Go Upstream, Young Man

Michael Metzger

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.


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  1. This ideas of this article have never been expressed more clearly and profoundly than what you have written here, Mike. Your work stirred my soul. Thanks! I would add that in Brazil, where I work, there is a desperate need for the upstream vision you describe here. Almost all Christian influence is downstream. I would say that this problem is exponentially worse than in the U.S.

  2. This article clearly outlines what the picture OUGHT to look like.

    In terms that most of us with children can relate to, it’s like the difference between giving a child a blank sheet of paper and telling them to draw a picture of “Christmas” vice giving them a black-n-white drawing of what “Christmas” could look like [that someone else has already IMAGINED] that only requires them to color in-between the lines.

    Have you ever seen a child turn the paper with the picture over and start from scratch with a drawing of their own? Probably not – because the decision was already made for them – and they simply think they are being creative because they get to choose what colors they use.

    Let’s start turning pages over and together we can change this world in which we live!

  3. How do we get “upstream” and maintain the upside down principle of the Kingdom of God?

    How does a trickle down influence strategy relate to God’s taking that which is not and making it that which is?

    I think there is an answer to these questions that maintains the wisdom of Mike’s article but also maintains the upside down nature of the Gospel. I would really like to hear other’s thoughts on how that can work.

  4. excellent. Schaeffer explains this brilliantly in “Art and the Bible.” as a slight correction, reroute from Nashville to Austin and you’ll have it.

  5. My friend Ed and I were talking about this earlier today. Ed is a brilliant painter who knows these truths all too well. As the church lays fallow in the downstream muck I do see an emerging upstream spring of fresh water that is wide open with possibilities. As we work diligently and gain more invitations to the table of decision making then with a holistic and integrated story of hope we can speak into and make create culture. For someone to have a conversation with a Christian who is thoughtful, articulate, has considered issues and carries conviction without resorting to Christianese language devices and downstream response is a powerful thing. When these types of Christians have a seat at the table the cultures collective imagination then begins to change and a vision emerges for how the story of God renews and creates a culture that ought to be. I sense things are in motion. Interesting times ahead.

  6. Couldn’t agree more. When you go upstream, you’re also taking the high ground, which is the best place from which to fight a battle.

  7. @Trent – great point re: Christians needing to remain counter- (vs. sub-) cultural.

    I don’t think Mike’s point is at odds with that.

    Most of Christian ministry is reactionary downstream, or aimed at “alleviating pain”. We put out fires.

    But wouldn’t it be great to start some fires of our own? …Just with a different flame.

  8. Mike,
    As much I agree with the overall message of the article, des one notice this “upstream” tactic in Christ’s work? It seems that he works bottom-up by starting with a group of mostly middle-class men (at best). Also, first through third century Christianity seems to be dominated by the lower class who took no interest in the Roman culture, which was the cause of a lot of persecution, with people like Justin Martyr, Tertullian, Origen, and others as a vast minority. What are your thoughts?

  9. – if we are seeking to influence (with an evangelistic focus) those “upstream” to better obey God, for this has been an area of disobedience for you/I as a person, we as a church, or Church, then we should most definitely do it and do it well. Brody, great point about starting our own fires.
    – if we believe that an upstream approach offers a methodological or pragmatic supremacy to “downstream” approaches and anticipate our influence (not necessarily focused on evangelism) to be broader, better, or greater (as compared to downstream), I fear we are doing so with wrong motivations and against the “upside-down economy” through which God moves throughout history

  10. Great spark to thinking. Thank you.

    Jesus preached to crowds, without a whole lot of demographic slicing.

    But off hand, I remember his encounters with tax collectors and commercial fishers (wealthy businessmen), a rich young ruler, the priestly class (elite), a Roman centurion or two, a woman who owned a fresh jar of expensive perfume.

    Jesus’ stories often referred to kings, owners of vineyards, ranchers of sheep, rich men. One can’t assume that he used these only as dramatic foils, or to ingratiate himself with the poor who loved to see the elite get their comeuppance. King Herod himself longed to meet Jesus.

