I wrote this a couple of years ago, but it hasn’t seen the light until now, when I was prompted to share it after seeing Bill Johnson’s comments on Trump last week, and the subsequent response on social media.
In the last few years a theory has developed in my inquisitive, yet limited brain. I’m wondering if we are all roughly 80 per cent good and 20 per cent nonsense. I have gone straight for the tabloid headline there, rather than woo you in slowly, so let me try to explain.
I believe we are designed for community. In Richard Rohr’s book Eager to Love he explains how our modern notion of an individualised ‘person’ is wrong-headed. The word ‘person’ didn’t exist in common speech or writing until it had been used for the first time to describe something else. That ‘something else’ was the Trinity. The word ‘persona’ was used to describe the members of that beautiful three-in-one dance. ‘Persona’ is a construct from the Latin ‘per sonare’, meaning ‘sounding through’. So the very word ‘person’ should actually conjure up an image of not an individual, but someone whose very existence is dependent on the continual ‘sounding through’ of others. We are channels, sounding boards, funnels, for the life and love of each other, as Father, Son and Holy Spirit perfectly exemplify. How dramatically different that is to the atomised ‘find yourself’ notion of personhood we are subject to today.
So if we are designed for community, it makes sense that God wouldn’t download total revelation to certain individuals as it would mean that they would have no need of a connection to others. So the idea of a 100 per cent accurate communicator doesn’t make any sense. We know this in theory, as we have heard a thousand sermons on ‘the body’ and how we all need each other, but we don’t seem to act like it. It’s partly because we believe some people are ‘special’ and not subject to the same flaws, mixed motivations and self-justifications that we are.
This is why I think the 80/20 theory is helpful. Simply put it makes the ginormous generalisation that 80 per cent of what any given writer/speaker says will be worth listening to, and 20 per cent really won’t. So rather than slide into a social media-fuelled ‘FOR’ or ‘AGAINST’ camp on one particular point of someone’s life or communication, I can welcome what is brilliant in their words and actions, but I also know that I don’t have to swallow and sign up to the whole package.
You see this pattern played out in the polarised media of the USA especially. “You think this about abortion? Then you must also think this about economics.” It isn’t necessarily so. Even worse, because people have certain views on certain things, their input is mentally downgraded before it is even heard. “Well, he would say that because he’s a…”
Of course the 80/20 idea is not even close to an absolute science. You could quote me plenty of names (including my own) where I would struggle to put their number as high as 80! But the more serious point here is that we need to think about how much common ground we share as human beings, and especially how much we share as Christians, no matter how far removed our theological starting points may be. Our percentage scores even for those we ridicule may be surprisingly high.
Rob Bell, Rachel Held-Evans, Sarah Bessey, Bill Johnson, Marcus Borg, Tom Wright, Brian McLaren, Pete Greig, Shane Claiborne, Steve Chalke, Tim Keller, John Piper, Mark Driscoll, Richard Rohr. Pick your guru. Find your tribe.
The problem is that in our lazy, consumerist age we don’t want to do the hard work of sifting through what someone says or does to see what is good and what is not. It is much easier to be impressed by them as consummate communicators – masters of stage, pulpit, twitter, or video, see that they have some undoubtedly great ideas, and subliminally accept they are probably right about most things they comment on.
I believe that in God’s genius design He gives people a ‘sweet spot’ in which they have a calling to inspire and lead. They will have prophetic insight that helps people see a whole new angle on a particular area of life and faith. They will start movements and sell shedloads of books. But does this qualify them to be right about everything? I don’t think so. It’s an important piece of work to assess what the charism of various writers is, so we don’t miss the beauty and insight they are bringing, but also so that we can hold more lightly what they say when not operating in their ‘sweet spot’. One job we have in the body of Christ is to try to keep each other operating within our 80 per cent, but often Christian publishers intentionally stretch authors outside it to find a reason to publish a new best-seller. Again I am not suggesting a hard and fast rule here (in fact not even a firm and mid-tempo one), just a hopefully useful tool to help us think well, and avoid lazy tribalism. In fact the Apostle Paul would probably be putting his hand up at this point to say: “Erm, I don’t mean to be arrogant or awkward, but I do think God gave me revelation about a wide range of things.”
God is not going to sit in my little methodological box.
The challenge is that we generally aren’t very good at locating our own blind spots. We need others to do that. But as everyone knows from the world of celebrity – and now politics! – the more followers you have, the more you start to create your own reality, rather than grappling with the world as it actually is. You have more than enough people agreeing with you for your own self-worth to survive, and the desire to seek counsel from another perspective decreases. We slide into the ‘tribes’ that form around various communicators and writers. Our reactions – especially on social media – are rarely slow, considered and prayerful. They tend to be knee-jerk tribal reactions, based on what our clan think, because it’s hard to put your head above the parapet on social media without the support of at least some people.
Even in Christian circles, celebrity is replacing authority. For some reason we care more about what the well-known person says than the person who is less so, but perhaps operates with some accountability and responsibility within an organisation or movements. The prophet Amos would not have had many Twitter followers. He was a minority voice in his time. If we take our lead from those with most followers and just sing the songs that are on the ‘most popular’ list, could we be missing the words of the prophets in our day?
As we look at ourselves, we might think: “Actually 80 per cent sounds a bit high – I get much more wrong than that.” But what I’m speaking about specifically is people’s public output. The stuff that makes it to print or web. Thankfully sometimes before words make it to print, they pass by editors, councils of reference, theological advisors, friends and colleagues. Sometimes. When that does happen, the accountability and objectivity tends to nudge that percentage level higher. But it doesn’t take it to 100 per cent, not only because we are not God, but because those who review our work before publication are often those who are ‘on the same page’, employed by us, members of our churches or generally in our airspace, so to some extent they may be drinking our Kool-aid already.
So my advice would be to stop hunting for a guru who will answer all your questions and spend more time seeking God. He will be using all of those people to communicate with you, but like a good meal, their words are there to be chewed over slowly, shared and discussed, rather than consumed unthinkingly like a microwave TV dinner.
Of course, please bear in mind that perhaps only 80 per cent – if I’m very lucky – of what I have just said is true and useful, so have fun deleting the other 20 per cent. Apologies for inflicting my imperfections on you.