comes from.

How did losing sight of human weakness pave the way for what you call today’s “Big Me” culture?

We’ve encouraged generations to think highly of themselves. In 1950, the Gallup organization asked high-school seniors, “Are you a very important person?” Back then, 12 percent said yes. Gallup asked the same question in 2005, and 80 percent said yes.

There are surveys called “The Narcissism Test” that ask whether respondents agree with statements like, “I like to be the center of attention because I’m so extraordinary,” or “Somebody should write a biography about me.” The median narcissism score has gone up 30 percent in 20 years.

Our economy encourages us to promote ourselves with social media, to brand ourselves and get “likes.” In theory, we know humility is important, but we live in a culture of self-promotion.

Much of the book is about historical figures who stand in contrast to the culture of self-promotion, such as Frances Perkins, Franklin Roosevelt’s secretary of labor and a major player behind the New Deal. What about her upbringing and education shaped her character?

Perkins went to Mount Holyoke College back when the main purpose of higher education was not intellectual skills (though that was certainly a priority) but character-building. Since she was weakest in chemistry, the school made her major in chemistry. If you can do what you’re weakest at, you can handle any challenge. Holyoke also sent its students around the world on missionary trips. They picked up this heroic sense that they could do something brave.

Perkins was unsure of how to dedicate her life until, in 1911, she watched workers die in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. That gave her what some have called “the call within the call.” She had her career, but now it had become a vocation. Forever after, she would do anything she could to advance the cause of workers’ rights.

You write about two military figures, Dwight Eisenhower and George Marshall. What are some differences between their view of morality and our “culture of authenticity” today?

They didn’t trust themselves. Eisenhower knew that he had this terrible temper. So he was always checking himself. He knew that if he was going to lead, he needed to show cheerfulness, certainty, and confidence. But he didn’t feel that inside. He felt anxiety and anger.

And so he knew he couldn’t be his “true self” in public. Nowadays, we say that you should always be sincere, but Eisenhower was self-distrusting. He said, “If I’m sincere, I will not be effective. I have to work hard on building myself into something better.” So he built himself into a very cheerful, happy person, at least externally. But that construction took a lot of effort. Sometimes, when he was angry at certain people, he would write their names down on a piece of paper, rip it up and throw it in the garbage just to purge his anger.

Marshall was a very scattered and disorganized young man. He was always afraid of being humiliated. But he dedicated himself to the military so powerfully. He said to himself, “There are certain organizations that have been here before I was born, and they’ll be here after I’m dead, and I’m going to serve those organizations. And I’m going to try to live up to the standards of excellence that they embody.”

Sometimes that did make him austere. He was not the easiest guy to get to know. But he served his country with amazing steadiness. Occasionally you’ll run into people who were heroes in history, but not to those closest around. Marshall was a hero to those closest around him. They regarded him as a man of almost unbelievable integrity and honesty.

You also write about Augustine of Hippo and Dorothy Day. What can these portraits of Christian faith teach us?

Augustine is quite simply the most capacious mind and intelligent man I’ve ever encountered.

He was a successful young rhetorician, but the more he achieved, the more uncomfortable he felt. So he investigated his own mind to see what was going on. He understood psychology, 1,600 years ago, as well as we do today. When Augustine plumbed the depths of his mind, he found infinity there. In other words, he found God. As Reinhold Niebuhr said, the road into the self leads right out of the self.

As a bishop, Augustine fought many battles over church doctrine. But he had achieved a certain tranquility. If you focus only on your outer life, you never can. Worldly ambitions always have a way of demanding more.

Dorothy Day is another amazing character. Some people come to faith in moments of suffering and pain, but she came to faith in a moment of joy, at the birth of her child. She said, “I’ve never felt as great a love as I felt in the days after the birth of my daughter.” And with that came a need to worship and to adore God.

Day became a Catholic, a social worker, and a newspaper writer, and she spent her life building communities. There’s a phrase from Nietzsche that Eugene Peterson turned into a book title, “a long obedience in the same direction.” Our culture praises choice and individualism, not obedience. But obedience is where Day found joy.

With Augustine and Dorothy Day, their faith had a huge impact. Do you see a connection between religious faith and the development of character?

There are two issues here. First, I found there were many people who were secular but who we would say had great character. We can just see that.

But even if they didn’t have faith themselves, they had what I call the “biblical metaphysic.” They had the categories of Christianity and Judaism in their heads. Categories like sin, redemption, the soul, virtue, and grace. They knew the words. Eisenhower wasn’t particularly religious, but his mother gave him those words. Abraham Lincoln’s faith, to take another example, is always mysterious to me. But he certainly felt the pull of Providence.

I don’t think you need to have faith to be a good person. I observe people who are great people without faith. But I do think you need to have the biblical metaphysic. You need to have the words and categories.

Your book describes two paths to character. One is the path of moral effort, of emulating great heroes like the ones you profile. The other is the path of grace, the experience of receiving the gift of goodness. Which path works best?

It’s both. You may be able to build character and greatness through disciplined effort, but I don’t think you can experience the highest joy without grace. Nor can you experience tranquility. That only comes from gratitude, the feeling that you’re getting much more than you deserve.

My book includes a beautiful passage from the Protestant theologian Paul Tillich. He writes about certain moments when you are feeling down, and then suddenly you feel this tremendous sense of acceptance. You’re not asked to do anything—only to accept the fact that you’re accepted.

The word character can sound tough and austere. But most of the characters in my book had moments of profound joy, of feeling overwhelmed by gratitude.

You end the book with “The Humility Code”: “We don’t live for happiness, we live for holiness.” “Humans are flawed yet deeply endowed.” “Humility is the greatest virtue. Pride is the greatest vice.” “We are all ultimately saved by grace.” Is it any accident that these sound like the teachings of Jesus and the apostles?

