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.

Reflections on the Ending of a Sabbatical—and on the Year Ahead

I’ve been on sabbatical from Northeastern Seminary throughout the Fall semester of 2016. It’s been a well-needed break from teaching, so I could work on a research and writing project I’ve wanted to dig into for a while.

My teaching for the Spring 2016 semester ended in early May. That meant I was able to get started on my planned research at the start of summer 2016.

With the sabbatical now over, I’m getting into gear to begin teaching again this week. I’ve just realized that it will be my twenty-second year of full-time teaching (I started at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School in January 1996, having done quite a bit of adjunct teaching in the previous eight years).

It is also coming up on my third anniversary of blogging (my first post was February 15, 2014).

Plus, yesterday was my birthday.

So this seems like be a good time to reflect:

  • on my sabbatical
  • on blogging
  • on getting older.

It turns out these three are all connected.

My Sabbatical

The first thing to say is that there wasn’t much “Sabbath” (that is, rest) in my sabbatical; I worked very hard almost the entire time (I only took a break leading up to Christmas). But then a sabbatical these days is meant to be for academic work (usually for research and writing). Indeed, I had to put in a proposal over a year in advance to justify my sabbatical (which comes after, not in, the seventh year).

This was only my third ever sabbatical.

My first came while I was teaching at Colgate Rochester Crozer Divinity School (they gave a full-year sabbatical every seven years or a semester sabbatical every three and a half years; I chose the latter). I used that sabbatical to work on my doctoral dissertation, though I took time in the summer before the sabbatical proper to be reinvigorated mentally and physically (I did a lot of bike riding in the country).

Since I left Colgate Rochester for Roberts Wesleyan College a year before I would have been eligible for my next sabbatical, I lost out on the time I had already put in. I had to teach for seven more years at Roberts before I became eligible for another sabbatical (so there was a ten year gap between the first and the second).

After waiting so long, I decided to make the most of my second sabbatical (Spring 2009). I committed myself in advance to writing and presenting a number of papers, teaching a three-week intensive course in Old Testament theology at the Caribbean Graduate School of Theology (in Jamaica), continuing to supervise a seminary student for his internship (even into my sabbatical), while trying to work on my eschatology book, A New Heaven and a New Earth (I had signed the contract two years before).

I realized afterwards that I had over-extended myself for the short time I had available. I did get a lot of work done on multiple projects, but I had only begun the eschatology book by the time the sabbatical was over.

So as my third sabbatical drew near I decided to focus my efforts squarely on one research and writing project, a new book called The Silence of Abraham, the Passion of Job: Explorations in the Theology of Lament (for Baker Academic).

To that end during the summer I wrote one new paper and revised two papers I had previously written, with a view to these becoming the core of the three main parts of the book—on lament, on Abraham, and on Job.

I presented all three papers, one in Canada at the start of the summer, and two in Australia during the Fall. I received good feedback on all three and in the last month I revised them all for publication; two will be published in journals (Canadian-American Theological Review and St. Mark’s Review), one in a collection of essays (Lament Rekindled, possibly published by Continuum).

The papers are:

  • “God’s Loyal Opposition: Psalmic and Prophetic Protest as a Mode of Faithfulness in the Hebrew Bible.”
  • “Unbinding the Aqedah from the Straightjacket of Tradition: An Inner-Biblical Interpretation of Abraham’s Test in Genesis 22.”
  • “Does God Come to Bury Job or to Praise Him? The Function of YHWH’s Second Speech from the Whirlwind.”

So my sabbatical was successful in terms of my completing these pieces of my larger book project. And I have a pretty clear sense of what I need to do for the remaining chapters.

My Time in Australia

Since two of these papers were presented in Australia, with feedback from other biblical scholars, I’m grateful for the invitation to go Down Under for a month.

How it came about was that in March 2016 I received  an invitation to come to Australia for 4-6 weeks in the Fall as a visiting theologian; this would involve me presenting on my current research and it was to also give me time to dialogue with others about the material I was working on and to do further research.

Normally, I would have had to decline an offer like this because of teaching commitments, but the upcoming sabbatical enabled me to accept. I went for four weeks and had a wonderful time, first at St. Barnabas College in Adelaide, then at St. Mark’s National Theological Centre in Canberra.

However, the trip exhausted me. First, there was the actual travel (a 36 hour trip each way).

Then, I didn’t get much time to catch up on sleep while I was there. And I’ve found that as I’ve gotten older, I need more (not less) sleep to function well.

I was originally scheduled to give six presentations in Australia, three at each theological school (St. Barnabas and St. Mark’s). But then I agreed to add just one more item (and then just one more, etc.), until I ended up giving a total of eleven presentations of various sorts (from the papers I had prepared over the summer, to a two-hour radio interview the day after I arrived, preaching in two church services, giving public lectures, speaking to theological students in various settings, and writing two response papers to other scholars’ presentations).

And this doesn’t count the one-on-one meetings I had or the group social events I attended (and I enjoyed all of this). Yet as an introvert I found myself perpetually tired and often running on adrenaline.

The upshot is that I worked very hard while I was in Australia. It was definitely a worthwhile experience and I got to know some amazing people (both inside and outside of academic settings). And I got to see some of the local fauna (kangaroos and such). But I didn’t get any significant research on my book done while I was Down Under.

And I came home sleep deprived.

I had to rest up for almost a week just to get the energy for my next assignments—three public lectures I was scheduled to give on the topic of my new book at a university in Canada and two academic papers at the Society of Biblical Literature (both of which involved traveling and being away from home for days at a time).

