Friday, December 18, 2009

Ancient Inspiration

So many times when we think about innovation, we focus on the new. We look to new industries, new ideas, new perspectives for our inspiration. Think about all the magazines touting the newest trends in technology, business, culture, etc.

But to do that we miss out on a huge "field of meaning," as my partner in ministry Eric Foley likes to say. What does he mean by that? Well, as we search for innovation, we tend to look forward only. We feel that only new things can inform the future. This understanding is at the world view level and we don't even know that we think this way. It comes because progress is such a high value for those of us who are products of modernity. We truly believe that success means always pushing forward to new frontiers, new ideas, new realities.

I want to challenge that perspective on innovation today. I believe that some of our best fodder for innovation may come from our past. You see the past does a few things that the future cannot do. The past has not yet committed some of the errors that we have codified. The past can have a very different perspective on things that we now take for granted. Also, the past is sometimes an amazing lens to see the very mistakes and struggles we are mired in today.

Now the past isn't perfect. Every age is rife with ignorance, prejudice, and faulty thinking. But I would like to impress on you that the past is a source on which we can draw for our innovation efforts. It is a rich story that will give us ideas that no tech magazine could ever draw out. And we need every source we can get in order to effectively innovate in the 21st Century.

So here are some ideas:
1. Identify some innovative thinkers of the past and read their biographies.
2. Read history and look for the patterns that inform our world today.
3. Talk to grandparents and great grandparents and ask them questions about how they see the world.
4. When you find yourself assuming that the future is better, catch yourself and challenge your thinking about progress and it's inherent virtue.

So there you go, are you ready to dive into the past? I pray that God gives you some rich sources of inspiration from what He has done throughout history.


Anonymous said...

I was wondering if you have any suggestions on who you consider to be an innovative thinker from the past.

Cavin said...

What's the "old" saying? "There's nothing new under the sun." It's interesting how we have adopted the view of life that essentially says new is always better. But if truth is unchanging, then you are right on target to challenge us to consider the lessons of the past in determining innovation for today and the future.

Their are an abundance of innovative thinkers from the past, both the distant past and the recent past. Among such individuals I would recommend Augustine,Thomas aKempis, Blaise Pascal, C.S. Lewis, and G.K. Chesterton.

Planter said...

Thomas Edison has a a good biography for me to look into lately. There are a lot of myths floating around about him and his inventions, but the truth is quite instructive about the process of innovation.

Jon and Mindy Hirst said...

Great question and great input!

Right now I'm reading The Lost History of Christianity by Philip Jenkins. I think he is a great example of an innovative thinker that looks to the past to understand and define the future. Has anyone else read this book yet? It is an amazing window into a past that modern Christianity has completely ignored.

Philip Gilbert said...

Why do we need innovation when we have God? Surely He will pass on what he wants us to be innovative about. It is His will and all our fates are determined by Him.

Jon and Mindy Hirst said...

Dear Philip,

Great question. I don't think that human innovation and God's revelation are mutually exclusive. In fact, I would say that God created us to innovate and uses the feature in us to inspire us. Innovation is simply us using the brains and experiences God gave us in coordination with Him to bring Him glory.

Now I know that people innovate without thinking about God at all, but I think that God still gets the glory for that since He made those people too.

The study of innovation from a Biblical perspective is then our opportunity to see how God moves through us to accomplish things in this earth.

Philip Gilbert said...

Why does an all powerful creator need glory?

Jon and Mindy Hirst said...


Thanks for writing back. I posed your question to our whole community and a few people are also responding. You can read their responses here:

Regarding your question about why the Creator of everything need to recieve glory from us...

It seems from such a short reply and so little context that you probably already have an answer that you are very content with. But I would just add this as a P.S. to whatever your thoughts might already be:

To say "God needs" something is probably not for us as the created to say but I think it is safer for us to say that "He wants our praise." And in my mind the exercising of our God-given abilities is one way to give that praise to Him.

Blessings as you strive to honor Him today.

Twitter Buzz said...
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Apark56 said...

Dr Martin Luther King Jr was a highly innovative thinker in his day. He utilised the non-violent activism of Ghandi not only to confront racism in the 1950's-1960's USA, but also to promote his aim of building a "beloved community". King's tactic was not passive - it was active resistance against a violent and unjust system - but through non-violent means. Actively loving your enemies meant confronting them prophetically with the real truth abour racism, resisting it directly through non-violent protest (e.g. marches through Selma, sit-ins), but always with the aim to convert the enemies through example of love through consistent non-violence in the direction of Christ. King argued that in order to transform society into something more just for all, a conversion of hearts and minds must occur starting with the Church. He said that many black youths who might otherwise have been swept up in vengeful violence against injustice under different leadership (e.g. Malcolm X, Black Panthers), caught his vision for social transformation through non-violent protest. Many in fact found Christ through King's movement because he gave a clear biblically-based rationale for what he was fighting for through his highly inspiring writings, sermons and letters, as well as his strong personal demonstration of Christ's teaching in his own life at great cost to self. I think we need such innovative leaders today - people who stand up for something: God's compassion, justice, socially redemptive change, and who are prepared to be "politically-incorrect" for the redemptive good and transformation of society "in the name of Christ".
Today's Christianity has yielded to far to the culture of the status quo - has become very much a part of it due to its embrace of prosperity doctrines, consumerism, pop-idol-preacher worship etc. I think it needs to return to a Jesus who, in my reading of the biblical text was quite different to what was modelled by the popular religious status quo culture of his day. I think in redisovering him, we will find out ways to Re-Jesus our own faith and also rediscover the innovative alternatives he offers our contemporary society with greater clarity missionally and faithwise in general. From Andrew, husband of Lucy (I am using her facebook)

Apark56 said...