I spend a lot of time going to Israel. Christian art there has a certain “face.” When you walk the Stations of the Cross, you enter different chapels from different traditions: Greek Orthodox, Catholic. But the art features the same facial expression: one of gentle, loving kindness. In Greek or Roman art, the expressions are much “harder” and less grace-filled. But the Christian art has a kind of joy-filled humility.

The Gospels brought about a revolution in morals. To put it broadly, there was a shift from a desire for power to a desire for sacrificial love. Even just speaking as a historian of ideas, culture, and behavior, that was a radical revolution that created a radical counterculture.

Today when we hear the word counterculture, we think of hippies in the 1960s. But the hippies ultimately represent the same individualistic striving we see from Apple computer and Ben & Jerry’s.

The true counterculture is found in faith, whether Jewish or Christian. It’s about living by a totally different moral logic. The logic of the Bible and the language of humility—that’s the real counterculture.

When I read your book, I couldn’t help thinking about how evangelicals (myself included) often capitulate to Big Me culture—positive psychology, the self-branding of social media, “life plans.” What can evangelicals learn from both secular and religious people who have taken the road to character?

Recently I met with the Gathering [a group of Christian philanthropists] in Orlando, Florida, and spoke, as an outsider, on the ramps and the walls the evangelical community builds for outsiders. Ramps are things that welcome people into a community, and walls are things that drive people away. I argued that what drives people away the most is a mixture of an intellectual inferiority complex with a moral superiority complex.

Intellectual standards in the evangelical community are not as high as they could be. It’s getting better. Everyone wants to be kind to each other. But sometimes you have to be a little cruel to disagree, and to disagree sharply and honestly to raise the intellectual standard of the enterprise.

On the other hand, as someone who has come to know a lot of evangelicals in the past years, many through writing this book, there are so many people who embody serenity and joy. They radiate caring love.

Words and theology are important. But I’m a big believer that “the message is the person.” When you run across somebody who is joyfully giving, humbly giving, that’s a more attractive evangelical move than any book or tract could be.

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ArtCulture

The Calling of Jayber Crow

“It seems to me,” David Buschart told us over one dollar beers at Old Mill, “that the idea of calling depends on the doctrine of God’s providence.”

The four of us had invited David, a theologian from the seminary, to help us make sense of Max Weber’s Protestant Ethic. Of course, the book was just an excuse for four guys in our twenties to get together, look smart, and talk about our lives, wives, and jobs. And by choosing Old Mill’s cheapest possible beer, we confessed to the world we were both woefully ignorant of the what a beer should be—and we were utterly broke.

That night I was intent on trying to figure out my winding, seemingly aimless, career path. I got my master’s degree, now had a job in a completely unrelated field, and could barely support my wife and newborn daughter. In my head, the script was never supposed to work out like this. And so when the local wiseman tells me the key to understanding my work was to trust in the sustaining, providential hand of God, I wasn’t sure whether this was just I’m-here-to-make-you-feel-better counseling or if I should pay closer attention.

After speaking with dozens, maybe hundreds, of men and women about their lives and career paths, I’ve now come to think that my winding road may be more the norm rather than the exception.

I think Jayber Crow, the narrator of Wendell Berry’s great novel, understands us. As a young man, he thought he was going to become a pastor, but as he grew older (and wiser) he understood he was called to be a barber in Port William, Kentucky, the smallest dot on the map. Looking back on his days, here’s how he put it:

That is to say that I know I’ve been lucky. Beyond that, the question is if I have not been also blessed, as I believe I have—and beyond that, even called. Surely I was called to be, for one thing, a barber…in spite of my intentions to the contrary.

Now I have had, most of the life I am going to have, and I can see what it has been. I can remember those early years when it seemed to me I was completely adrift, and times when, looking back at earlier times, it seemed I had been wandering in the dark woods of error. But now it looks to me as though I was following a path that was laid out for me, unbroken, and maybe even as straight as possible, from one end to the other, and I have this feeling, which never leaves me anymore, that I have been led. I will leave you to judge the truth of that for yourself; as Dr. Ardmire and I agreed, there is no proof.

In the moment, when Jayber was a young man, going to school, then traveling, it seemed like he was “wandering in the dark woods of error.” But as an old man, he now has the feeling “which never leaves me anymore” that he was being led, that the wandering path may have actually been the straightest path laid out for him.

Who of us haven’t doubted whether we are on the right path? And who of us has had a perfectly linear path from college to success to the Heavenly City? Later in the book, here’s again how Jayber explains his journey:

If you could do it, I suppose, it would be a good idea to live your life in a straight line—starting in the Dark Wood of Error, and proceeding by logical steps through Hell and Purgatory into Heaven. Or you could take the King’s Highway past appropriately named dangers, toils, and snares, and finally cross the River of Death and enter the Celestial City. But that is not the way I have done it, so far. I am a pilgrim, but my pilgrimage has been wandering and unmarked.

(Did John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress only tell us half the truth? That we are indeed pilgrims, but life hardly ever feels like progress?)

Often what has looked like a straight line to me has been a circling or a doubling back. I have been in the Dark Wood of Error any number of times. I have known something of Hell, Purgatory, and Heaven, but not always in that order. The name of many snares and dangers have been made known to me, but I have seen them only in looking back. Often I have not known where I was going until I was already there.

I have had my share of desires and goals, but my life has come to me or I have gone to it mainly by way of mistakes and surprises. Often I have received better than I have deserved. Often my fairest hopes have rested on bad mistakes. I am an ignorant pilgrim, crossing a dark valley. And yet, for a long time, looking back, I have been unable to shake off the feeling that I have been led—make of that what you will. 

