Archives For individualism


“It’s important to note first of all that the right of self-defense is rooted in the teaching of Jesus himself. He once told his disciples that he would be “numbered with the transgressors,” and that as a result their own lives could be endangered because of their association with him. He therefore counseled them, “Let the one who has no sword sell his cloak and buy one” (Luke 22:36). You can’t get more legitimacy than that. A legal principle rooted in the teaching of Christ is pretty tough to beat.”

Bryan Fischer, Director of Issues Analysis for the American Family Association,”When America HAD to Pack Heat to Church” 1

In the week since the tragic shootings in Oregon and Connecticut, there has been a lot of talk about violence in entertainment, access to mental health care, gun control, and other things that might be “part of the problem.” As we seek to find solutions that will make it increasingly difficult for these kinds of tragedies to be repeated, I’ve noticed Christians on all sides of these complex issues are turning to the Bible to find support for their particular point of view. Unfortunately, much of what I’m reading online and overhearing in conversation is little more than folk theology 2, which may make the conflicted individual feel better, but has little to do with trying to faithfully interpret the Bible and apply it in our context today.

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  2. I take this term from Stanley Grenz and Roger Olson’s excellent work, Who Needs Theology?: An Invitation to the Study of God. In it they define folk theology as “a kind of theology that rejects critical reflection and enthusiastically embraces simplistic acceptance of an informal tradition of beliefs and practices composed mainly of cliches and legends. . . . Folk theology is often intensely experiential and pragmatic–that is, the criteria of true belief are feelings and results” (Grenz and Olson, Who Needs Theology?, 27).

My ministry context revolves around those who, by and large, have sold out to the quest for the “American Dream.” Consumerism and materialism are matters of course, so embedded within the culture they are barely noticed by those who have lived here for any length of time.

Material poverty is relatively low (and well-hidden) yet poverty of time is high. Schedules are packed with work and “play,” both of which attempt to further or reflect the “dream.” As a result, financial margin is low. Many households are living on the brink personal financial collapse. Continue Reading…

A fish swims in the sea,
while the sea is in a certain sense
contained within the fish!
Oh, what am I to think
of what the writing of a thousand lifetimes
could not explain
if all the forest trees were pens
and all the oceans ink?
– from “The Dryness & The Rain” by mewithoutYou off of the album Brother, Sister

The Dryness & The Rain by Mewithoutyou
Listen on Posterous

I’ve flown through the first half of Margaret Wheatley’s Leadership and the New Science. In it the author is making a case for revisiting the way that we view organizations and structures, especially in light of new scientific advances. She asserts that we have been using outdated scientific metaphors that are causing more frustration that clarity (locs. 506 & 630). If we are to continue to draw metaphors from the scientific community, we should update those metaphors to include the discoveries and advances since the time of Sir Isaac Newton.
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In "You Know What Hope Is?" and "Upon Further Reflection…," I reacted to the first half of Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter's The Rebel Sell (I read the American edition which has been retitled Nation of Rebels). In that portion of the book, the authors set out their argument for what is wrong with countercultural rebellion in a capitalistic society: it doesn't work. Instead of subverting "the system," it offers new ways for the markets to, well, capitalize on what is "cool." Far from changing the system, countercultural rebellion often ends up providing more fuel for the capitalist fire.

Heath and Potter find great irony in this. By creating subcultures that attempt to distinguish themselves from mass society, rebels are asserting that they have a positional good (coolness) that everyone else doesn't have. Everyone else then wants this new coolness. Entrepreneurs take note and devise profitable ways to provide everyone with what they want. Then, when everyone has it, it's no longer unique or wanted. Whether it is a house in the country, a condo in the city, a BMW, and advanced degree (yikes!), once it is accessible to the majority its ability to confer status and serve as a marker of individualism is used up, never to return. "Rebellion is not a threat to the system, it is the system" (175).

In the second half of the book, the authors turn toward what they think should be done. People need to come to peace with homogeneity and we need to use the political processes of representative governments to regulate and enforce global solutions to our world's most pressing problems (they spend time talking about environmental problems and solutions at length). Homogeneity, they argue, is not necessarily a bad thing, nor is it the same as the conformity that individuals fear of mass society.

What's wrong with homogenization in the first place? If people voluntarily choose to live in similar houses and participate in similar activities, then who are we to criticize them? As long as it's what they really want to do, the it's very difficult to make the case against it. . . . Homogeneity is only really a problem when it is the product of coercion rather that choice – when people are either penalized for a failure to comply or tricked and cajoled into doing something they don't really want to do. (pp. 226-227)

And, later, regarding the "tendency toward homogenization" they write, "In many cases it is not obvious that we can do anything about it; in many more cases, it is not obvious that we should do anything about it (p. 248, emphasis theirs).  Regarding the way forward, they write, "What our society needs is more rules, not fewer" (p. 320, emphasis theirs) and that these rules are "in the end, coercively imposed" (p. 323). The quest is for "global capitalism" (p. 333) which can be found by "searching high and low for market failures and, when we find them, thinking creatively about how they can be resolved" (ibid.). But they caution against unregulated markets: "the state will always be the most important player, simply because it is the agency that defines and enforces the basic set of property rights that creates the market in the first place" (p. 334-335, emphasis theirs).

