Esperanto and E*TRADE

Michael Metzger

by Mike Metzger & John Seel

A difference with a distinction
What’s the difference between Esperanto and E*TRADE? Other than the fact that you’ve probably never heard of Esperanto, there is a deeper difference between the two. It’s a difference with a distinction. Esperanto helps only a handful of people, while E*TRADE is part of a revolution that is forming culture in today’s world. If you want to change the world, what drives this distinction is worth understanding.

Ludwik Zamenhof invented Esperanto in 1887 to be a universally used language. “He borrowed Latin roots and laid down strict rules for pronunciation that would make Esperanto easy to learn,” writes Andy Crouch.1 Yet, if it’s so easy to learn, how come only a handful of Internet geeks find it to be helpful? The users of Esperanto mistakenly assumed that ideas are like raindrops – wherever they fall, crops flourish. Studying how the American agriculture system changed the world puts this myth to rest.

Colonial farmers learned early on that rain is necessary but insufficient. Solutions were birthed in university-based departments of agriculture that provided advanced research for growing crops. But these threads of theory had to be stitched into the practices of farmers in the field. This was the job of the Agricultural Experiment Stations. Every county in the US has a weaver called a county agent who stitches sufficient technologies (seeds, methods of plowing, etc.) into the fabric of the farmer’s work. The American agriculture system is why the US became the world’s breadbasket. It changed the world.

The advent of computers and the information revolution has also changed the world. But it all began in the university-based department of Aristotle. He theorized what are called “first principles,” of which the law of non-contradiction is the foremost. Aristotle said that opposite assertions cannot be true at the same time. Gottfried Leibniz wove Aristotle’s thread of theory into everyday life. In 1666, he developed the idea of binary systems, a foundational technology for computing. John Atanasoff, a physics professor at Iowa State College, took binary systems a step further and built a prototype binary computer by 1939. This provided practitioners like David Ewing the sufficient system necessary to change the world. Ewing founded E*TRADE.

But what does this have to do with faith communities seeking to change the world? To be candid, most of our efforts, while noble and necessary, are insufficient.

A few faith communities are acolytes of academics who use words like “worldview” and Weltanschauung. Weltawhaaa? Good stuff, but I call them Esperanto Evangelicals. They assume ideas are like raindrops – wherever they fall, cultures flourish. But fixing systems requires a fabric more than mere threads dangling from academic departments.

Far more faith communities, however, disdain academic ideas as too esoteric and “impractical.” They prefer stitching together peer networks of other churches and organizations. These associations are necessary but insufficient because they see solutions to social problems almost solely in terms of individual voluntary activities – missions of mercy to the poor, the homeless, the addicted. Christian Smith, a sociologist at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, notes that, “Worthy as these projects may be, none of them attempt to transform social or cultural systems, but merely to alleviate some of the harm caused by the existing system.”2 Fixing systems requires a fabric stitched together with threads from academia and associations.

This isn’t news to those who know history. Changing a culture requires cross-stitching substance (academics) with systems (networks), according to researchers such as Randall Collins (The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change) and Michael Mann (The Sources of Social Power). The 19th century abolition of slavery was the work of the Clapham group and the powerful networks they represented, not just William Wilberforce. Collins writes, “It is the networks which write the plot of this story; and the structure of network competition over the attention space is focused so that the famous idea becomes formulated through the mouths and pens of few individuals.”3 Today’s cultural network, represented by education, art, media, and entertainment, is collectively controlling the conversation. The likelihood of Judeo-Christian ideas once again becoming institutionalized, according to Princeton sociologist Robert Wuthnow, depends on its access to resources, its ability to mobilize capital, its legitimacy (being taken seriously by the leading gatekeepers), and its organizational capability to create structures by which ideas gain societal traction. Otherwise, we only help a handful.

