In his book Outliers, best-selling author Malcolm Gladwell makes a controversial claim. He questions the idea of the “self-made man” and explains that most successful people owe some of their fortune to luck. He writes,
“People don’t rise from nothing. We do owe something to parentage and patronage. The people who stand before kings may look like they did it all by themselves. But in fact they are invariably the beneficiaries of hidden advantage and extraordinary opportunities and cultural legacies that that allow them to learn and work hard and make sense of the world in ways others cannot. It makes a difference where and when we grew up. The culture we belong to and the legacies passed down by our forebears shape the patterns of our achievement in ways we cannot begin to imagine.” (19)
As evidence of this phenomenon, Gladwell describes the “meritocracy” that is Canadian hockey. By all accounts, the most talented players succeed regardless of background. Or do they? Gladwell notes that 70% of pro hockey players are born between January and June. Only 10% between October and December. The reason for this strange statistical imbalance is simple: “the eligibility cutoff for age-class hockey is January 1. A boy who turns 10 on January 2, then, could be playing alongside someone who doesn’t turn ten until the end of the year.” This creates a huge gap in physical maturity.
As a result of this arbitrary cutoff date, the entire hockey system in Canada, beginning at a very young age, favors children who are born at the beginning of the cutoff cycle. As these players move through the system and eventually go pro, the consequence is entire teams of players who are largely born between January and April.
Gladwell goes on to cite other examples of circumstantial success, such as the numerous computer trailblazers who all happened to be born around the same time:
Bill Gates was born in 1955
Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft) was born in 1953
Steve Balmer (has run Microsoft since 2000) was born in 1956
Steve Jobs was born in 1955
Eric Schmidt (who ran Novell) was born in 1955
Unlike hockey, these men did not benefit from the time of year they were born but the time in history. 1975 marked the dawn of the personal computer age. If, in 1975, you had already graduated from college and established a career, you were unlikely to have been on the cutting edge of this new technological horizon. However, if you were in college in 1975 and had access to these new computers, you were more likely to be at the right place at the right time for the coming revolution.
As you can see from the birth dates of these men, most were college-aged in 1975.
Gladwell includes many, many more examples, so I encourage you to check out the book if you’re interested in learning more. His research is a powerful reminder that many of us unknowingly benefit from the circumstances, influences and voices around us. We may never even recognize these advantages; they tend to be more apparent to those who did not receive them. We must therefore be cautious about assessing the extent of our own ability, hard work, or intelligence.
As a Christian, this research has MANY theological implications (more than I can address here). The self-sufficient, self-made man mindset that is essential to the American Dream becomes extremely dangerous when it shapes our theology and ecclesiology, and there is one particular danger I want to explore today.
On Thursday I attended a debate between Jim Wallis and Al Mohler. The topic of the debate was whether social justice is essential to the mission of the church. Wallis defended the “yes” position and Mohler defended the “no.” What was refreshing about the debate is that both men held tightly to evangelism and social justice. Neither wanted to compromise these two crucial calls, and there was MUCH more common ground between them than there was disagreement. Wallis, however, feared that the church would discard social justice in favor of evangelism, and Mohler the reverse.
What frustrated me about the debate was not the men involved, but the audience. Audience members clearly had their favorites, which sometimes led to mumbled pot-shots against the other. This is common in debate settings, but the straw man accusations we level at those with whom we disagree is very troubling to me.
Returning to the subject of Gladwell’s book, I believe there is a temptation–as evidenced by the audience responses I just described–to assume our theological preferences are “self-made.” By “self” I am not so much referring to an individual person as a theological camp. Among various Christian traditions, there is a tendency to co-opt the theological contributions of other traditions, and then carry on as if the idea had always been ours all along.
There is little gratitude for–or even acknowledgment of–the myriad perspectives that differ from us but also contribute to our growth by identifying blind spots. In the context of Thursday’s debate, some of Mohler’s fans behaved as though Wallis’ work to promote social justice made him an enemy, and the same could be said of Wallis’ supporters. Isn’t it possible that neither position would have been quite as strong without the accountability of the other?
Clearly, this divisive spirit is evident in both liberal and conservative traditions alike. White conservative Christians decry racism yet simultaneously denigrate the black theological traditions that highlighted this problem in the first place. Liberal evangelicals spurn the narrow constraints of conservatives without affirming the theological anchor that is their commitment to Biblical orthodoxy. And evangelical women condemn the feminist theologians who worked to give them the very voice they now exercise.
While my disagreement with another might be valid, the spirit behind and expression of that disagreement betrays my ecclesiology. In 1 Corinthians 12 Paul speaks of tremendous diversity within the church, a diversity that is mutually beneficial. His language reminds me that even those Christians with whom I disagree ardently are given to the church because I somehow need them. I am not whole without them. If not for our inter-dependence, I would swing toward one theological error and they would swing toward another.
The next time you encounter a Christian with whom you find almost no common ground, pause and ask God why you need them. Why did He include them in His church? What do they have to say that speaks into your blind spots? How have they contributed to the church in a manner that has made your theology stronger and more holistic? These questions save us from the fallacy of a self-made theology, and lead us toward an ecclesiology that is more fully Biblical.