My Six Degrees of Separation from Malcolm Gladwell

I started working on this blog post a long time ago. But I never completed it, due to a variety of writing commitments that took priority.

However, a recent turn of events has brought Malcolm Gladwell, and his family, to the forefront of my mind.

On March 11, 2017 Malcolm Gladwell’s father, Graham, passed away, after suffering from Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s for a number of years. My heart goes out to the family, as I remember vividly the passing of my own mom and dad (Jack and Phyllis Middleton) a few years back.

My wife, Marcia, and I met Graham Gladwell and his wife, Joyce, in Jamaica, while walking on the beach at Silver Sands in February 2016. They had been visiting from Canada, where they lived for almost fifty years (Graham was a Brit, and they met in England when Joyce was studying in London). It turns out that both our families were frequent visitors to that beautiful (and relatively inexpensive) Jamaican resort (though Malcolm didn’t accompany them that year).

Marcia and Richard Middleton with Joyce and Graham Gladwell

It was after meeting the senior Gladwells that I began thinking more seriously about doing this blog.

The way we met them is interesting. Las Newman, newly retired president of the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology (CGST), was with us. He stopped the couple and asked: “Is that Faith Linton?” “No,” the answer came back. “It’s her twin sister, Joyce.”

What the Preacher Forgot to Tell Me

Previous to that chance meeting, I had met Faith Linton (Joyce’s twin and Malcolm’s aunt), also in Jamaica.

While on Sabbatical in February 2009, I taught a three-week course at CGST in Kingston. While I was there, Las Newman (who was then CGST president) brokered an introduction to Faith.

CGST had recently hosted a launch of Faith’s new book, What the Preacher Forgot to Tell Me: Identity and Gospel in Jamaica (BayRidge Books, 2008). Las had written the Foreword, and Malcolm Gladwell introduced and promoted the book at the event.

What the Preacher Forgot to Tell Me is a semi-autobiographical meditation on the importance of creation theology—especially the human status as the image of God—as the basis for proclaiming the Gospel. Having taught at girls’ summer camps in Jamaica for many years, Faith came to see the difference it made to invite young girls from broken families (who had often been abused), with low self esteem, to be open to God’s surpassing valuation of them as his image, rather than trying to guilt-trip them into the faith by focusing on how sinful they were (that’s something they already knew very well).

Since I had written on what it means to be made in God’s image (in chap. 3 of The Transforming Vision, in chap. 6 of Truth Is Stranger than It Used to Be, and in The Liberating Image), Faith had wanted to meet me, and I likewise wanted to meet her.

Three of us drove from CGST in Kingston, up and over Mt Rossa (appropriately nicknamed Mt. Diablo), to Ocho Rios on the north coast (this was before the opening of the new highway from Kingston to Ocho Rios). From there we traveled eighteen miles into the rolling hills of the parish of St. Ann, to Cranbrook estate, a farm with surrounding lands that had been converted to a botanical garden and ecological park by proprietors Ivan and Faith Linton (both of whom were retired school teachers).

Richard with Faith and Ivan Linton

It was a delight to spend an afternoon with Faith and Ivan; and Faith and I exchanged signed copies of our books.

Brown Face, Big Master

I found out from Faith that her sister Joyce (Malcolm’s mother) is also an author, having written a fascinating book about being brown (mixed race) and a Christian. The book, Brown Face, Big Master, was originally published in 1969 by Inter-Varsity in England, and has been reprinted through other publishers a couple of times since (Doctor Bird, 2001; Macmillian Caribbean, 2004).

Faith also gave me a copy of Joyce’s book (the 2001 edition).

In the book, Joyce recounts what it was like to grow up in a mixed-race, privileged, educated family in rural Jamaica (her father was headmaster of the local school), but then to experience racial discrimination in England for being “coloured.”

Joyce grew up in Jamaica during a time when the precise shade of skin color mattered (the lighter, the better). This contrasted sharply with my own experience of growing up in Kingston when black power was significantly impacting people’s self image. I can remember Nina Simone’s song, “(To be) Young, Gifted, and Black”—especially the reggae version by Bob and Marcia (1970), which predated Aretha Franklin’s version (1972)—getting a lot of airplay in my teenage years.