This is a big challenge for faith communities. Many assume if people’s hearts and minds are converted, they will have the right values, they will make the right choices and the culture will change in turn. It explains why they direct their primary efforts to evangelizing individuals and miss the importance of institutions. Culture is not primarily the result of individual choices, but reality-shaping institutions. Please understand; the renewal of the hearts and minds of individuals is not unimportant. But history tells us that it is just not decisively important if the goal is to change the world. Changing the world is not measured by the size of a cultural organization or by the quantity of its output, but by the extent to which a definition of reality is realized in the social world – taken seriously and acted upon by actors in the social world. Being taken seriously means that ideas derived from the Judeo-Christian faith form all spheres of society and fill the headlines, not just the religion section of the paper. Otherwise, we’re Esperanto enthusiasts who help a few but have an existence that is essentially meaningless to the economic, political, and cultural dynamics of our everyday lives. As Jerry Seinfeld used to say, not that there’s anything wrong with that. I just want more. What about you?

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1 Andy Crouch, “Christian Esperanto: Why we must learn other cultural tongues,” Christianity Today, April 2003 (vol. 47, no. 4), p. 105.
2 Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity From It’s Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), p. 73.
3 Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies: A Global Theory of Intellectual Change (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), p. 78.

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8 thoughts on “Esperanto and E*TRADE”

  1. I think you’re being a bit unfair in writing “Yet, if it’s so easy to learn, how come only a handful of Internet geeks find it to be helpful?” I’ve been using Esperanto for many years to get to know people with whom I have no common language. Earlier this year I was in Brittany, last year I was in Milan and Berlin. In each place, most of my contacts were in Esperanto, life being too short to learn every language on the planet. Oh, and last Saturday I was at a meeting in Chester, England, with people from Estonia, Poland, Brazil and other countries, talking Esperanto, of course.

    One of the major benefits of learning Esperanto is the Pasporta Servo, a service offering free accommodation in ninety countries.

  2. As I understand the Scriptures, the priority role that Jesus gave his followers was bring people to faith in Him, and to nurture them to fruitful maturity. Other than as a by-product of changed people, where do we see changing culture as a goal? Certainly a worthwhile objective as we pass by this way, but I wonder how it relates to helping others connect with the good news? Is the answer obvious, or more oblique?

  3. Hi Marc:

    Very good questions! Mind if I suggest a few answers? The priority to “making culture” is found in Genesis 1:26-28, or what is often called the Cultural Mandate. It’s what Dr. Dallas Willard calls “the human job description.” Cultivating the earth originally had three responsibilities – to promote conscience, community, and make culture. A fourth dimension came after we fell into sin – conversion. Hence, the Great Commission, a reiteration of the Cultural Mandate, includes conscience, community, culture… and the added responsibility of conversion. Culture, therefore, is not a by-product. In fact, as Robert Wilken noted, it is highly unusual for faith to flourish if culture is not also shaped, transformed, and renewed. It’s a lot like saying we’re all going to switch to mass transit tomorrow. May be a nice idea, but 99% of us wouldn’t make it to work, we’d lose our work, and the economy (a part of our culture) would begin to crumble. Culture is basic to maturity; not a by-product. When Jesus first preached the gospel, he said, “The kingdom is now available.” The kingdom, as the Jews understood it, applied to every created thing – and Jesus was announcing that the restoration of all things was underway. The scriptures say, “He makes all things new”… not all new things.

  4. Culture is that matrix of ideas, images, and institutions that frame the assumed reality for a group of people. When this matrix is alien to the plausibility of orthodox Christian truth, as it is today in the West — what Mike describes as a “been-there-done-that” attitude — it makes the work of presenting the gospel much more difficult. Theologian J. Gresham Machen wrote, “We may preach with the fervor of a reformer and yet succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the relentless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion.” This pretty much describes how most of our contemporaries think about religion in general and Christianity in particular. This is our unique challenge and opportunity in the West at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

  5. Given that we may “succeed only in winning a straggler here and there, if we permit the whole collective thought of the nation or of the world to be controlled by ideas which, by the relentless force of logic, prevent Christianity from being regarded as anything more than a harmless delusion,” it would seem to be a great idea to change “that matrix of ideas, images, and institutions that frame the assumed reality” of a large part of our nation/world. A painful reminder hit me this morning in the Time article, “What Would Jesus See: Fireproof or Religulous?” by Richard Corliss, Monday, Oct. 06, 2008 — http://www.time.com/time/arts/article/0,8599,1847448,00.html?xid=rss-arts

    In the Clapham article “Staying in the Club,” June 9th, 2008, Mike nicely illustrated the significance of change within social networks. I wonder, realistically, whether the Christian community will effectively penentrate the social networks of our time, e.g., Bill Maher’s world (Time article), and affect a more sympathetic atmosphere in which the Gospel would find more plausibility.