I think of my own journey, wandering and unmarked. A waiter at Popolano’s, a family restaurant in Valparaiso, Indiana, learning to balance trays and decorate desserts; a missionary in Latin America, which mostly meant trying to get people to teach me Spanish while crammed into a diesel spewing bus; teaching kids to play lacrosse in seminary (I have no idea how to play lacrosse); leading worship with eight Mexican teenagers at a church in northern Denver, while massacring the Spanish language; the failure of having almost worked at a high-paying, highly respected church in Minnesota – until they said it just wasn’t a good fit; sitting in an an admissions office at a tiny school in Littleton trying to learn what a sales funnel is, and wondering why I had spent three years getting studying biblical Greek, philosophical ethics, and “big idea” preaching.

Yet looking back, I too can’t shake the feeling off that I’ve been led. 

My pride while in graduate school was gargantuan – just ask any of my professors. (It now is merely enormous.) My skill set and experience was painfully narrow. I expected the world to be like PowerPoints and writing term papers – and I expected to be handsomely rewarded for getting good grades. My ability to listen to others was dormant, until I was led to a job selling private education, where 90% of the school tours I gave were simply listening to the honest hopes and fears of parents for their kids.

Pilgrim indeed.

How easy it is to forget that pilgrimage includes suffering. Yet in the suffering, the wandering, it may be that we are being led – shaped, formed, refined – for a purpose that we cannot fully see right now.

Perhaps those of us who desire a “call from God”should first open our hearts to God’s providence, God’s provision, and to simply trust that He is there and leading me right here and right now, in this less-than-ideal situation.

And perhaps like Jayber Crow, looking back on the journey, I might come to see that He’s been there all along. And on the journey, Often I have received better than I have deserved.

Photo Credit: Wendell Berry

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CultureWork

The World’s Best Outreach Strategy

 

How are we going to reach out to our culture?

It’s a common question in church world. Do we have a fall festival? Sponsor a 5k? Chili cook off? Day of service at the homeless shelter? Mission trip?

The idea seems to be this: We’re here…in church. They’re out there…in culture. We need to “reach out” to them. Hence, the myriad of “outreach” ministries in most American churches.

But the truth is that won’t don’t need to “reach out” to culture at all. We are already “out” there every single day.It’s called work! And not only are we – the laity – inculture, but we actually create culture every day.

A few weeks ago, I saw this firsthand. My first meeting for the day was at a Starbucks in downtown Denver. I met with Eric, who shared with me his  story. For his first job after college, he climbed cell phone towers. After more than a few frozen climbs in the air, he decided he needed a change. He thought for a while. Perhaps he would become a public school teacher – or maybe he should go to seminary. After a stint as a park ranger he applied for and got a job with an engineering firm, designing the physical structures that support electricity stations. It was job I had literally never thought about – and strained to understand! – before that morning.

At 9am I met with Grant. He shared with me his journey as a recently promoted accountant at a big four accounting firm. He spoke of both the enjoyment of helping companies show clear financial pictures of their firm, and the frustration of filing piles of documents for the SEC since the Enron scandal. We ended on mulling over his plan to pitch a work/life balance program to his HR department, noting that young accountants – who often work long, long hours – need this balance in the worst way.

I then had lunch with Abraham, a doctor at Denver Health in their psychiatry department. Abraham is an unbelievably brilliant and faithful catholic. He told me about attending medical school and in the process he got a masters in theology from Duke. He’s now a doctor and leads their psychiatry department, where he endeavors to live out his faith in a very secular field.

From there, I headed out for more coffee, this time with Mike, a brilliant musician. He now plays tympani for the Colorado Symphony. He shared of the incredibly difficult path of becoming a professional musician and how we once auditioned at a prestigious symphony in Canada where the conductor basically sabotaged his chances of being selected.

Then I met with Bradley, a fresh-out-of-college middle school English and History teacher. Sparkling with enthusiasm and in a masters program, he was just happy to be in his career.

And then I met with Susie, the bi-vocational pastor of Platt Park Church. We spoke about church, and her two other jobs: as a small business owner of a painting and wine business in Denver, and as rental property managers.

Keynote Address - Oct 28 Vision Event (Images).019

As I was driving away from that appointment, and I thought about  meeting with an engineer, accountant, doctor, teacher, musician, pastor and small business owner, I had a profound aha! moment. Work is where culture is made. 

I spent a day listening not just to their human stories – of triumph, failure, hope, disappointment, and meaning – but to a microcosm of human civilization in 21st century America. Here, I thought, is culture! And here it is made by human beings every single day.

Andy Crouch and Ken Myers have a pithy definition of culture: it’s what we make of the world – in both senses of the word. It’s both the meaning we make and thethings we make. So, for example, on I225 on my way to Colorado Community Church (my home church), there is a beautiful new overpass bridge that will connect the new light rail system. Why create such a huge, costly yet beautiful piece of transportation in the sky? It’s because we value connectedness and ease of access. That is, wemake something (a bridge) because of a value (connectedness). The engineers, contractors, and laborers who made that bridge created a piece of Colorado culture.

So what? Every single weekday any one local church is scattered throughout the city – and creating products and services driven by certain values. This is culture making. And the irony is that so many Christians wish they could be in church or working for a Christian nonprofit which is seen as “meaningful” work! The edifice of the modern world is made through their decisions! And yet we often fail to see the opportunity to not just be “in” culture but to actually shape culture through our work as engineers, accountants, doctors, teachers, musicians, or small business owners.

The question is not if we’ll be involved in culture, but how?  Will we do it thoughtfully or thoughtlessly? Intentionally or under the tyranny of the urgent? To advance common good or our only our own good? Engaged emotionally or disengaged and bored? Caring for weak and marginalized in society or using them to get ahead? In line with God’s kingdom or the kingdom of the world?

When we ignore work, we ignore the part of culture we actually touch every day. But if we engage work, we engage culture. Here’s where the world is made – for better or for worse.

