The Original Gatekeepers

Michael Metzger

During World War II, shortages of staples such as sugar became commonplace. Kurt Lewin was commissioned to find the causes. He claimed to discover an influential individual in the food network, what he called a “gatekeeper.” Lewin was on to something but he wasn’t original. Long ago, Jesus described the same individual.

Kurt Lewin was a psychologist and one of the first to study group dynamics and organizational development. The U.S. government turned to him to research shortages of staples in WWII. Publishing his results in 1943, Lewin noted how food is “always moving in and out, entering or not entering a channel,” or distribution network. Then he claimed to discover a key individual affecting this in-and-out passage. He coined a term – “gatekeeper.” What Lewin didn’t know is that Jesus beat him to the punch.

In a metaphorically rich conversation recorded in the Gospel of John, chapter 10, Jesus said he is “the door” and “everyone who enters by the door is a shepherd of the sheep.” Then Jesus noted a “doorkeeper” who “opens the door” and affects whether others “go in and out and find pasture.” In Psalm 100, we read how we are the sheep of his pasture. The pasture is “all the earth” (v.1). Going in-and-out is finding our vocation in the world, including work and family. Doorkeepers help those making transitions. They are the original gatekeepers. By straddling the gate, they simultaneously see two worlds, raising provocative questions to help people assess whether they know what they’re doing.

Many ancient religions prominently feature gates, doors, and doorways. They serve as metaphors for passages, writes Richard Rohr, a Franciscan Priest. Doors, bridges, exits and entranceways help us see life as a series of migrations “from one place or state to another.”1 The ancients believed those in transition benefit from having a guide, a gatekeeper posted at the gate. They recognized that the easiest person to dupe is yourself. Best to have a guide. “You had better know what you are doing when you leave one group or place to join another,” advises Rohr.

In King Arthur’s day, court jesters served as gatekeepers. They ensured that king and knights knew what they were doing. Modern-day equivalents are crap detectors (what Ernest Hemingway said is essential for first-rate writers) or consigliores. In Mario Puzo’s Godfather, a consigliore was the chief advisor to Mafia leadership. He served as crap detector, keeping mafia leadership rooted in reality.

In Celtic Christianity, prophets are the original gatekeepers. They “stay near the door,” Rohr writes, occupying a “thin place, a holy place” where prophets take their position on the edge of two worlds. They help others “learn how to move safely in and out, back and forth, across and return. It is a prophetic position, not a rebellious or antisocial one.” By standing at the doorway, prophets see two worlds simultaneously.

Most folks assume prophets see present and future. Prophets on occasion foretell the future, but as gatekeepers, they more often thunder against forgetfulness. They remind people. They’re less futurists, more historians. Prophets help people “find pasture” by seeing past and present simultaneously. In the Babylonian exile, the prophet Jeremiah repeatedly rebuked the Judeans for having forgotten God (Jer.2:32; 3:21; 13:25; 18:15; 23:27). But then he called the people to plant gardens (work) and get married (Jer.29).

I’m often told that my work is essentially that of a prophet. In seeing past and present simultaneously, I offer guidance when I hear ideas like “managing” employees or how we ought to promote “passion.” I instantaneously see ancient worlds where only assets, animals, and appetites were managed – not people. I see earlier times when passion was held at arm’s length, viewed as more problematic than positive. Prophets see many modern ideas as not particularly helpful to those seeking to find their vocation.

The benefit of seeing past and present simultaneously is being reinforced by research into human memory. It appears that autobiographical memory – what defines us – is arranged and stored in human memory in successive ‘chapters’ or ‘episodes.’2 The simple act of walking through a doorway creates a new memory episode, but this act makes it more difficult to recall the room that’s just been left behind.3 Christians are called to remember the right things while forgetting the rest (Phil.3:13). Prophets remind people of the right things. Without them, we tend to be too forgetful.

As profitable as a prophet’s role might seem, the fact is, we live in a not-for-prophet world. Prophets are perceived as religious, and in the workaday world, religion is perceived as strictly a private matter. This is a grave misunderstanding of religion. The word comes from the Latin religio (re + ligio), to rebind. Ligio is where get our word ligament. Ligaments bind the human body. Religion recognizes the Second Law of Thermodynamics, how systems become increasingly unbound or disordered. Religion keeps rebinding us to reality, teaching us how to best bring about order.

Rohr believes the prophetic voice can still help the workaday world. Prophets are free from the “central seductions” of business, he writes, “but also free to hear its core message in very new and creative ways.” The prophetic voice can rebind enterprises to reality. The Bible calls this process renewal. The Latin word for renewal is innovation. The prophetic voice is integral to innovation. Scripture, as well as recent findings from neuroscience, support this idea. Why then are prophets routinely ignored?

That’s a big question. There are many answers, but Rohr suggests we start with recalling “the structural fate of a prophet.” Jesus defined it in two words. That’s where we’ll continue this conversation next week.

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1 Richard Rohr, “Life on the Edge: Understanding the Prophetic Position,” Radical Grace, April-May-June 2006, Vol.19, No. 2.
2 Yossef Ezzyat, and Lila Davachi, “What Constitutes an Episode in Episodic Memory?” Psychological Science (2010).
3 Gabriel A. Radvansky, Sabine Krawietz, and Andrea Tamplin, “Walking through doorways causes forgetting: Further explorations,” The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 64 (8), (2011), pp. 1632-1645.

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3 thoughts on “The Original Gatekeepers”

  1. Good one Mike. Being ‘gatekeepers’in our lives is often overlooked looked. Celebrating Immanuel(God in us, treasures in jars of clay)leading to renovation of the temple, restoration of the walls and paths.Vocation rather than vacation.

  2. Your discussion of gatekeepers reminded me of a paining by William Holden Hunt: The Light of the World http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Light_of_the_World_(painting).
    It portrays Jesus knocking at a door with no handle that can only be opened from the inside. It is based on Revelation 3:20:

    Here I am! I stand at the door and knock.If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.

    In matters of faith, we are our own gatekeepers.

  3. Mike Metzger

    btw, notice that, on 9/11 and 12, Discovery Channel is airing a two-part series: “The President’s Gatekeepers.” It characterizes the President’s Chief of Staff position in terms many probably already know — hugely demanding, enormously stressful and, to hear those who occupied the hot seat tell it, an opportunity they wouldn’t have missed.

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