Point Guard

Michael Metzger

Ultimately, Rondo’s not the most critical player. But he is initially.

Andy Crouch suggests that our ways of talking about culture—how it works, how it changes—often do not serve us well. He’s right. Watching the NBA Playoffs might help, however. If you are a Boston Celtics fan, take note of point guard Rajon Rondo.

Every basketball team has a culture. In the 1980s, the Utah Jazz were ponderously pick-and-roll. The Los Angeles Lakers were lightning-fast Showtime. The culture of any team is the sum of the contributions of five different positions—center, small and power forwards, point guard, and wing. Add them up and you have a culture.

Similarly, cultures are the sum total of five characteristics—ideas, images, items, key individuals, and institutions. How these five overlap is what constitutes cultures, which raises a question. Are the five of equal importance? Or are ideas, for example, more important than the other four? To address this question, do this exercise.

You have been given a project: make culture. You are allocated 20 points and told to distribute them between ideas, images, items, individuals, and institutions. The more points you assign to items, for example, the more important you deem them to be. Allocate all 20 points and then consider what the distribution indicates.

A considerable percentage of the Western faith community—particularly pastors, academicians, and evangelists—assign the most points to ideas or individuals. They argue that culture making is winning the war of worldviews or “winning the hearts and minds” of people. Crouch counters that making items is most important: “We talk about culture as if it were primarily a set of ideas when it is primarily a set of tangible goods.”1 Adam and Eve begin “making something of the world,” he notes. “Culture is what we make of the world.”2 Finally, a few argue that institutions are most important in culture making.

There is merit in each position and good people can disagree. The value in this exercise is in forcing the faith community to think more strategically about its limited resources. Capping the number of points tethers blue sky thinkers to terra firma. It forces the church to wrestle with a strategic question: which characteristic of culture is initially—but perhaps not ultimately—most important? For the Boston Celtics, Ray Allen, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett are ultimately most important to the team’s success. But they can’t put the ball in the hoop if Rondo can’t get the ball up the court. In basketball, the point guard initially matters the most. In making cultures, which characteristic plays the point? For centuries, the answer was images.

Postmodernists prattle about how they discovered that people think in pictures. But Aristotle wrote that the soul never thinks without a picture. “Early human thought proceeded by metaphor,” according to Nobel Prize-winning neurobiologist Gerald Edelman. Frames, or images, come first. They trump facts, or ideas. “Ideas are never capable of definition or precise specification” by themselves, writes Dallas Willard.3

The most recent example of a group recognizing this reality is the gay movement. Without a doubt, it has changed the world over the last 40 years. Yet, as described in After the Ball, the movement didn’t initially appeal to ideas or facts. Their leaders assumed that, “without reference to facts, logic or proof… a person’s beliefs can be altered.”4 They began by effectively propagating attractive images of gay adults.

From antiquity until the close of the Middle Ages, images or metaphors were considered to be initially most important in making cultures. With the advent of the Enlightenment, the new assumption was that making culture starts with ideas. Those who continued to see the preliminary power of pictures began to consider themselves dinosaurs.

In 1955, C.S Lewis gave his inaugural lecture for the professorship of Medieval and Renaissance Literature at Cambridge University. He warned his students to learn all they could from him, because he was a living dinosaur, a Middle Ages man, and there would be no more dinosaurs after him. Lewis was deeply influenced by Middle Ages books such as The Consolation of Philosophy by Boethius. “To acquire a taste for it,” he wrote, “is almost to become naturalised in the Middle Ages.”5

Being a naturalized citizen of the Middle Ages is why Lewis believed, “All our truth, or all but a few fragments, is won by metaphor.”6 He considered images to be initially most important, for they prepare the mind to receive ideas as meaningful. Lewis was not saying imagination supersedes reason or ideas; rather images precede ideas as a condition for truth. “It must not be supposed that I am in any sense putting forward the imagination as the organ of truth. We are not talking of truth, but of meaning. For me, reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.”7

Two recent findings from science support images being initially most important. If someone says, “The mouse on the desk is broken,” your mind calls for a different image than if you hear, “The mouse on the desk is eating cheese.” Your brain registers the word “mouse,” waits for its context, and only then goes back to imagine it. The idea is not clear until the image appears. Neuroscientists are discovering how the mind seemingly suspends chronological time in order to clarify an idea around an image. Without an initial image, it has trouble making sense of an idea.8

This is the same conclusion drawn from a study of 1,482 students who were asked to read two reports about a crime in a particular city and recommend solutions. In their book, Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning, authors Paul H. Thibodeau and Lera Boroditsky describe how, in the first report, an image was put forth early on. In the second report, the image was placed at the end, as an “illustration.” The researchers found that if the image appeared early in the report it could frame the report’s ideas. Placed at the end it had no effect.

It is true that our ways of talking about culture often do not serve us well. It is just as true, however, that the faith community will experience difficulty in making culture if it cannot advance its ideas, items, individuals, and institutions up the court. That’s what point guards such as Rajon Rondo do. It what images do and why they are initially most important.

______________________
1 Andy Crouch, Culture Making: Recovering Our Creative Calling (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2008), p. 10.
2 Crouch, Culture Making, p. 23.
3 Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ (Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 2002), p. 97.
4 Marshall Kirk and Hunter Madsen, After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90’s (New York, NY: Plume, 1990), p. 152-153.
5 C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image: An Introduction to Medieval and Renaissance Literature (Canto) (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 75.
6 C.S. Lewis, “Bluspels and Flalansferes,” The Importance of Language. ed. Max Black (Eaglewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, Inc., 1962), p. 50.
7 C.S. Lewis, ed. Walter Hooper, Selected Literary Essays (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979), p. 265.
8 Burkhard Bilger, “The Possibilian,” The New Yorker, April 25, 2011, p. 59.

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5 thoughts on “Point Guard”

  1. Very interesting. To support the notion, emailed invitations that I send out have included the names of known trustworthy faculty leaders that I have supposed (when I designed the first invitation six years ago) would project the image of our events as a safe and worthwhile event. I thought the image would need to be strongly projected. I guess you’re saying you think so too. I’ve always thought that the image weighs more than the whole rest of the invitation.

  2. Peter Frieswick

    Mike,

    For so long you’ve talked about top-down versus bottom-up cultural change as affected by institutions, that I had come to think of them as the most important. Thanks for clarifying and showing us the role the five characteristics have in shaping culture.

    If we want to evangelize, let alone influence culture, we’ve got to think in images first. As you’ve said in this and other posts, before anything else we need to reframe the conversation. This is why I’ve often heard pastors say, “Relate to God as your Father, but as a good and loving Dad, not the one who might have abused you as a kid.”

    People need to know the truth, but it is through using the correct image, analogy, or metaphor that they understand what the truth they are looking at even is.

    As a side note, someone I’ve found who works effectively with images as tools for teaching leadership principles is Tim Elmore. It may be worth your time to check out his resources here: http://www.habitudes.org/.

  3. Mike Metzger

    For those in the financial world, it might be easiest to understand words and ideas as “lagging cultural indicators.” Just as lagging economic indicators (employment, for example) don’t determine economic reality (they only indicate what seems to be reality), in the same way, words follow images and our imagination. For example, growing up, we watched TV every Friday evening. Every week, I was invited to “have a gay old time” with Fred and Wilma Flintstone. Did we imagine “gay” meaning what it does today?

    In our experience of time and space, God imagined us before he spoke and made us. In the making of cultures, words only make sense inside of our imaginations, or frames for reality. Words and ideas follow frames and images.

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