    The apostle Paul’s preaching ministry was similarly indiscriminate, covering the full range of society from the marketplace to the palace. Philip hopped up on a royal chariot to preach Christ to a high official of a foreign government.

    The difference between Jesus, his first followers, and us, is manifold:
    1) By and large we have lost the ability to communicate with those beyond our own social strata. Not only do people of intellect, education or celebrity intimidate us, we cannot speak their heart language. Our apologetic loses the “argument” precisely because it is an argument, or because the gospel simply never gets proclaimed in their hearing.
    2) Our view of God has diminished from “sovereign Lord of all creation”, to the personal helper of people with problems, and so our evangelism focuses on folks who have visible ‘issues’, and avoids those who seem to have the world on a string.
    3) The flagrant sin lifestyle of the cultural elite repels those who value holiness, just as the Pharisees were offended by Jesus’ touching lepers, talking to sleazy women, and going to parties with tax collectors and ‘sinners’.
    4) Jesus often employed drama and fiction in his teaching, illustrating truth by parables that invite the listener into a story, and that challenge him to make decisions. He managed to be Socratic, dramatic and personal all at once, thereby dodging the human resistance to persuasion (sales). We tend to favor lectures (didactic sermons), rational argument, political debate, feisty blog posts, journal essays and closely-reasoned white papers from think tanks.
    5) Finally, those followers of Jesus who are intent upon changing the ‘culture’ seem to have missed the fact that Jesus’ transformational power moved the hearts of individuals, not just the mission statements of institutions or the balance of power in the legislature. In other words, his primary goal was to take a heart of stone and turn it to a heart of flesh, and then to make that person into an active carrier of his spiritual ‘contagion’ until it spread throughout the palace, the city, the village and the whole known world.

    Thanks for involuntarily granting me the space to think out loud.

  11. Hi Dave,

    I wanted to reply to your thoughts (since you asked for a response). A wide range of scholars have noted that the early church influenced the up-and-in more than the down-and-out. It’s only in the last two centuries that historians have portrayed the early church as primarily reaching out to the poor and disenfranchised. According to Rodney Stark, this view “was popularized over the last several hundred years by Friedrich Engels, claiming that Christianity was originally a movement of oppressed people: the religion of slaves and emancipated slaves, of poor people deprived of all rights, of people subjugated or dispersed by Rome.”

    Imagine that – we’ve bought, hook, line and sinker, the myth promulgated by an opponent of the faith.

    Dave, you mention the men that Christ selected, and while I cannot account for their stature, I do know that Stark points out in his book, The Rise of Christianity, that the early church… “Far from being a socially depressed group, was dominated by a socially pretentious section of the population of big cities. Beyond that they seem to have drawn on the household dependents of leading members. The peasantry and persons in slavery were the most underprivileged class. Christianity left them largely untouched.”

    Peter Brown’s The Rise of Western Christendom makes the same point—the view that the church mainly helped the down-and-out and not the up-and-in is a late development. “What is certain is that there is no room for the later romantic myth of Christians as a perpetually hounded minority, literally driven underground by unremitting persecution. Nor is there much more truth to the modern myth that presents the advancement of Christianity as the rise of a religion of the under-privileged.”

    If you want one good example of how the early church was influential in the cities and with the elites, ask yourself: “What is a pagan?” In Christ’s day, it meant “land dweller,” but it took on the meaning of someone beyond the influence of the largely urban church, since farmers lived outside the urban centers.

    One final note: Stark also points out that the full blast of the Roman persecutions was lessened by the fact that early Christianity influenced the elites – who then, in turn, advocated for Christians. As you can see, Dave, a fairer reading of history yields a dramatically different picture.


  12. Mike,

    Thanks for the response. Interestingly enough, it seems that picture be painted in my Ancient and Medieval Christianity class is following this later view of Friedrich Engels. Because I have much reading to do between semesters, is there a single book (and then, of course, I can move on from there) that you find helpful that will allow me to better enter into this conversation?

    Davey Jones

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