We Keep Trying to Change the World | Greater Things, Part 2 of 6


Any good theology of creativity needs to wrestle with the “Why” of our creativity – why are we doing what we’re doing? Finding purpose in our creative work seems noble, and I have been a proponent in the past, for example in Think Like a Five Year Old, where I implied that God uses our good, creative works to help build and advance God’s kingdom. But what if our obsession with finding purpose and meaning in our work is actually getting in the way of both our sense of purpose and meaning, and our ability to actually change the world?

 

We love the idea that we can both change the world and find fulfillment.

The Christian world is full of examples of aligning personal passions with divine calling and mission. One year I went to Catalyst, the big Christian leadership conference in Atlanta, and the entire event was built around the concept that Christian innovation both inaugurates God’s kingdom and invites personal fulfillment, all at the same time.

It seems like most every book written on the subject, such as Jeff Goins’ pop Christian self-help book The Art of Work, quote the same line from Presbyterian writer Frederick Beuchner: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

This trend isn’t limited to church circles. In fact the current church obsession with vocational meaning is a derivative of similar corporate rhetoric (which in turn came from religious roots). The number one RSA Animate TED talk has now shifted from Sir Ken Robinson’s classic on creativity to Dan Pink’s exploration about what motivate us – namely, a sense of purpose and meaning.

It seems the old Reformation view of work is being replaced with a new ideal of vocation that seeks to both fulfill our desires and “change the world.” Even one in which our application of personal passions is the basis for our ability to change the world.

I’m not sure that’s necessarily a good idea. And it’s not even that Beuchner is necessarily wrong. It’s just that we bring a whole lot of faulty assumptions to this ideal.

 

Every age is equidistant from eternity.

I’ve been thinking about our obsession with vocational meaning for a few years now. Many of my assumptions took a torpedo the other day when, in a doctoral studies meeting, my mentor Len Sweet said, “Every age is equidistant from eternity.”

The consequences of this statement are far-reaching. It targets progress and our understanding of mission and evangelism, the very notion that we our creative works can achieve a better society, and our conventional understanding of the Kingdom of God.

After spending several days pondering it, I think it’s right.

 

We’re still in love with the idea of “progress.”

We American Protestants have always loved the idea of progress. It’s part of both our religious identity and our civic identity.

Last summer, my family and I took an epic, once in a childhood family vacation to Disney World in Orlando, Florida. The kind where you do every park, the whole shebang. Disneyworld has an theme area called Tomorrowland.  One of the great themes there is the “world of tomorrow.”

Disney was a brilliant marketer. He understood we humans put a lot of hope into a word like “tomorrow.” Like Scarlett at the end of Gone with the Wind, we believe that “tomorrow is another day.”

Tomorrow was a favorite word of mid-twentieth century America. While this theme area opened with the Disneyworld park in 1971, it actually launched in 1964, when Disney opened the exhibit as part of the 1964 New York World’s Fair. That fair was the zenith of our love of a new and better future. There were three great American world’s fairs, and all of them were about technology and progress, and this one was the biggest. We had won the war, we thought we had vanquished evil, and the utopian future was coming.

For a long time, we’ve believed that we have the ability to change the world.

 

Some of our efforts to change the world are working.

The thing is, our optimism is in part legitimate. Consider these statistics from the aptly-named book Progress: Ten Reasons to Look Forward to the Future by Johan Norberg.

  • Up through the end of World War 2, over half of the world’s population was undernourished. Today, hunger effects under 10% of people in the world.
  • The proportion of the world population with access to an improved water source has increased from 52% in 1980 to 91% in 2015.
  • Women’s life expectancy is rising at a rate of 1 years every 4 years, or 25 years a century, and has held steady at this rate for at an amazing 160 years.
  • While the world population is skyrocketing, poverty is not, so as a percentage, poverty is shrinking rapidly. The number of people in extreme poverty is now slightly less than it was in 1820. 700 million people on the globe live in extreme poverty today. That’s about 10%. 200 years ago, that number was about 50%.

 

While the goods are better, the bads are worse.

So the really is progress, right? Amazing things are happening. It’s good news. But at the same time, think about the flip side:

  • Historians are now saying the 20th century should be called The Hundred Years War. It is by sheer numbers the deadliest century of all time. By any measure, World War 2 – deadliest man-made catastrophe in human history.
  • Also in the 20th century, 100 million females were purged from the human race because they were considered less worthy than males.
  • There were over 200 wars in the 20th century, and as we speak today, there are over 40 armed conflicts right now, raging on our planet.

One of the great paradoxes of our age is that we are getting progressively better, and progressively worse, all at the same time. The goods are getting better, and the bads are getting worse.

Take for example the cell phone. If you’re parenting school age children, you know how disruptive it’s been over the last few years. A world of information at our fingertips – good. An increasing difficulty with educating children and teaching basic social skills – bad.

This is what Len means when he says, “Every age is equidistant from eternity.” We may indeed be getting better, but we’re also getting worse, all at the same time.

 

The problem isn’t our work but our hubris.

Does this mean that we’re not marching to Zion after all?  His sentence unveiled a set of assumptions that have colored my thinking, and the thinking of the church in general, for a few generations now.

For example, on my shelf right now is a book which has received heaps of praise across the evangelical world. It advances the exact idea that we are somehow both capable and called to improve society through our creative works. Called Unfinished, by Richard Stearns, it claims that the kingdom lies incomplete and will remain that way until we do our job as Christians and finish the work of building the kingdom. Of changing the world. Stearns actually paraphrases Matthew 28 in his book (calls it his “authors paraphrase”) to claim that we’re called to “advance the kingdom.”

But that’s not what the Bible actually says.

I’ve come to agree with Leonard Sweet’s teaching. The premise of Unfinished, and the notion that we can “change the world,” is both flawed and dangerous – at least the way we think about it.

For the last 100 years, proponents of the social gospel have been making the mistake, and now, evangelicals are making the same mistake, that God needs us to establish God’s kingdom. The idea that our creativity fills a hole in an unfinished world, a Creation left incomplete by God, is the height of hubris. It is a form of self-glory. It diminishes God and exalts humanity.

We keep trying to change the world, and it’s not working.

We can’t do it on our own.Our efforts to change the world usually put the glory on us.

Long time reader, are you shocked by this post? I can’t overstate how important of a discovery this is for me.

I will explore implications of this statement in the coming weeks.

 

This is part 2 of a 6-part series on my upcoming dissertation for completion of a Doctor of Ministry degree at Portland Seminary at George Fox University. My tentative title for the book that I hope will emerge from this research is Greater Things. This second post begins an exploration of the utility of our creative efforts.

 

About the Author

Len Wilson

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Christ follower. Storyteller. Strategist. Writer. Creative Director at St Andrew. Tickle monster. Author, Think Like a Five Year Old (Abingdon).