In his new book, Divided We Fall, Luder Whitlock plays the role of a modern-day Merlin. I hope his story has a happier ending than King Arthur’s tale.
Few folks are familiar with the Arthurian legend. It’s a cautionary tale about starting well but ending poorly. Young Arthur had inherited a kingdom steeped in brutality and strife among the nobles. He sought to end the anarchy by convincing the people to adopt a new mindset and transition away from war as a method to settle all scores.
That was a tall task, so Arthur turned to Merlin. They had met years before when young Arthur was lost in a dark forest. Merlin anticipated this meeting. He became Arthur’s mentor. Now Arthur turned to Merlin to help restored a troubled kingdom. The mentor urged King Arthur to form a Round Table. Merlin would serve as wise sage, an outside voice pointing the table toward its purpose. He also suggested a second outsider, Dagonet, the court jester. He would point out problems.
I think Luder Whitlock is a modern-day Merlin. Presently the executive director of the CNL Charitable Foundation, president of Excelsis, and minister at large for First Presbyterian Church in Orlando, Whitlock plays Merlin in Divided We Fall: Overcoming a History of Christian Disunity. He’s the outsider, challenging Christians (and specifically Presbyterians) to collaborate. Wise words, but they’d benefit from a second outsider.
Iain McGilchrist could fit the bill. In The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, he writes that the European Reformation started well but ended poorly. The reformers sought to correct the undoubtedly empty and corrupt nature of some practices of the mediaeval Roman Catholic Church. But McGilchrist writes that they did this by embracing Enlightenment assumptions:
“These include the preference for what is clear and certain over what is ambiguous or undecided; the preference for what is single, fixed, static and systematised, over what is multiple, fluid, moving and contingent; the emphasis on the word over the image, on literal meaning in language over metaphorical meaning, and the tendency towards abstraction, coupled with a downgrading of the realm of the physical…”
These preferences are characteristic of the human brain’s left hemisphere. It’s not an inferior hemisphere. It’s the insider view. Not a problem—except when a problem arises. Rather than admit to problems, the left hemisphere typically “makes up something plausible, that appears consistent, to fill it,” McGilchrist writes. It’s “unrealistic about its shortcomings.” As outsider, McGilchrist provides a dose of reality.
So could Daniel Kahneman. The Jewish psychologist says “the outside view,” plays the part of “the devils advocate.” Kahneman calls the right hemisphere a “crap detector.” That’s the role Dagonet played.
McKinsey is another outsider. In 2014, the management-consulting firm studied the social sector (including churches). Their report says the nonprofit (NFP) sector is “deficient” in collaboration. (“What social-sector leaders need to succeed.”)
“Facts are stubborn things,” wrote John Adams, “and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts.” The stubborn fact is that the Christian community is not collaborative. Divided We Fall gives readers a rich history of why unity matters and what went wrong. The book is terrific and Luder is a respected voice. But he’s unlikely to convince colleagues without an additional witness or two (Deut.19:5). They must be outside the Reformed tradition.
In the Arthurian legend, Merlin was respected but Dagonet wasn’t. In Tennyson’s Idyllis of the King, Merlin and Dagonet are the only ones who can see the impending doom cast upon Camelot. In Tennyson’s “The Last Tournament,” Dagonet alone recognizes Tristram and Isolt’s immoral relationship. In Edwin Arlington Robinson’s Merlin, Dagonet points out the illicit sexual affair between Lancelot and Arthur’s wife, Guinevere. By the end of Robinson’s poem, the knights write off Merlin and Dagonet. The two outsiders decide to leave Camelot. Arthur’s kingdom collapses. Started well; ended poorly.
I hope for a happier ending to Luder Whitlock’s story. Divided We Fall is must reading. But doing something about it requires Reformed leaders to heed the warning of an additional witness, someone outside the Reformed tradition.
 Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), pp. 245-254.