Artists - painters, prophets, story tellers, philosophers, mime artists, dancers, song-writers - tend to be the greatest innovators and prophets of our age.
Art is powerful in helping people reimagine things in new ways.
We also need to think about why we want to be innovative. Is it just to re-tool ourselves with brand new tactics, gimicks,and cultural contextualisations or `re-contemporisations' to re-fill our now empty churches again?
In our seeking to be innovative, I think we need to first question why?
We need to re-examine our ethical and missional baselines?
Not all innovation is redemptive: it can be downright compromising, and become a "sell-out" of values to the `pop-cultures" of our time.
Having said that, I recommend the late Robert Webber's Ancient/Future Faith series of books. He has written about this issue substantially.
Another book I would recommend is by Robert Inchausti, Subversive Orthodoxy: Outlaws, Revolutionaries, and Other Christians in Disguise", Brazos (2005). Inchausti critiques the major Christian philosophers and activists of the C20th, particularly in regard to their their roles as social reformers and transformers, and as innovators in what they saw as their missions from God. We can learn a lot by studying the writings and doings of these people who strongly influenced and shaped our recent history. what was good about them? How did they innovate? What were their mistakes? How can we learn from them in order to build a better and more just future for more people?
Many Christians today have lost their ability to "question". They have lost their question. One thing about the parables of Jesus was that they encouraged people to question - Jesus didn't always provide them with the solution to his puzzles and dilemnas posed by his parables. To find the answer they had to think outside the box, express faith, be open to something new and original, change their minds and challenge their prejudices and biases with brand new thinking - they had to think innovatively to catch on to what Jesus was on about in his Kingdom thinking .Jesus's new kingdom "was not of this world" so it meant imagining something quite new for them, for which there was not pre-existing model to draw from - the OT Kingship model was inadequate, and did not translate into what Jesus building in his new kingdom model on the earth. What does it mean to build Jesus' kingdom now and what are the innovative requirements for us to do it? Can we do it without innovating?
Anyway, I am just brainstorming ideas. Think I've said enough. Hope what I'm saying is useful.

Jon and Mindy Hirst said...


Thanks for sharing those thoughts about Martin Luther King Jr. You are right, he is a great example of an innovator from our past. Looking at his life we can learn so much about mobilizing people, using speaches to create a new discussion and on and on. What do you think is the most significant innovation that he gave us?

Jon and Mindy Hirst said...


Thanks for those reading recommendations! I agree with you that innovations can lead us away from Christ rather than towards Him. They are not always helpful. That is where we need great wisdom to decide if an innovation is in line with Scripture and with the values that Jesus represents.

Apark56 said...

An example of King's (MLK)innovativeness:
King drew from Ghandi's tactics of non-violent resistance to British colonial institutional injustice in India and from the Sermon on the Mount in order to develop his own tactics against institutionalised racism in the USA.
It is interesting that Ghandi also drew inspiration from Christ's teachings like the Sermon on The Mount as well.
MLK also drew heavily from John's Gospel, especially texts to do with proacdtive love. "Love one another", "For God so loved the world that he sent his only beloved Son that whoever believes in Him".
MLK taught his "beloved community" to practice vicarious redemptive suffering. In other words, when they suffered for a righteous cause it was no in vain. It would inevitably touch and change hearts. It is loving your enemies, despite their hate of you. Such love, consistently practised by the faithful will always bear good fruit - it is powerful to turn around hearts from evil - to cause enemies of justice to re-examine their own hearts and turn around in repentance.
MLK not only addressed racism, but was conversant with a large range of other social issues, which he spoke out about: the ethical and political folly of the Vietnam War, nuclear disarmament, hunger and poverty.
His was an adaptive model of leadership.
Just thinking about "adaptive leadership" models, which have a lot to do with innovativeness, I would also recommend readers here to have a look at Alan Hirsch's, The Forgotten Ways, book which talks a lot about the need for adaptive leadership on p.164, 254-58, 261, 273. On p.255-257 he compares adaptive leadership to operational models of leadership. Adaptive leadership, I think is necessarily innovative and is most suited to the complex exigencies of today's rapidly changing postmnodern society.
MLK's leadership style was change generative.
In earlier times the church, being a significant institution with lots of power, was often generative of significant social/religious/poltical change.
Today in a post-Christendom age where the church no longer has that influence, most changes in society are not being generated by the Church. The momentum for change and innovation is being driven by other forces e.g. consumerism, IT technologies etc.
I think to regain innovative prowess and creativity, Michael Card is right when he argues that we as Church need to get back to the basics of re-centering as a gathered faith community on Christ - particularly the un-domesticated Christ - the untamed Christ not subject to our biases and prejudices - and re-study the ancient practices and disciplines of the faith - and our history as a people of faith. In doing so we may just be able to re-find ourselves and God's creativity in us and through us for others as servants of something bigger than ourselves. Most great innovators in the faith, such as Francis of Assisi, Mother Teresa, MLK began with personal journeys of humble pilgrimage and prayerfulness and through struggling and grappling with basic discipleship effecting them individually. They didn't start out with the goal to "do a big, big thing for God". Just wanted to be faithful in "the little things", the things unseen by others. I think too often we want to do "the big things" for God for all the wrong reasons, rather than being faithful in the small things for all the right reasons (e.g. giving ourselves to God and others in service, loving others without self-serving small print etc). Often it takes getting back to mustard seed ideas to find out where God is and wants us also to be. To me thats the place where the creativity and innovativeness that God placed in us as people made in his image is rediscovered by us. I think it involves getting back to basic disciplines such as prayer, biblical faith, theological exploring, fasting etc. as both individuals and as the communitas of the Body of Christ together.