Lessons Learned

What I learned from the Australia segment of my sabbatical was that I too easily take on more than I should realistically accept, given the limitations of my time and energy.

But this was certainly not a problem limited to my time in Australia.

Before I went to Australia I had committed to writing two book reviews for a journal and a number of blog posts for BioLogos (all things I really wanted to do, and all due by the end of the year).

But then just before I left for Australia I received notification from a number of editors I had been working with that final edits on various of my essays were due ASAP in order to meet publication deadlines.

Needless to say, very little of this got done while I was in Australia, or even after I returned, even though I worked on editing and writing in most of my free time from September through mid-December (at which time I took a needed break, to prepare for Christmas).

The Past Year of Blogging

This brings us to blogging.

Since the beginning of 2016 (and for most of the year before that too), my schedule of teaching, combined with talks and writing and presenting papers, meant that I had little time to write very many blog posts for this website.

A sign of this is that I have published part 1 of some blog posts (like on my week of Jewish learning or my Australia trip), but have not yet got to part 2.

I have actually begun drafts of these continuation posts (and many others that I’ve wanted to write), but I simply lacked the time to bring them to completion (as I’ve blogged about before, I find I need to take time to write and edit anything well, including blog posts).

When I began blogging almost three years go, my idea was to publish one blog post per week; but I have often been lucky to get one post out per month of late.

I simply came up against my own limitations of time and energy. There is always limited time available to anyone; but in addition I’ve found that I need to manage my energy better as I grow older.

Another Birthday

That leads to the topic of my birthday; I turned 62 yesterday.

The paradox is that due to regular exercise (walking swimming, weights), I feel better than I did ten or even twenty years ago. Some of my commitment to exercise is due to a couple of injuries I sustained a few years back; I’ve come to realize that without this exercise I wouldn’t be able to function at the level I currently do.

Nevertheless, I need to be realistic about my limitations.

Sure, it feels great to be asked to edit papers I’ve given orally for publication or to write an essay from scratch for an anthology, or to be invited to give talks at churches, colleges, retreats, and conferences. And many of these projects address real needs.

As I face a new year, however, I’ve come to re-affirm the truth (which I already knew) that it is better to focus on what I know I am called to do than to scatter my energies on multiple projects that others want me to do, especially when there is limited time available.

I thought I had learned this lesson a while back.

I had already come to a similar conclusion over six years ago (in 2010), and had begun to divest myself of many commitments that I had agreed to only in order to please the person asking. I have also, since then, learned to say “No” much more often than I used to.

But I clearly need to do this better.

To that end, I recently (in the past few weeks) turned down new speaking engagements and I even pulled out of some writing assignments that I had previously committed myself to. It became clear to me that I couldn’t complete everything presently on my plate (at least, not well), given the start of the new semester.

A New Year’s Resolution?

As the new year begins I want to devote my energy to my teaching and mentoring of students and to complete the various oral and writing assignments that I’ve intentionally taken on for 2017.

If I focus just on these, I might even be able to get back to posting regularly on this website.

I’ve got drafts started on the conclusion to my posts about Jewish learning and Australia (I’ll probably do these first); then there are partially written posts on the topics of prayer, worship, suffering, evolution, Jamaican independence, and my six degrees of separation from Malcolm Gladwell (that one’s been sitting there for almost a year!).

As I start my sixty-third year, I am grateful to God for all good gifts. I would say a hearty Amen! to the post about gratitude I wrote on my birthday two years ago.

Although I don’t (usually) make new year’s resolutions, perhaps one is in order as we face 2017.

I’ll take my cue from the last Calvin and Hobbes cartoon ever to appear (which was published on December 31, 1995), the week before I began my first full-time teaching job). I hung a framed copy in my office when I started teaching in January 1996.

Calvin and his pet tiger are at the top of a snow-covered hill, in their toboggan. Looking down on the scene below, Calvin says: “it’s a magical world, Hobbes, ol’ buddy.” Then he adds: “let’s go exploring!”

The new year lies before us.

I hope you will join me.

Image result for calvin and hobbes let's go sledding

No Need to Fear Evolution

An excellent blogger on science and religion issues, who goes by the handle RJS, has just posted an introduction to my first BioLogos blog (Why Christians Don’t Need to Be Threatened by Evolution) on the website Musings on Science and Theology. RJS’s posts are then re-posted on the Jesus Creed website, where comments are allowed (Jesus Creed is a blog run by New Testament scholar Scot McKnight; it is hosted by Patheos, which hosts a variety of religion blogs).

The post by RJS is called No Need to Fear and it goes beyond introducing my BioLogos blog. It goes on to explain (very well) my argument about Genesis 1 and what it means to be made in God’s image from my book The Liberating Image: The Imago Dei in Genesis 1.

But then RJS has blogged about The Liberating Image before in no less than nine posts! And I did an invited follow-up post on how my thinking about the imago Dei has developed since the book. RJS also did a nine-part series on my more recent book A New Heaven and a New Earth: Reclaiming Biblical Eschatology. (For anyone who doesn’t have time to read either book, these blogs give a pretty accurate portrayal of my argument).

Having done my introductory BioLogos post on my approach to evolution (Why Christians Don’t Need to Be Threatened by Evolution) and then a second post on cosmic creation (The Ancient Universe and the Cosmic Temple), my next post will be on what it means to be created in God’s image according to the Scriptures and how that might intersect with what science is telling us about human evolution.

Interestingly, the blog by RJS (No Need to Fear) introduces some of the themes I will touch on in my third BioLogos post. So you can check it out if you want an advance taste of what I might say on that topic.