For all their hope in the state's power to solve numerous collective action problems and the market's ability to provide enough things to placate the masses, they close the book by admitting that the individual still has a significant amount of power in how this all shakes out:

All of this will involve further restrictions of individual liberty. Yet so long as individuals are willing to give up their own liberty in return for a guarantee that others will do the same, there is nothing wrong with this. In the end, civilization is built upon our willingness to accept rules and to curtail the pursuit of our individual interest out of deference to the needs and interests of others.

So, on some level it does come back to individuals. And individuals have identities that are both externally and internally defined. So, while I agree in principle that larger entities like the state and the market need to play a role in any societal change, the effectiveness of those entities is determined, in large part, by the cumulative strength of the individual affiliations of their major players. James Davison Hunter refers to these players as "elites." 

I want to focus in on a single paragraph, a fleeting thought, that I think offers more toward a way forward than the authors realize. On page 214, in a discussion on free will and the predictability of any given individual, they write,

Oddly enough, being predictable is the very essence of what it is to have an identity. The philosopher Daniel Dennett calls identities "centers of narrative gravity," and it is a perfect description. just as a center of gravity is an abstraction we use for unifying and predicting the behavior of a certain collection of matter, so an identity is an abstraction we us to organize and predict the behavior of individuals.

When Hunter talks about "faithful presence," he's imagining communities of people who are oriented around a shared "center of narrative gravity." Christians often talk of the Biblical story, and some might even drop the term "metanarrative" at a party every now and then. Yet knowing a story, even knowing one's place in a story, isn't the same has having that story as your center of narrative gravity.*

Communities of faithful presence must have Christ's depiction of the Kingdom of God, of shalom, as their center of narrative gravity. Their eschatology should determine their eccleciology (yes, some of you will disagree and want to reorder those or add in other "ologies"). A clear understanding of the end best dictates how life should be lived now. Job didn't know how thing would end for him. He didn't know he'd get it all back and more. Yet he remained a faithful presence in the midst of suffering. We do know how Job's story ended, and the rest of scripture points to the same end for the faithful: we get it all back (ex: Matt. 19:16-30). That is our narrative. Where's our center of gravity?

*For the record, I realize I am misappropriating Dennett's concept of "centers of narrative gravity," which he uses to postulate that our brains create webs of meaning by editing sensory experiences. The result only seems to be a narrative stream. Read more here. I still think that the phrase can be a helpful one in furthering the discussion of how we might form communities of faithful presence.

EDIT: The original title of this post was “You Won’t Change the World, pt. 1” and was changed after the church I worked for at the time took umbridge with that phrasing. Their mission statement was “Gather the People. Tell the Stories. Change the World.”

This is the first in a series of posts interacting with James Davison Hunter’s To Change the World. These posts are part of a larger discussion on Hunter’s work that is happening in the Global Missional Leadership cohort of George Fox University’s Doctor of Ministry program (the title of the program was changed to Leadership in Global Perspectives after this post was originally published). You can join in the discussion at (now and by using the #dmingml (now #dminlgp) tag in your tweets and facebook status updates. I should note that all citations of Hunter’s book will make reference to a Kindle location, not a page number, by using the format “loc. #”.

Hunter’s book To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World promises to be one of the year’s most important books for anyone interested in how culture change happens. In three “essays” Hunter takes on the fallacies inherent in the notion that Christian idealism is the way to change culture. For an excellent review of the book, see James K. A. Smith’s post “How (Not) to Change the World” at

In the first essay, “Christianity and World Changing”, Hunter lays out the fatal flaw in the aims of Christian organizations who make the claim that they exist to change the culture or transform the world. Almost without exception the strategy of organizations, whether church or parachurch in nature, for culture change begins with changing the “hearts and minds” individuals. This is based off an assumption that sweeping cultural change can happen if only one can first get people to believe rightly.

Hunter refers to this as the “apparent problem” upon which these organizations base their strategies. He sums up their thinking this way:

The apparent problem, in brief, is two-fold: First, Christians aren’t just Christian enough. Christians don’t think with an adequate enough worldview, Christians are fuzzy minded, Christians don’t pray hard enough, and Christians are generally lazy toward their duties as believers. By the same token, there are not enough people who actually do fully embrace God’s call on their lives, praying, understanding, and working to change the world. (loc. 340)

The problem with this “problem” is that it is grounded in a Hegelian-informed idealism, clothed with individualism, and trimmed with a Nietzsche-esque will to power understanding of how change can and should happen (see loc. 353 and 365). In short, if anyone just believes rightly and sets his or her mind to changing the way things are into the way things ought to be, then the world will be quickly (James Dobson, for example, is fond of saying that culture can be changed in just one generation) and drastically changed. Hunter asserts that this is a misappropriation of individual agency, “implying the capacity to bring about influence where that capacity may not exist or where it may only be weak” (loc. 375).

