Overdue for an Overhaul?

Michael Metzger

To win the culture wars, study the war against cancer.

In the 1940s, finding a cure for cancer was likened to fighting a war. The new symbol overhauled the fight against cancer strategy. Today, many writers liken America’s values debates to culture wars. If they’re right, the faith community’s strategy is also overdue for an overhaul.

The long struggle against cancer is recounted in Siddhartha Mukherjee’s sprawling The Emperor of All Calamities: A Biography of Cancer. Mukherjee is a cancer researcher, assistant professor, and a staff physician at Columbia University Medical Center—as well as a great writer. The title is drawn from a 19th century surgeon’s description of cancer as “the emperor of all maladies.”

The centuries-old struggle turned a corner when Mary Lasker joined the fight. Mary was a New York socialite as well as an activist when she met Albert Lasker in 1939. Albert had made his fortune in advertising, proving how images persuade consumers better than information. He changed the industry with successful ad campaigns for Sunkist oranges, Pepsodent toothpaste, and Lucky Strike cigarettes. Albert and Mary married the year they met, 1939.

That was also the year Mary’s mother suffered a heart attack and stroke. When Mary contacted the American Medical Association about treatments, it proved to be unresponsive, preferring research to problem solving. When her mother passed away in 1940, Mary had found her mission: “I am opposed to heart attacks and to cancer, the way one is opposed to sin.” She also discovered the academic community was opposed to her.

Mary jumped in by calling on the office of Dr. Clarence Cook Little, the director of the American Society for the Control of Cancer. The visit left her cold. The society was good at producing white papers but wasn’t responsive to problems. It was as an ossifying Manhattan social club, writes Mukherjee, “haphazard, ineffectual, stodgy, and unprofessional.”1 Stealing a page from Albert’s playbook, Mary introduced a new symbol to rouse researchers—war.

Over the next 10 years, her war metaphor yielded impressive amounts of interest and money. But it didn’t change research institutions. When Albert died of colon cancer in 1952, Mary recognized her war symbol was insufficient—changing the system required a better strategy. The recent World War provided Mary with the perfect strategy—the Manhattan Project.

The Manhattan Project came about after President Roosevelt’s academic advisors estimated it would take decades to develop an atomic weapon. Roosevelt’s longitudinal window was much smaller, so he turned to industrial leaders to take charge. As the New York Times noted, the success of the Manhattan Project lie in forcing “prima donna” professors to collaborate with industrial leaders and conduct research after the manner of industrial laboratories. It “was a focused SWAT team sent off to accomplish a concrete mission,” writes Mukherjee.

Mary mimicked the Manhattan Project. The war against cancer would be led by business leaders, assisted by advertisers, and supported by researchers, all directed by a committee that “should not include more than four professional and scientific members. The Chief Executive should be a layman.” The strategy produced improved results but it upended the dominant model of biomedical research in the 1950s. The academic community didn’t like it.

Lasker’s chief opponent was Vannevar Bush, a Truman administration academician. “Basic research,” he wrote, “is performed without thought to practical ends.” Bush pushed for the old model “in which researchers were allowed full autonomy over their explorations and open-ended inquiry was prioritized.” He launched the National Science Foundation, an organization directed by academically oriented scientists. Reading Emperor of All Maladies leaves readers with the impression that Mukherjee is unimpressed with NSF’s track record.

These competing models raise serious questions about the faith community’s educational institutions—and academia in general. For starters, professors Vijay Govindarajan and Chris Trimble of the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth College say educational institutions do not solve real life problems. They instead produce curriculum-driven programs that are, by nature, static. Real life problems are, by nature, unpredictable and uncertain. Govindarajan and Trimble are the authors of The Other Side of Innovation: Solving the Execution Challenge. They suggest innovation rarely happens when educational institutions teach abstract principles. David McCullough says history is taught this way—and that’s why so many are so disinterested in history. His solution? “Teach history by solving problems.”

These competing models also indicate the faith community’s educational institutions operate more like the National Science Foundation. Randall Collins says dense, overlapping networks of practitioners, translators (i.e., educators), and academicians constitute world-changing movements. This was Mary Lasker’s line of attack. If the faith community is fighting culture wars, and Collins’ model of overlapping networks is the most effective strategy, the faith community’s educational institutions operate more like the NSF than Collins’ model.

Collins’ model is practitioners—schoolteachers, artists, and business leaders—driving the classroom experience, just as industrial leaders drove the Manhattan Project. This strategy requires practitioners (e.g., business leaders) presenting real life problems to educators and academicians. Clergy would be trained to operate as educators, straddling the worlds of practitioners and academicians. They would translate academic research for practitioners. Academicians would no longer perform research “without thought to practical ends,” but would play a more strategic role by doing research designed to solve practitioner problems.

This kind of educational experience might sound far out and far off. It fits however with how a high-performance leader or organization operates. Former Harvard University professors David McClelland and David Burnham describe the most effective leaders as those who “return authority.” Returning authority means serving those who know best what is needed in a given situation. That’s typically practitioners, people who, because of calling, come closest to dealing with real life problems in the wider world on a daily basis.

If the faith community is engaged in culture wars and desires to be a high-performance institution, the lesson learned from Mary Lasker is that its educational institutions are overdue for an overhaul. Until its educators and academicians serve practitioners in solving real life problems, the faith community will look more like the NSF than a world-changing movement.

1Siddhartha Mukherjee, The Emperor of All Calamities: A Biography of Cancer (New York, NY: Scribner, 2010), p. 111.


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  1. Michael, compelling idea! We need this kind of reality based research to find out how the Christian Faith community can best mobilize a much greater level of its membership than we see in the typical American church to biblical discipleship, i.e., incarnational living. Anyone out there interested?

  2. Hey Mike,

    This, as usual, is a terrific article. Of course your ideas continue to challenge me as I seek to envision what they actually look like practically.

    As one whose spouse has received the great benefit of medical advances, I can certainly appreciate the cancer research analogy.

    Again, thanks for the thoughtful and thought – challenging piece!

    Grace and Peace

  3. Mike,

    Sadly we don’t have many “returning authority” in the leadership of our churches, but rather continuing to concentrate authority in the elders, pastors, and staff, rather than serving those who are best equipped to build the kingdom. I have been grateful that many of the pastorate at my church want to be “returners” in this regard, yet also realize the degree to which the old model is ingrained in our north american evangelical sub-culture. I hope they can break free of it, for our neighbor’s sake. We need the salt to be more salty. And that requires the pastorate serving those who have the highest capacity to be salty! – the laity! (and no, the pun of salty people is not lost on me… they should be winsome and salty in the same moment, and will be if they seek to be like Christ.)

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