This post first appeared on www.denverinstitute.org

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CulturePolitics

Interview with Michael Lindsay

 

As I sat down for lunch at The Broadmoor, a historic, five-star resort in Colorado Springs, it quickly became clear I was among the elite. White linen table clothes, waiters in black ties, and a view of the rolling green golf course nestled at the foot of the Rockies. I was glad, then, when Michael Lindsay, the President of Gordon College, joined me. His wide smile, gracious disposition and articulate brilliance exuded confidence and calmed my middle class nerves. He had been among the powerful before.

In 2008, Lindsay published his Pulitzer-nominated Faith in the Halls of Power, an unprecedented look at influential evangelicals from Washington DC to Wall Street. His latest book, View from the Top (Wiley, 2014), is the result of a 10 year study of “Platinum Leaders,” 550 elite politicians, CEOs and nonprofit executives who hold many of the most significant positions of leadership in the world. Over lunch we had the chance to discuss the White House Fellows, a liberal arts view of life, the power of elite networks, influence through institutions, the perspective of top-level leaders, and why he wants more Christians in positions of power.

Michael Lindsay and Jeff Haanen

An edited version of this interview was published recently in Christianity Today. Here is the uncut, unedited version of the June 2, 2014 interview in its entirety. It includes all the original details and my candid responses to Michael’s findings in View From the Top. 

It’s longer than your typical blog post, but Michael offers a deeply insightful look into the highest levels of global leadership. It was a conversation I won’t soon forget.

Let’s talk about institutions. I think most Americans are very skeptical of large institutions, but the leaders you found in View from the Top are drawn to institutional leadership. Why?

It’s the locus of power in our culture.  I started out thinking that individuals would have a lot of say. The way in which I went about my data was focusing on individuals. I got about two-thirds of the way through and I thought, “These people sit at the top of institutions. And that’s were there’s power. That’s how things get done.” You can see that within the private sector. You can see it in nonprofits. And you can certainly see it in government. It became a way in which I could understand what was taking place. Institutions matter significantly.

It’s interesting. The current generation of college students have a love-hate relationship with institutions. They hate bureaucracy, and they hate the machinations of big organizations. But they are real builders. They believe in starting things, and they want to build them up to make a real difference.

So, one of the hopes of the books is to help them to see [that] if you really want to make a difference long-term, you have to be connected to an institution.

One of your chapters is entitled, “Act Institutionally, Think Personally,” but I think many personality-driven churches and para-church organizations are really quite the opposite. We think about the celebrity at the head but rarely think about the institution itself. What can evangelicals do to change that bias?

Here’s one way to process this. Max Weber describes it as the routinization of charisma. Weber has this theory about different forms of authority.

Traditional authority, which is what the Queen of England has. You inherit it from your parents. Rational-legal authority, which is the authority President Obama has, which is, you’re on top of a major bureaucracy and that’s how you get things done. And charismatic authority. This is the authority that Billy Graham had, for a while. It’s the authority that Jesus had for a while. It’s the authority that gathers and collects around an outstanding individual, a persona.

But in order for that person to have lasting impact, Weber says, it has to be routinized. It has to be transferred from the authority of a charismatic individual, and has to be transferred into a rational-legal bureaucracy. So, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association is a great example of the routinization of charisma. After Billy Graham is gone, you’re going to still have his ministry continue. Chuck Colson died two years ago. Much of the work of Charles Colson is continuing on in Prison Fellowship even though the founder is no longer there.

So, while it is true that evangelicalism does prize the personality, and there is a cult of celebrity in the church, what we are witnessing is evangelicals coming to appreciate the importance and the primacy of institutions.

Let’s think about leadership. You found almost all the leaders in View From the Top had a “leadership catalyst” experience. For many of them, it was a program called the White House Fellows. You’ve studied other leadership programs. What was the key to the White House Fellows that set it apart from the rest?

They did four things very, very well. I studied this deeply because I care about developing leaders at Gordon. One, it uses a cohort approach. Most of the research today will show that leadership development works the best in group settings. Leadership is as much caught as it is taught. So that’s very important.

Second, they were given substantive work assignments. If you have a program for leadership development, but there’s no real work assignment, it lacks the teeth, it lacks responsibility and accountability and the feedback loop that’s really important. So you don’t really know if you’ve done it or not.

Third is the importance of a broadening education. So, you have to expose emerging leaders to senior leaders. They have to be able to rub shoulders, get to know them up close. And those senior leaders also have to be willing to speak honestly and off the record. So it’s really important that you not just bring in talking heads but that you also find people who can be real.

The fourth element that the White House Fellows program does well, that other effective leadership development programs do well, is public recognition. So you have to be able to say, “These are really special people.” And we’re singling them out to say that they are worth our investment of time and energy.

Those are four things I’ve found that make a huge difference.

Is that what the Presidential Fellows program at Gordon College looks like?

Yes, the Gordon Presidential Fellows program is exactly modeled on that. So, we take a competitive group of students that come from all different majors, all different backgrounds, and we choose a cohort of 10 students. They have the chance to work directly with one cabinet officer. I require them to literally sit in the office of the cabinet officer. Each cabinet office has a little conference table in their office. That’s where the student works. The idea is that they will pick up on things, even when they’re doing their own work.

So, the students I work with will hear me interview people, talk with donors on the telephone, think about strategy. All kinds of things. And then we’ll have a chance to debrief. And then I have lunch with my fellows usually on Saturdays. And so that’s an intentional strategy.

We bring to campus about ten guest speakers per year. And so we ask the speakers to meet with the Presidential Fellows over breakfast or lunch. And then we do give them public recognition. We often take them on travel with me or with the college. We single them out. They meet with the trustee. It’s clearly our top leadership cohort on campus.

Tell me about the difference you see between the evangelicals you interviewed in Faith in the Halls of Power and those in View From the Top. Did you see a difference between evangelicals and their non-believing counterparts?

So, 70% of the people in View From the Top are Christian.

Seventy percent?