So Joyce’s book provided an important (and very personal) glimpse into race and class in pre-independence Jamaica.

Malcolm Gladwell tells the story of his mother’s life, and recounts an excerpt from Brown Face, Big Master, in the epilogue to his own book Outliers: The Story of Success (Little, Brown, & Co., 2008; paperback 2011). Since Outliers is about how context affects success, the epilogue (entitled “A Jamaican Story”) is Gladwell’s attempt to account for the impact of his mother’s heritage on his own life.

I haven’t (yet) met Malcolm Gladwell, though I’ve read most of his books. But it was a privilege to meet his parents and his aunt, as it was to read What the Preacher Forgot to Tell Me and Brown Face, Big Master.

Six Degrees of Separation

In Malcolm’s first book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Little, Brown, & Co., 2000; paperback 2002), he writes about six degrees of separation, the idea that everyone is linked together by no more than six steps (via other people).

So, if you are person #1, someone you know (person #2) is connected to another person (#3), who is connected to another person (#4), and through one more step (person #5), you are linked to person #6. And this is thought to be able to account for the links between just about everyone in the world today.

According to Wikipedia, the idea of six degrees of separation can be traced back to a short story called “Chains” by the Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy, in his book Everything is Different (published in 1929). The idea then became the premise of a 1990 play by John Guare, called “Six Degrees of Separation.” This then spawned the game “Six Degrees of Separation from Kevin Bacon.” And on it goes.

Gladwell himself cites the so-called the small world experiment done in the 1960s by psychologist Stanley Milgram, who tried to find out how many steps it would take to connect 160 people from Omaha, Nebraska to a stockbroker in Massachusetts.

Milgram discovered that half the connections were channeled through just three people, whom Gladwell calls Connectors. Gladwell goes on to illustrate the point by pointing out that thirty of his forty closest friends are ultimately linked to him through one particular person.

This leads to his comment: “Six degrees of separation doesn’t mean that everyone is linked to everyone else in just six steps. It means that a very small number of people are linked to everyone else in a few steps, and the rest of us are linked to the world through those special few.” (The Tipping Point, from chap. 2: “The Law of the Few”)

My Six (or Less) Degrees of Separation from Malcolm Gladwell

So I thought I would share my own “six degrees of separation” from Malcolm Gladwell. It isn’t primarily about my meeting his parents and his aunt.

My connection to Malcolm Gladwell actually precedes those meetings, though I only found out about the connection through my conversation with Faith Linton.

  • The maiden name of Malcolm’s mother (Joyce) and her twin sister (Faith) is Nation.
  • Joyce and Faith Nation are first cousins to Dave Nation.
  • Dave and Barb Nation (Jamaicans currently living in Canada) are aunt and uncle to my wife Marcia.

That may be only four degrees of separation (depending on how you count it)—from Richard to Marcia; from Marcia to her uncle; from Marcia’s uncle to Joyce; from Joyce to Malcolm.

And I don’t even think there was a Connector involved.

An Extra Connection

I’ll just throw in an extra, other bit of linkage—this time between Faith Linton and myself.

Faith’s book What the Preacher Forgot to Tell Me was published by BayRidge Books, an imprint of Castle Quay Books (Canada). This publishing company is run by a husband and wife team—Larry Willard and Marina Hofman Willard.

Marina is an Old Testament scholar, who got her PhD from Wycliffe College, at the University of Toronto.

In October 2014 Marina won the Jack and Phyllis Middleton Memorial Award for her paper presented at the Fall theology conference of the Canadian Evangelical Theological Association. This is an annual award given in honor of my parents.

Then in June 2015 Marina and Larry, being publishers, attended the Word Guild gala awards ceremony for books by Canadian authors (held in Toronto).

It was Marina who first let me know (by email from her iPhone) in real time during the ceremony that my book A New Heaven and a New Earth had won the Word Guild award for best Biblical Studies book.