  6. Marc, this is such a telling observation.

    We do ourselves a serious disservice to fail to listen to our strongest critics. The kernel of truth their criticism holds deserves our close attention. We must avoid being sucked into the zero-sum attitudes of cultural warriors with their tendency to demonize and dismiss, rather than listen and love those with whom they disagree. The power of groupthink and self-deception is so great that we need our detractors–God’s “heavenly sandpaper.”

    Contemporary Americans do not easily talk about differences face-to-face, the emotional cost has become too high. Instead, we tend to associate with those who are most like us and remain silent when with those we assume differ in belief or lifestyle. We have gradually lost the ability for civil discourse and the possibility of true disagreement based on a respectful mutual understanding of the other person and his or her positions. It is true that some of our loudest opponents have not spent much time getting to know reflective followers of Jesus. They too tend to hang out in their own social circles. Consequently, we are left with the twiddle-dee twiddle-dum of Ann Coulter (Godless) and Susan Estrich (Soulless). Warring stereotypes do little to further mutual understanding where deep differences exist.

    There is much to learn by watching Bill Maher on “Real Time” or his film, Religulous, about how followers of Jesus are perceived. In this regard, Preston Jones’s conversation with Greg Gaffin of lead singer of Bad Religion (Is Belief in God Good, Bad, or Irrelevant?) is such a helpful model. It is one thing to be rejected because we disagree about the nature of truth–Paul’s experience on Mars Hill–and quite another to be rejected because we act like jerks. The former is an accomplishment, the later a disgrace. Literally, a diss on grace. We are not responsible for how others act or speak, but the pattern of our lives and speech is supposed to be distinctively different. Sadly, it is not. Sam Harris (Letter to a Christian Nation) writes, “Thousands of people have written to tell me that I am wrong not to believe in God. The most hostile of these communications have come from Christians. This is ironic, as Christians generally imagine that no faith imparts the virtues of love and forgiveness more effectively than their own. The truth is many who claim to be transformed by Christ’s love are deeply, even murderously, intolerant of criticism.” It is time to listen and learn from the criticism. Humility and love demand it.

  7. Last Friday my wife and I walked out of Fireproof and into Miracle at St. Anna. The contrast could not have been more stark. The story, acting, cinematography, character development were all fluid in relationship to Fireproof. Spike Lee asks one of the underpinning questions that many in our day are asking of God concerning suffering and religion’s role (to alleviate or perpetuate). Spike Lee has taken time to listen to a culture who have questions about God. Stephen and Alex Kendrick seem (at least in the first five minutes) to have insulated themselves with the Christian subculture and created a film that most Christians will pat themselves on the shoulders over and everyone else will laugh through. And it is simply not meant to be a comedy.

  8. John and Joey, thank you for your thoughtful comments. The reviews that I saw of Fireproof were: Rave, from the home team, and, Scorn, from the Boston Globe. I am glad for the insights the movie brings to a needy Christian community in the area of marriage, while instructed by the secular response to the need for intelligent, intentional connection with those who come from other perspectives, in order that effective dialogue can take place. A recently departed friend, John Ed Robertson, said, it was his purpose “to make it has hard as possible for a person to go to hell.” Not the other way around.

    In my circle of friends, the most effective connectors with those outside the faith are those who have served with a Katrina relief team, and have made several trips to Sliddel, Lousianna, to help rebuild homes and otherwise encourage the people, in conjunction with a local church. One person went on such a trip as a scorner of Christians, but with a heart to help those in need. He discovered real faith in Christ in those he was with, his life was changed, but not his sense of reality. He asks the hard questions and looks beyond simplistic answers for the truth. Numerous people have connected with him, and have found an open door to life-changing faith.

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