Not a Hometown Hero

Michael Metzger

In October 1977, The Atlantic ran a cover story on renewable energy. That year, at least 40 green innovations had proven their worth. Thirty years later most had died. The problem was insufficient funding due to a lack of institutional alignment. These are the two challenges that Jesus predicted prophets would face – fit and finances.

In 1977, President Carter had solar panels installed on the White House roof. They were later removed – an example of how innovations often “die searching for additional funding,” writes Joshua Green. The death is due to a lack of institutional backing. Established enterprises tend to resist innovative technologies, so that even if some prove beneficial, most expire in what venture capitalists call the “Valley of Death.”1

This is a problem plaguing prophets, or gatekeepers. Gatekeepers are integral to innovation but they face what Richard Rohr calls a “structural fate.” Jesus defined it as fit and finances. Prophets will find it hard to find a “fit,” or institutional alignment (“the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”). Lacking a fit, prophets will often lack funding.

This point was driven home by Jesus on the occasion of visiting his hometown. Local folks snickered, Who is this man? Jesus replied: “A prophet is not without honor except in his hometown” (Mt. 13:57). “Honor” includes respect but also remuneration. In Exodus, “honor thy father and mother” was given to adults, not children. Adults are to care for their elderly parents, providing for their financial wellbeing. The English pastor Dr. John Gill (1690-1771) noted how this included “their substance, feeding, clothing, and supplying them with the necessaries of life.” As prophet, Jesus predicted all prophets would find it hard to find sufficient funding. They wouldn’t be hometown heroes.

This problem persists to this day, but it’s exacerbated by positivism. Positivism divides the world between facts from values. Facts are truth. They pertain to business or education or science. Values are tastes. They’re relegated to religion. Prophets, perceived as religious, don’t deal with the “real” world. This is a misguided notion, as the Latin religio (re + ligio) means to rebind. Religion rebinds us to reality. In seeing past and present simultaneously, doorkeepers – prophets – see this. Most modern folks don’t. They have no clue how the prophetic voice is integral to innovation.

This is where recent findings from neuroscience might help. In 1943, Kurt Lewin coined the term “gatekeeper” to describe the individual most influential in how food moves back and forth, in and out of distribution networks. The human brain’s two hemispheres are designed to work in a back and forth fashion according to Iain McGilchrist, a psychiatrist who did research in neuroimaging at Johns Hopkins. McGilchrist says this reverberating process works when it starts in the right hemisphere, the region that he calls “prophetic.”2 The prophetic voice is critical to innovation.

Daniel Kahneman and Clayton Christensen draw a similar conclusion. A cognitive psychologist, Kahneman says we have two interrelated systems running in our heads. “System 1” is fast and unconscious. It operates on largely untested assumptions. “System 2” is slow and deliberate. It questions assumptions, playing provocateur – prophet – or what Kahneman calls “the devil’s advocate.”3 This individual is integral to innovation. Harvard professor Clayton Christensen says disruption leads to innovation. Prophets are disruptive. They’re heroic. The prophetic voice is integral to innovation.

Integral doesn’t however guarantee income. Malcolm Gladwell says the marketplace has difficulty making sense of those who operate as prophets. In a 2008 New Yorker piece, Malcolm Gladwell contrasted Pablo Picasso, a prodigy, and Cézanne, a late bloomer.4 Prodigies start with a road map of where they want to go and then they follow it. Picasso’s talent as a prodigy was so blindingly obvious that, at age 20, an art dealer offered him a hundred-and-fifty-franc-a-month stipend the minute he got to Paris. The marketplace worked well for him.

Late bloomers work the other way around. They follow a compass. They start without a plan and learn by doing. Their approach is experimental. They bloom late “not as a result of some defect in character, or distraction, or lack of ambition,” writes Gladwell, “but because the kind of creativity that proceeds through trial and error necessarily takes a long time to come to fruition.” Late bloomers operate “like an Old Testament prophet,” he concludes, which is why the marketplace “can’t make sense of them.”

Long-term thinking is not a hallmark of American business. That’s why a lack of funding is part of a prophet’s structural fate. Patronage might be the best way to go, but Gladwell says patron has “a condescending edge to it today, because we think it far more appropriate for artists (and everyone else for that matter) to be supported by the marketplace.” Jesus said it rarely works that way. Cézanne survived solely because of his small inner circle of patrons. This might be the norm for modern-day prophets.

Prophets ought to be hometown heroes. Jesus warned prophets not to hold their breath waiting for that to happen. Finding a fit and finances will often be a struggle, exacerbated by one other aspect of American culture – heresy. We’ll tackle the topic of America as a nation of heretics next week.

1 Joshua Green, “The Elusive Green Economy,” The Atlantic, July/August 2009, Vol. 304, No. 1, p. 83.
2 Iain McGilchrist, The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010).
3 Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2011), pp. 245-254.
4 Malcolm Gladwell, “Late Bloomers: Why do we equate genius with precocity?” The New Yorker, October 28, 2008.


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