Now, they are not all practicing Christians, and they’re not all serious about their faith. Faith in the Halls of Power drew a larger constituency of serious Christians. So if I compare the 70% of Christians in View from the Top with those who are not, then in general, Christians who I interviewed tended to be more grounded. They tended to be more oriented toward relationships in the workplace. They tended to be less frazzled with disappointment or failure occurs. Now, that’s not to say that’s true for everyone. I’m speaking in broad generalities.

In your book, you mentioned these leaders have a “liberal arts” view of life. How do average folks cultivate this generalist perspective in their work – a teacher, a mid-level manager. What does that look like for us?

It’s all about how we live our lives. It’s how we build certain practices in our lives. So, I find that you have to be intentional to develop that liberal arts approach to life. It doesn’t occur naturally because we tend to be in pretty homogenous groups. We tend to get the news from the circles of people that agree with us. We tend to not challenge ourselves.

So, the people in View From the Top, part of the reason they got to the top is that they had cultivated this liberal arts approach when they were 20. It’s generally not something you do when you’re 70. It’s something you develop.

Is this a reading diet? People you spend time with?

Yes, it’s about reading. Where do you get your information from? Do you have a regular practice of checking news sources that don’t align with your own philosophy? So, I tell my students one of the best things they can do is get a subscription to Christianity Today and The Economist. The Economist is really important. It’s different – you’re getting a more European-centered view of the world, not American centered. So, you’re able to get a broader vantage point.

I tell my liberal students they need to watch Fox News once a week. And I tell my conservative students they need to watch MSNBC once a week. You have to get to a place where you have a wider diet of input.

It also means cultivating a habit of attending lectures, being exposed to experiences that are different than their own vantage point.

One of the persons who most impressed me was this guy named John Mendelsohn who just stepped down as the head of the MD Anderson Cancer Center. He was a world class cancer researcher. Really a top flight scientist. When I was doing the interview, he was reading a book on the history of opera. What does the history of opera have anything to do with leading the world’s leading cancer center?

It’s so rare to find people like that.

But it’s not among these people! They develop a lifestyle that has that kind of breadth. They’re great conversationalists. They make connections. Now not everybody is reading about the history of opera. But they’re intentionally building practices in their life that give them a wide variety of experiences.

This is why the preaching of Tim Keller is so popular among these individuals. Because he’s so widely read. If you haven’t read classical literature since college, you can get snippets of it in Tim Keller’s preaching. And so, how do you get those kind of experiences? Those are the kind of things I’m interested in.

Tell me about the “leapfrog method.” In 2003-2004 you started interviewing prominent evangelical leaders, and in ten years, you were able to meet some of the most powerful leaders in the world. Tell me about how you were able to open up these networks over time.

In social science, the two methods for selecting informants in a study of elites is the reputational method, where somebody recommends an individual, or the positional method, which is to say, “I’m only going to talk to CEOs of Fortune 1000 companies and that’s it.”

The kind of research I was interested in doing was a little more textured than the pure positional method would allow. I was interested in the kind of data I’d get if I interviewed a former President of the United States or a former Cabinet Secretary who’s no longer in office. I was less interested in “What do you think about President Obama?” and more interested in how you get things done. So, you didn’t have to be an office holder for that to work. I decided I wanted to do a combination of those two approaches.

In middle of doing that, I realized I needed a networks-based approach. To get access to the really top level folks, you need somebody to say, “Hey, this guy is okay.” What I did at the early part of the process was I set up appointments with 100 early informants who then made recommendations of those at a much higher level. So, Rich Mouw, the President of Fuller Seminary, says, look, you need to go see Ralph Winter, who’s a Hollywood producer – very successful. I never would have gotten to Ralph if I would not have first talked with Rich.

So, the leapfrog method allowed me to jump over a number of different hurdles which allowed me to get there. But then I modified it slightly as I had some measure of success reaching people. I no longer needed somebody to help recommend someone. I needed a council of advisors who could help me say, “There are all these CEOs you could go interview, but you really need to go and figure out who’s most strategic,” and give me some help. So I built a board of advisors.

Networks. This is obviously a big reason why people got to the top. But I could see people misconstruing this and think, “The way I get to the top is to know the right people and that way I can climb the ladder.” It feels like people, then, become almost instrumental. They have value only because we can use them. I wonder, how do we avoid this temptation as people of Christian faith?

I’m absolutely persuaded that for evangelicals to have influence, they must be in the room when decisions are made. You must. And I can point to countless examples of how individuals at a particular moment are in the room and are able to change history.

One example I think I used in the book is Condoleezza Rice’s story. She was in the room when the decision about PEPFAR [President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief] was made. Condoleezza Rice was serving as National Security Advisor. There were two big camps. The compassionate conservative crowd, which is some of the evangelical network: Michael Gerson, Karen Hughes, that kind of crowd. Then there was the Neo-Con crowd: Don Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney. Condoleezza Rice was one of the few individuals who straddled both of those worlds.

There had been a conversation that had been going for about a year, where the President’s compassionate conservative agenda is being put to the test. What if the US government made an amazing commitment to address the AIDS pandemic is Sub-saharan Africa by making an allocation of $15 billion of US aid to extend the life of AIDS patients?

There were having the final meeting. It was called the principals meeting with about 15 folks in the oval office. So they turn to Condoleezza Rice to give her speech. Basically they’re asking, “Is this a good use of money just to extend lives for $15 billion?” She tells the story of how her mother, who battled cancer, was able to have her life extended for about 15 years from the moment she was diagnosed until the moment she died. During that time, Condoleezza Rice went to high school, went to the University of Denver, decided to change her passion from being a concert pianist to being an expert in the Soviet Union, earned a degree from Notre Dame, got a teaching job, and was well on her way at Stanford University. And Rice said, “It changed my life that my mother was able to be involved in that 15 years. If we can do that for an entire continent, and don’t do it, it’s a moral failure.”  That one moment swayed human history in a significant way.

