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Don’t Be Fooled by Simplicity

Over the past year or so, I’ve been watching a YouTube channel called AthleanX hosted by Jeff Cavalier. Jeff take a no nonsense approach to training and consistently underscores one key ingredient to getting and staying in shape…be disciplined over the long term. Yep…that’s what it takes. It takes being consistently smart about what you do and how you do it over a relatively long period of time to get and stay in good shape. There is no quick fix or pill you can take (yet)…you just have to put in the work. So, unlike certain other fitness “gurus,” I like Jeff’s channel because he doesn’t offer simple solutions…he just keeps it real.

If I could only give one piece of advice to the next generation of Christians, I would tell them to be wary of simple solutions and those who offer them. It seems to me that those who say they have identified the problem and the solution may well be overstating the case…making things too simple. The Christian life is not simple or comfortable. Yet, so many of those who influence the church offer simple solutions…solutions that don’t get beneath the surface of some particular crisis or hot issue to address some of the harder dynamics that need to be addressed to help the church conform more closely to the image of Christ.

In the course of his research Jacob Burckhardt describes a group he calls “terrible simplifiers.” Those in the group were “demagogues who seek power by exploiting the ire and frustration of the population and making appealing, but ‘terribly simple’ and, ultimately, deceitful promises.” These “simplifiers” work within a context of high anxiety in which people are acutely aware of a crisis for which they have no solution. The “terrible simplifiers” provide easy “solutions,” thus gaining influence whether or not the solutions they suggest ever actually work.

Burckhardt’s more narrow analysis of the terrible simplifiers in Greco-Roman times is less charitable than I would be to simplifiers in the modern day. I’m not convinced that every time someone offers a “terribly simple” solution that they are doing so to grab power. Sometimes, for instance, terrible simplicity is just the product of one’s own anxieties and passions that have not been well thought through and/or have not been made accountable to the broader body of Christ. Passion and concern when combined with influence and a solid distribution channel can also lead to “terrible simplifications.”

At times, simple solutions seem to arise from a lack of patient dialogue within the community of faith. It isn’t simply a question of talking with friends who will affirm your perspectives either…it’s about subjecting yourself and your ideas to the scrutiny of women and men willing to critique a perspective and make it stronger. Our lack of patient dialogue often results in solutions that are less-than reflective of God’s wisdom on a particular matter. Rather than reserve judgment on a matter, we let the crisis and innuendo drive us to the streets with our torches and pitchforks looking for the monster or monsters responsible for our current situation.

So, how might we, as a community of faith, lessen the impact of “terrible simplifiers”? I’ll offer four suggestions:

  1. Don’t Be Anxious…or Detached- As Christians we are to participate in God’s mission (the missio Dei) and to embody Christ in the world. We don’t set our own agendas, but seek to submit our desires and passions to the agenda of God serving him without reserve or regret. While we shouldn’t minimize the challenges we face, we shouldn’t “maximize” them either. It seems to me that the best way to avoid falling prey to terribly simple ideas is to refuse to contribute to the “ire and frustration” of the Christian community in the first place. We can’t detach ourselves from the world’s (or the church’s) problems, but we can engage those problems as a “non-anxious presence” (to borrow a term from Friedman’s Failure of Nerve). Being anxious, raising the alarm bell, and getting “worked up” as a community of faith doesn’t seem to offer an accurate testimony of the God we proclaim. We have been given the gifts of patience, time, prayer, and peace (that surpasses understanding)…we should not discard them.
  2. Learn to Get Comfortable with Complexity- As Daniel Kahneman’s work (Thinking, Fast and Slow) demonstrates, the human mind likes coherence. When we are confronted with a problem, we are more likely to set aside those aspects of the problem that create contradictions or threaten to create complexity. The end result of this tendency is for us to buy into arguments that fit neatly into our conceptual world regardless of the quality of the data that supports such arguments. We have to learn to live with complexity. That doesn’t mean becoming a cynic or skeptic, but it will likely require the we become more honest thinkers and communicators.
    Buy Local- There is nothing wrong with reading books by Christian authors you may never meet or listening to a radio program or podcast from a prominent Christian speaker. There is, however, something wrong if those voices cause you to have a diminished view of those who are in the trenches with you on a day-to-day basis. I have people like that in my life and they are (almost without exception) more insightful about how I can more faithfully walk with Christ than those I listen to on the radio. Why? Because those on the radio or writing books (or blogs) aren’t really speaking to you and me…they are speaking to a topic they believe will be pertinent to you and me. That’s not a bad thing, but it is certainly a distinction worth noting. The people who are closer to you…who are in the mess of life with you…are in a far better position to offer wise guidance rather than simple solutions.
    Don’t Just Focus on the Picture…Look at the Frame– There is a growing body of research demonstrating the various ways in which we are heavily influenced by “framing,” or the manner in which information is presented. Because we are limited creatures we are subject to availability biases. Basically, these sort of biases (of which framing is one) arise because we can only act on the information available to us. All communication (even blog posts written by well meaning authors) utilizes some sort of framing. Framing can be done through titles and headlines, selection of information included in a given piece of writing, or through word choice (see Chapter 1 of Super Thinking for more information in framing).
  • While we shouldn’t make things too complex, we shouldn’t make them too simple either. Not every crisis has an immediate cause. Not every crisis even has an immediate solution. As Christians, we are not called to fix…we are called to live in a manner that demonstrates our new location…we are no longer in darkness which is passing away, but in true light which is already shining (1 John 2:8). That does not mean that we stop seeking to solve problems, but it does mean that we can be patient and calm wading deeply into the problems of the church and the world knowing that we don’t need a simple solution…we need a committed community of disciples prepared to weather faithfully the challenges that come no matter how complex they may be.
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