I see this happening in the church by the way we choose which stories to tell – biblical or otherwise. When talking about culture change from the pulpit, pastors are quick to use Nehemiah, Esther, David, or Moses as examples of how through one person drastic change was brought about. There’s no denying that these (and many other) biblical characters were agents of cultural change.

However, what is too often extrapolated from these stories is that each one of us is a Nehemiah, an Esther, a David, or a Moses, and that if we are not having the kind of impact on our culture as they had on theirs it is because we are not acting responsibly enough or believing rightly enough. The assumption is that there is a latent power to drastically change the world lying dormant within each of us, trying to break free if only we would get our acts together and let it out.

The problem with that application is two-fold. First, it ignores the empowerment of the Spirit of God in those biblical heroes. These were men and women singled out by God as his agents of change. They were not successful in changing culture because they unlocked some power within them by believing rightly and trying hard enough. It was empowerment by God and significant orchestration by God of their surrounding circumstances that led them to be used as agents of broad change.

That leads to the second flaw, the denial of these character’s proximity to power. Hunter deals with this in his second essay, but it is worth touching upon now. Nehemiah was serving in the court of the king, Esther was married to the king, David was living in the house of the king before becoming king himself, and Moses grew up in Pharaoh’s house before his self-imposed exile. These were not your “average Joes” leading grassroots movements. They were aligned with the dominant power structures and knew how to both use them and buck them effectively.

So, while it is quite important that the hearts and minds of individuals are changed to align with the Kingdom of God, that simply isn’t enough to change the world. There are other factors that must come into play beyond thinking and believing Christianly. Hunter gets to those in his next two essays.

I want to hear from you. What are your thoughts on the notion that not everyone can “change the world”? Do you disagree? Why?

Len Hjalmarlson recently posted a link to a TED talk by Nicholas Christakis on the hidden effects of social networks. If you have 18 minutes, it is worth viewing. The gist is that the social networks human beings form are required for the spread of good and valuable things and, likewise, the spread of good and valuable things is dependent upon vibrant, sustainable human networks. He challenges the notion that we form linear, lattice-like networks and, instead, offers that our relational networks are much more organic clusters that vary based on factors like genetics, class, economics, and era.

In a couple weeks I formally start doctoral work on discipleship in community in the 21st century American church. I am convinced that the only way the church can avoid falling over the brink into irrelevance is for it to find a way out from under the bondage of rampant individualism, stoked by unchecked consumerism. For too long there has been a “me and Jesus” mentality in the way that Evangelicals approach Christian life. The church is reaping what she’s sown in giving, volunteerism, and mission. That way back must be rooted in an understanding of community that is incorporated into the very identity of what it means to be disciples of Christ.

There are a good many promising movements that have sprung up over the past several decades that are attempting faithfulness in this area, but they are, unfortunately, disconnected from one another, localized to a fault, and unable to find a means to voice their presence to the broader Evangelical establishments. Christakis argues that networks have value and are a kind of social capital through which new properties emerge because of our embedded-ness in them. I think that if the church can foster environments in which these bonds will be nurtured and strengthened, we will see the spread of the “good and valuable” things that he imagines can happen.

This means shifting away from contriving social networks. They happen organically and there is little we can do to artificially fabricate them. Those of us in ministry are notorious for doing this. We read in the Bible about networks of relationships and then try to replicate them to a tee. I worked for a para-church organization whose volunteer leadership strategy was articulated as “3-12-70.” It was based off relationships Jesus had formed with his followers. He had twelve disciples, three of which were were closest to him, and at one point commissioned a larger group of seventy. The leadership principle that was extrapolated from this was that we were each to have a core of twelve leaders, three of which we should mentor individually. If we did that, we would soon see a larger group (70) begin to form around us.

As leadership structure goes, it is an alright idea. However, no one talked about the obvious symbolic importance of the numbers 3, 12, and 70. Instead, our supervisors began asking us, twice a year, to literally write down the names of twelve core volunteers, three of whom we were to identify as being mentored by us, and as many of the seventy as we knew. It became part of the metric by which we were evaluated.

The power of social networks was entirely missed. The importance of significant relationships shelved for a new kind of accounting. Less than three meant you must not be working effectively enough, more meant you were in danger of diluting your influence. Instead of empowering and releasing people to build and strengthen the social networks that would organically form, we were asked to (mis)apply a Biblical formula.

I only bring this up because it is symptomatic of what has been happening throughout American Evangelicalism. We have become so focused on inventing things we can measure, we keep missing opportunities to strengthen what God is already doing. What would it look like for us to stop trying to create parallel social structures and, instead, to find ways to nurture the networks we’re already entwined in? Christakis closes by saying, “The benefits of collective life always outweigh the costs.” Jesus knew that as well. Let’s lean into life together instead of trying to needlessly reinvent it.