In order for evangelicals to have influence on key decisions that affect millions of people, you have to be in the room. Elite networks matter.

The difference, however, is that the gospel compels us to not live our lives to curry the favor of those in authority. Jesus is clearly not spending his ministry trying to get the Roman authorities to believe his position. And yet, not once does he curse the Roman authorities. The harshest thing he says about Rome is “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, and unto God what is God’s.” That is certainly not a condemnation, and his disciples were begging him to condemn Rome. Just begging him, and he never does.

Why? Jesus recognizes that a lot of good can come when people committed to God are in positions of responsibility. What we have missed in the evangelical community over the last ten years is an insight that a social thinker named J.P. Nettl has advocated. He says social movements are akin to stalactite rock formations, which come from the top down, and stalagmite rock formations, which come from the bottom up. The column is most powerful, he says, when those formations meet. If we want cultural change, we have to attend to both grassroots movements as well as top down efforts.

What would that look like for evangelicals? What would it look like to build the top-down structure, since we’ve historically worked with the poor and weak? Does this mean seeking more positions of authority?

Think about the mobilization of concern we’ve seen for international justice in the last 15 years. It’s a wonderful example of how an organization like IJM has engaged policy makers, folks at very high levels. So, Gary Haugen speaks literally at Davos. That is where the world’s power elite exist. Gary is not repudiating it. Gary’s actually speaking there. He wants to be a part of it. It makes a real difference. At the same time, Gary is trying to get college students, who are really far from Davos, interested in international justice. They’re doing things in the local churches.

That’s a great example of how you can engage both top-down and bottom-up and can actually work a coordinated effort that can make a lasting impact.

Let’s change the pace a bit. I think many Americans see leaders at the top and they seem incredibly disconnected from the rest of us. True or not? If so, what should change?

It’s both true and false. It’s true in that there is a plurality, not a majority, who lead gilded lives, far removed from the everyday concerns of ordinary people.

But the people who are in these positions don’t stay there their whole lives. They don’t even stay there for 10 years. They move out. So the people who are in very powerful positions in the White House are at most in those powerful positions for 10 years. They don’t have a life that is so disconnected from everyday experiences forever.

So they have opportunities to reconnect. But when they’re in the top seat?

When they’re in the top seat, it’s very hard. It’s hard to know what’s happening in your organization much less what’s going on outside your organization.

You see our current political discourse, and I would say it’s become nearly sport for both conservatives and liberals to cast “the elite” onto the rocks. 

Even though they’re both the elite!

Yeah, ironic. What would you say to that mentality, that pent up frustration against elites that I think permeates much of our public discourse? What would you say to those who are just watching the news, and joining in to say, “Yes, it’s their fault”?

The moment of the greatest cultural angst against elites occurred in the wake of the financial meltdown, where certain industries, like finance, seemed to be above the fray, and not really experiencing the country’s challenges. I will say, it is difficult when you are making an unbelievable amount of money to stay grounded. It’s really hard.

The people that really impressed me were the people who had willingly given up compensation they had come into because it was a way that they practiced generosity. But it was also a way in which they could bridle ambition, consumerism, and all the things I think we need to be attentive to for those who have power and privilege.

So it is unjustified that these few thousand people who have an enormous amount of influence on our culture and on the world? It is unjustified that there be such a frustration? Does the average guy voting really have any influence on, for example, the making of policy? 

There’s a guy named Robert Michels who studied what everybody believed was the most democratic of all forms of social organization: socialist political parties in early 20th century in Europe. If anybody is going to have an egalitarian ethos, where nobody is above anybody else, it’s this group. He went into that expecting to find justification for this belief.

His most famous concept is the Iron Law of Oligarchy, which is to say, at the moment a group begins to organize, an oligarchy forms. In order to get things done, you are always going to have a small group of people with disproportionate privilege and power. It is how we work together in public life.

The reason I care deeply about having more serious Christians in positions of responsibility is because there are very few world views that preach a gospel of self-sacrifice, and none that are built around the very concept of self-sacrifice, like the Christian gospel.

The antidote to the pernicious effects of power is giving up power. It is sacrifice. Why, then, would we not want more people who believe in that, and that say these are their values? Why would we not want more people like that setting the example in the upper reaches of society?

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Culture

Three Lessons for Evangelical Leaders

Ross Douthat’s Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics won Christianity Today’s 2013 “Best Book of the Year” award in “Christianity and Culture” for a reason. Check out this stunning quote, pasted on the back of the Fall 2013 Issue of Comment Magazine:

“This turn boded ill for Evangelicalism’s long-term future, because although the ‘para’ groups were immensely successful at religious mobilization, they weren’t as effective at sustaining commitment across a life span or across generations.

“They were institutions for an anti-institutional faith, you might say, which meant that they were organized around personalities and causes and rarely created the sense of comprehensive, intergenerational community…You couldn’t spend your whole life in Campus Crusade for Christ, or raise your daughters as a Promise Keeper, or count on groups like the Moral Majority of the Christian Coalition to sustain your belief system beyond the next election cycle.

“For that kind of staying power, you needed a confessional tradition, a church, an institution capable of outlasting its charismatic founders.”

As one who’s now launching another one of those ‘para-church groups,’ this quote  struck a chord. Some immediate takeaways for me – and maybe for you if you’re a part of Evangelicalism:

(1) Build inter-generational (and intercultural) partnership into your organization. The powerful para-church movements of the 20th century were great at reaching college students, political interest groups, or middle-aged men, but not at building deep partnerships between generations and cultures. Woe to us if we don’t intentionally create teams of leaders who are different from us! Double the woe if we serve our narrow market niche and consign ourselves to yet another “tribe” in social media land – while ignoring the rich diversity of Christ’s body.

