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.

Fall Theology Conference with Iain Provan (October 15, 2016)

The Canadian Evangelical Theological Association (CETA) has two theology conferences each year. One occurs at the end of May/early June, in conjunction with the Congress of Humanities and Social Sciences of Canada. The other (which was inaugurated in 2012) is held in the Fall (usually in October), in conjunction with a local theological seminary or college.

The Fall 2016 CETA theology conference will be co-sponsored with the Associated Canadian Theological Schools (ACTS seminaries), a consortium of theological schools located on the campus of Trinity Western University, in Langley, BC.

The date for the Fall conference is Saturday, October 15, 2016, and the keynote speaker is Iain Provan, Marshall Sheppard Professor of Biblical Studies at Regent College, in Vancouver, BC. Dr. Provan’s book Seriously Dangerous Religion: What the Old Testament Really Says and Why It Matters (Baylor, 2014) won the 2016 R.B.Y. Scott Book Award at the Canadian Society of Biblical Studies.

You may access the conference website here.

Click here for online registration. Early bird rates are in effect before September 20.

The Times They Are a Changing (Institutions on the Move)

In a strange coincidence, I received notification today that two of the graduate schools I have studied at (and taught at) are selling their buildings. Both have been trying to sell their buildings for a while, and both have now found buyers.

I received both notifications by email today, with links that pointed to online postings from the day before.

Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School

First, I heard the news about Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School (Rochester, NY).

I attended Colgate Rochester in the eighties as an M.A. student, while serving as Protestant Chaplain at the University of Rochester, and then I moved back to Rochester in the nineties for a tenure track faculty position in Old Testament.

It was as a student at Colgate Rochester that I was first introduced to the writings of Walter Brueggemann, whose vision of the relevance the the Old Testament has shaped my understanding of Scripture. And Brueggemann sent me a nice note of congratulation when I started teaching there.

I lived in the dorms for my first semester as a student at Colgate and then again for a semester when I began teaching (before my family had moved to Rochester).

But for a long time the beautiful buildings on the “Hill” have been underused, ever since the other theological partner schools that shared the campus (Bexley Hall and St. Bernard’s) moved to other locations, and the largely residential student population shifted to primarily commuting students.

So with all those empty buildings, including dorms and the large cafeteria, it makes sense that the Divinity School plans to move to a smaller facility in the city, sometime over the next two years. It would be a significant cost savings, while allowing them to invest the funds from the sale in the future of the institution.

Institute for Christian Studies

Later in the day I heard the news about the Institute for Christian Studies (Toronto).

I attended the ICS in the late seventies for my first graduate courses, before I transferred to the University of Guelph for my M.A. in philosophy. While studying at the ICS and during my time in Guelph I worked for the ICS teaching non-credit worldview courses on university campuses in southern Ontario.

It was at the ICS that I received an in-depth exposure to thinking about a Christian worldview, through the institution’s intellectual heritage that could be traced back to the life and thought of Abraham Kuyper.

During my studies at ICS my wife and I lived in a small apartment on the top floor (with roof access), which came with the position of being in charge of janitorial work for the entire building.

I later returned to the ICS in the nineties for my PhD, and taught many adjunct courses in Biblical Studies and Worldview Studies in the Master’s programs. At this point we didn’t live in Toronto, but I commuted to the ICS from St. Catharines a couple days per week.

It was during this time that I was introduced to the work of N. T. Wright, who spoke at the ICS on a number of occasions. Wright’s serious historical and theological interpretation of the New Testament has impacted my vision of the text, including its rootnedness in the Old Testament and Second Temple Judaism.

Between the two times I attended the ICS, the school moved from the fourth floor of the building (where I first had classes) to the second floor, and then to the first floor, having sold the greater share of the five-story building they owned in downtown Toronto to investors.

But now, with the investors going out of business, and the option to buy back the entire building being too much at this time (given the price of real estate in Toronto), it makes sense to sell the entire building (including their own share), while continuing to rent one floor. Just as with Colgate Rochester, this would allow them to invest the funds from the sale in the future of the institution.

A Future Orientation

What do these two similar stories tell us about the state of Christian higher education today? What do they tell us about what is really important?

Yes, institutions need buildings with adequate space and facilities to pursue their mission. But these two stories point to the very real need to cut costs and become leaner and more efficient for the sake of the mission.

I have all sorts of fond memories of these two buildings (the beautiful stone towers of CRCDS and the old fourth floor of ICS). But it simply won’t do to focus nostalgically on the past. To be effective and faithful, institutions need to be aware of what serves the mission. So while being deeply grounded in tradition (never forgetting the past), faithful institutions need to be oriented to the present and to anticipate the future.

I am a grateful recipient of the formative intellectual traditions I inherited from both these graduate schools. And I am fully supportive of these ways in which each is preparing to meet future challenges.