The oysters in the Chesapeake Bay could once filter the entire Bay (about 19 trillion gallons of water) in a week. Today, it would take the remaining oysters more than a year. Replacing oysters alleviates some of the harm, but it ultimately won’t renew the Bay. The solution is upstream – as it is for faith communities trying to change the world. Too many of these communities, however, snigger like Andy Sachs when they hear upstream.
Andrea “Andy” Sachs is the heroine in the 2006 film The Devil Wears Prada. A newly minted Northwestern University grad, Andy has arrived in New York City to become an Important Journalist. She instead starts out as an unimportant junior personal assistant to the icy editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly at Runway magazine. But Andy’s above all this high-end fashion silliness. Runway doesn’t affect her fashion sense – or so Andy thinks until the day that Miranda catches her sniggering at the fuss over two belts that appear to be identical. Miranda dresses down Andy by taking her upstream.
Miranda: “Something funny?”
Andy: “No, no, nothing. Y’know, it’s just that both those belts look exactly the same to me. Y’know, I’m still learning about all this stuff.”
Miranda: “This… stuff? Oh… ok. I see, you think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select out, oh I don’t know, that lumpy blue sweater, for instance, because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise, it’s not lapis, it’s actually cerulean. You’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar De La Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns.”
“And then I think it was Yves St Laurent, wasn’t it, who showed cerulean military jackets?” Miranda grabs a jacket and brings it to Andy. “And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. Then it filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic casual corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and so it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room… from a pile of stuff.”
The poet Iris Murdoch understood how fashion, media, music, literature, movies, research universities, professional associations, and the worlds of business and advertisement are upstream in culture and most deeply influence our downstream, everyday decisions. Murdoch observed that, “at crucial moments of choice most of the business of choosing is already over.”1 The car you drive, the clothes you love, the music you enjoy, the shows you watch, the slang you use, the way you wear your hair, the foods you most enjoy, and the places you like to hang out are influenced more by upstream institutions than individual beliefs. And, believe it or not, God made us to live this way. His first command was “cultivate the earth” (Gen. 1:26-28). This is our word culture. God didn’t create us to be continually cognizant of what’s going into every decision we make – that would be too arduous. Rather, he made us to enjoy what we do every day as second nature. Culture is what is known as second nature – always has been.
The early church recognized this, which is why they went upstream. Early “Christians were dominated by a socially pretentious section of the population of big cities,” writes sociologist Rodney Stark.2 Historian Heinz Kreissig says the early Christians were drawn from “urban circles of well-situated artisans, merchants, and members of the liberal professions.”3 Going upstream continued through the Middle Ages. “Early medieval missionaries were firm believers in the ‘trickle-down’ effect,” writes Richard Fletcher. “The most easily identifiable and consistently pursued element of strategy was the missionaries’ choice to work from the top downwards. If you can convert the directing elite then those who are subject to its direction will follow the lead given.”4
If you still doubt the wisdom of going upstream, consider the public acceptance of homosexuality in the past twenty years. As described in After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90s, gays went upstream because they knew “without reference to facts, logic or proof…. the person’s beliefs can be altered whether he is conscious of the attack or not.”5 It’s impressive how a group of less then 2% of the population has gained cultural clout completely out of proportion to their size. But what does this say about the majority of the US population – namely, the faith community?
It says most faith communities are downstream with ministries aimed at alleviating pain, according to Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith. Yet these efforts don’t transform the cultural institutions causing the pain.6 To change the system, faith communities would have to encourage their best and brightest to go upstream into the worlds of fashion, media, the arts, music, the great universities, and business. Too often, we send them to religious institutions that aren’t mainstream or upstream. This is like trying to clean the Bay by only replacing oysters. The better solution is reducing harmful runoff upstream.
When disgruntled civil servants told New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley how they hated Washington, Greeley told them: “Go West, young man.” He should have told them to go upstream to cities like Hollywood, Nashville, or New York. The same applies to faith communities concerned about today’s culture. Tell them to also go upstream.
1 Heather Widdows, The Moral Vision of Iris Murdoch (London, UK: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd., 2005), p. 109.
2 Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: How the Obscure, Marginal Jesus Movement Became the Dominant Religion in the Western World (San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco Edition, 1997), p. 30.
3 Wayne Meeks, The First Urban Christians (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1983), p. 214.
4 Richard Fletcher, The Barbarian Conversion: From Paganism to Christianity (New York, NY: Henry Holt and Company, 1997), p. 236.
5 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.
6 Christian Stephen Smith, American Evangelicalism: Embattled and Thriving (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 198.