(2) Quit building movements and organizations around charismatic leaders. I don’t think this is the intention of ministry leaders, but it’s what happens when we’re not more institutionally-minded. It happens when we build great conferences, praise great speakers, and publish great books, but neglect the time-consuming work of crafting policies, habits and practices that are intended to outlive their founder. Please, serve the vision, serve the organization, serve the ideal – but let our leaders become servants who become less while others become greater.

(3) Love the church. Go to church. Serve the church. Attend the church. Give to the church. Pray for the church. Quit criticizing the church. Join a church. And remember, when companies, non-profits, and even states pass away and are long forgotten, the Church will still be there. And oh yeah, if you’re in business or a non-profit, listen to the leaders of the church.  The stewards of the mysteries of Christ may just surprise you.

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Culture

Six Tragedies of Modern Public Life

It can be rather easy to lose one’s way. This afternoon I was working on the “shape” of our vocation groups for Denver Institute, and I almost got completely lost in the details. Tonight, I sat down at my desk, opened my notebook, and read some personal notes from 2012. I found notes on “six tragedies of modern public life” that led to the advent of this new organization.

Six Tragedies of Modern Public Life

  1. Work is isolating. Long hours, artificial online relationships, and high demands are not the only reasons for isolation. Many are caught spending their days in a deeply dualistic mindset, serving God on Sunday and other gods Monday-Saturday. Isolated from other co-sojourners and even isolated from some kind of overarching reason for work apart from mere survival, it’s no wonder Thoreau said, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation.”
  2. Cities are almost wholly organized on secular assumptions. The Enlightenment notion that what can be proven scientifically belongs in public, and morals and religion belong in private, still prevails. To bring your Christian faith to bear on just understanding your field alone is often seen as inappropriate. Just flip on the evening news or read the newspaper, and you’ll see how desperately true this is.O Of course, this doesn’t mean everyone’s an atheist. Far from it. The gods are everywhere; some are just less accepted than others.
  3. Faith has been systematically privatized. Francis Schaeffer saw it when he explained the “upper story” of facts (science, public) and the lower story of values (religion & humanities, private). Bonhoeffer saw it from a prison cell and lamented “God is being pushed further and further out of our life, losing ground.” Lesslie Newbigin saw it when he returned from India in the late 1970s, and saw a civilization in Britain that had lost all sense of public purpose. Today, social analysts like Charles Murray, author of Coming Apart, can even see the widespread loss of traditional values among the working class. “Religion” is an ever narrowing category.
  4. Public witness to the Christian faith has been almost completely dominated by politics in the past 50 years. James Davison Hunter saw this with adroit clarity in To Change the World; I personally keep my distance from both the Christian Right and Left, both whom I believe have been co-opted by worldly ideologies on some issues, and align with God’s purposes on others. Nonetheless, the notion that seeking political power can change culture has worn itself out, yet those in the public world who hear the word “evangelical” cannot think of us as anything other than a voting bloc.
  5. Many churches have willingly retreated into the private sphere. We indeed should care about personal morality – what we do in the home and in private. But so many can see no systemic powers at work that shape human life. If Jesus is Lord of the universe, and his gospel is public truth for all to see, then should it not be brought to bear on all areas of life? Perhaps, as David Van Drunen points out, this job belongs to the organic church (the church scattered throughout the week), and not the institutional church (the place you go on Sundays). But nonetheless, do systems, structures and institutions not matter for living faithfully for Christ today? If they do matter, then who is intentionally equipping those to make public witness to the gospel through where they actually live “in public” each day – at work?
  6. There’s no genuine pluralism. Most would disagree with me on this. After all, we live in a highly pluralistic society made up from people of every religion and ethnic background. But religious reasons for taking certain actions have been nearly eradicated from our shared vocabulary. Just imagine the blow back a politician would get today (in most districts) if she quoted a Bible verse as justification for voting for a bill? Just imagine what would happen if a Christian teacher in a public school taught that just as there are two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom in every water molecule, so, as verifiable history, Jesus has been resurrected from the dead? Those are grounds for a pink slip…and evidence that some views are accepted in public, and some systematically condemned.

As I was jotting notes in late 2012, I did not stop with just these tragedies. I also wrote five overarching goals for an organization that could address these problems. These five goals are the topic of my next blog post.

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Culture

Cities, Burbs, and Metro Regions

A few days ago I received an email from my good friend Dave Strunk. He referred me to an “excoriating” review of Why Cities Matter written by blogger Keith Miller.  Since I recently reviewed the book for Christianity Today, and Mr. Miller and I rather different focal points for our reviews, let me respond to his critique.

Argument: Mr. Miller points out a central weaknesses of Why Cities Matter: the slippery definition of the word “city.” In Keller’s introduction to the book, Miller deduces that Keller uses the word “city” to mean at least three things:

1. “The Top 100 City”—a metro area at least as populous as Wichita, Kansas;

2. “The Not-Rural Farmland City”—everything with a greater density than homestead farming;

3. “The Urban Center City”—places like Manhattan.”

He draws this conclusion from Keller’s use of a Gallup pole and a UN statistic claiming “180,000 people move into cities each day.” Um and Buzzard switch between these slippery definitions throughout the book, at times referring to a major urban center like Los Angeles, and at other times referring implicitly to small towns that are not rural.

Response: Good critique. Miller is right to point out “sloppiness” here. There needs to be a standard way for evangelicals (and others) to talk about “cities.” It may be a pipe dream to think we could agree on such a thing, but the authors should at least lay out their own view and stay consistent.

Argument: Um and Buzzard are extremely liberal with the word “city” in the biblical review. Jesus was born in the “city”, say Um and Buzzard, but Miller points out Bethlehem had a population of 300-1000 at the time Jesus was born. He also critiques their claim that the Garden of Eden “may well have had buildings,” among other exegetically fanciful moves to find “cities” throughout the Bible.