It really is a very, very small world.

Is It Okay to Question God?

Many Christians have been taught in church that it’s not proper to question God. In some cases, church members are criticized for even questioning their pastor.

But the Psalms have a very different perspective—especially the psalms of lament or complaint, which comprise one-third of the Psalter (about fifty psalms). Over and over, various psalmists honestly bring their concerns to God, often in the form of critical questions.

Of course, we can ask questions in a very pious, subdued, and respectful way. Or, like many of the psalms, we can just throw our questions, audaciously, at God.

The Audacious Questioning of Lament Psalms

Perhaps the most famous is Psalm 22, which opens by asking: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” No niceties, no “Dear God, I come to you in praise and thanksgiving.” Just an outrageous question, which is really an accusation.

Lament psalms are actually a form of prayer we are already familiar with; we usually call this supplication or petition. In such prayers we tell God about the problem that is bothering us (the complaint) and we ask for help (the petition).

But lament psalms push the envelope further.

They are not a polite form of supplication; they can be quite abrasive, even accusing God of being part of the problem. This is the point of the question addressed to God at the start of Psalm 22; and it is typical of lament psalms to voice their complaints in the form of rhetorical questions.

Likewise, the petitions go beyond what we might consider proper. One psalmist asks God to stop abusing him (“Remove your whip from me; / I am worn down by the hostility of your hand”; Psalm 39:10) and even to leave him alone, as if God’s very presence was oppressive (“Look away from me, that I may smile again”; Psalm 39:13).

Jeremiah’s Lament

But one of the most powerful—and daring—prayers of lament in the Bible is found not in the Psalms, but in the book of Jeremiah. Throughout the book, the prophet Jeremiah voices a series of lament prayers to God, culminating in the anguished prayer of chapter 20.

I recently spoke in chapel at Roberts Wesleyan College on Jeremiah’s prayer in Jeremiah 20:7–18; my secondary text was the 1986 song “Dear God,” from the British group XTC.

Jeremiah starts his prayer rather impiously by accusing God of deceiving him, and goes on to explain that God did not live up to his promises to support him as a prophet; his point is that despite God’s promises of protection (see Jeremiah 1:8 and 1:19), he has been persecuted for bringing God’s word to the people. At the end, he wishes that he had never been born.

A Contemporary Lament Song

The song “Dear God” is a secular analogue to Jeremiah’s prayer. The entire song is addressed to God (it is in the form of a prayer), and blames God for causing so much suffering in the world—and there’s quite a list of such suffering. The song ends with the singer telling God that he doesn’t believe in him.

My assigned topic for this chapel talk was: “Is it okay to question God?”

My short answer was and is that it is indeed permissible—not just to question God, but to challenge God. Maybe your pastor can’t handle that; but God certainly can.

In fact, the lament psalms and the prayers of Jeremiah teach us that God wants us to bring all the disorientation of our lives to him, to be brutally honest with him in prayer. And that was the focus of my chapel talk.

Ultimately, God took all the pain of the world into himself on the cross, to give us back redemption.

In comparison to that, what’s a little questioning?

If you’re interested, you can view my chapel talk on questioning God on You Tube.

New Creation Has Begun—The Haverim Lectures at the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies

I am about to head off to Dayton, OH to give the Haverim Lectures at the Center for Judaic-Christian Studies (Haverim is Hebrew for friends).

I’ll be giving three lectures on Saturday, March 18, 2017 on the topic of eschatology, with the overall title: New Creation Has Begun: How This Big Idea Changes Everything.

My three lectures will address:

  • The sacred calling of being human as the image of God
  • The overall plot of the biblical story
  • The Bible’s vision of the consummation of all things

They will be based on my book A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology (Baker Academic, 2014) and will focus on how the biblical vision of the origin and destiny of creation can inspire and empower us for living today.

You can access more information about the lectures here.

The Center for Judaic-Christian Studies plans to make recordings of the lectures available for those interested.