Response: Again, this critique is also fairly well founded. In an earlier draft of my review, I pointed out that Um and Buzzard seem to substitute the word “city” for nearly any kind of human community, from Bethlehem to Babylon to the Church. Comparing the modern city to ancient settlements of nearly all sizes is problematic – to the point of needing correcting. Again, well said.

I would argue, however, that the Bible does have significant things to say about urban centers – particularly large ones. From Babel to Babylon, and Eden to the New Jerusalem, it’s no coincidence that cities take on either heavenly or hellish characteristics in the biblical narrative. Precise definitions are needed, surely. But a gloss of his own over the importance of cities in the Bible does us no favors either. Dense groups of people are uniquely important in the Bible as today.

Argument: One of Miller’s final critiques is that Buzzard defines Silicon Valley as a “city.” He points out that it is actually a suburban sprawl, and that Buzzard’s own church moved from an urban center in downtown San Jose to an area that looks a lot like a suburb in Santa Clara.

 Response: If the critique here is primarily of defining Silicon Valley as a “city” – that is mixed use space and “denseness” and “proximity”, an idea that Um and Buzzard borrow from Keller – then good. Buzzard is perhaps too in love with the idea of “cities” and wants to live in one even if he’s not in one.

But I’m inclined to push back against Mr. Miller. If city can also mean “center of regional influence,” then Silicon Valley certainly qualifies. It’s hard to imagine a more culturally influential suburb than the tech hub of the world (Um and Buzzard are right here).  And perhaps this leads us to a closer definition of what we mean by city.  After all, the plainest definition of “city” is: “a large or important town.” By that standard, which is more of a “city”: San Jose or Silicon Valley?

Final Thoughts: Mr. Miller’s critique of their sloppy use of the word “city” is right on, both as applied to the ancient world and the modern world.  We need to draw the line better.

But, unfortunately, Mr. Miller skipped over nearly all the valuable pieces. First, cities are growing, both in size and clout. As Richard Florida points out, the lines between suburbs and cities may be dissolving, but “mega-regions” are growing, attract a disproportionate number of talented, creative people, and churn out far more economic output than in past generations.

Second, Um and Buzzard have valuable things to say on both how the characteristics of cities as well as how they work; concepts, for example, like “connective diversity” and “clustered diversity” are helpful for non-urbanologists trying to understand urban areas.

Third, their ministry applications are helpful. They counsel readers to try to understand a city’s storyline through five questions. We may squabble over the definition of a city, but “large or important towns” certainly take on unique characters over time. I’m from the Denver area, and its focus on outdoors and adventure is crucial to understand for pastors. Cities have “gods”, and they must be understood if they are to be confronted. It’s hard to say that where I live, Littleton, exerts anywhere near the influence of Denver.

If it makes Mr. Miller feel better, perhaps we can substitute the word “city” for “metro area” and be rid of the whole argument.

But don’t listen to me. I live in a suburb. But then again, Mr. Miller lives in Hillsdale, Michigan: population 8,278.

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CultureTechnology

Questioning the local gods

 

I wonder if each city has its own god.

The idea was rather common in the ancient world. Many first century Jews believed demons ruled entire cities. Pagans too believed in local deities. In Ephesus, the mother goddess Artemis ruled supreme. When she was challenged, it was seen as a challenge to the well-being of the city (Acts 19:26-28).

But local gods reigning over a city? Surely we’ve grown out of such myths, haven’t we?

Two weeks ago it snowed in Denver. The forecasters predicted 8-12 inches (which turned out to be a drastically generous estimation). High winds, close to no visibility. Stores were closing; churches canceled services. Stay home. It’s the obvious choice. But many Denverites did the opposite. SUVs were warmed up, skiis and snowboards were strapped to the top rack, and true Coloradoans braved the weather to shred some fresh powder, blizzard and all. The mountains called. And we answered – dutifully, faithfully, bravely.

It’s no secret that Denver is a city defined by the Rocky Mountains. Our culture has been defined by the outdoors. Everybody does triathlons here. Even me. Biking, camping, skiiing, running. I even have friends who do the “Tough Mudder” – a romp through the mud to show your Spartan spirit. Our 300 days of sun a year shape more than our interests. They shape our very being.

Several friends and I speculate about the culture of Colorado. What is ultimate to these people? The earth? That would be Boulder. The individual? We certainly are a state of cowboys. But what, or who, really reigns here? The purple mountains majesty, of course. We live for recreation – for the weekend.

How does this influence our view of work? Everybody moves to New York to work. But nobody moves to Denver to work; they move here to play. Yes, put in your hours, but ultimately its about finding a villa, a latte, and a black diamond run with some fresh snow.

But how can we determine if something good (ie God’s creation) has become something ultimate? The best definition of a god I’ve found comes from philosopher Neil Postman. In his book The End of Education, he points out how easily teachers are swayed by the “god of Technology.”

“At some point it becomes far from asinine to speak of the god of Technology – in the sense that people believe technology works, that they rely on it, that it makes promises, that they are bereft when denied access to it , that they are delighted when they are in its presence, that for most people it works in mysterious ways, that they condemn people who speak against it, that they stand in awe of it, and that, in the born-again mode, they will alter their lifestyles, their schedules, their habits and their relationships to accommodate it. If this is not a form of religious belief, what is?”

Postman is not only writing for Silicon Valley here. In Denver, to what extent do we rely on nature, stand in awe of it, condemn those who speak against it, marvel in its presence, and alter our “lifestyles, schedules, habits and relationships to accommodate it?” When church planters come to Denver, they learn quickly that they start services on Sunday night, not Sunday morning, because that’s when Denverites return from the mountains.

Questioning loyalty to the local gods is awfully unpopular. Easier to work around them. Far easier yet to believe that we’ve grown out of silly, ancient myths of gods ruling over entire cities.

Discussion question: What are the gods of your city?

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