Tall Poppies and Church Planting

Mark Driscoll caused some ripples here in Australia with his observation that the tall poppy syndrome ( in which the successful are cut down) worked against the entrepreneurial spirit of Church planting. Driscoll noted that this cultural trait needed to be resisted by Australians. Driscoll pointed the finger at socialism as the cause of this quirk in Australian culture, in contrast to the more entrepreneurial spirit of American culture. This got me thinking, was socialism in Australia to blame? And was the tall poppy syndrome something that we Australians needed to ditch in favour of a more ‘go get em’ American style of success and leadership?

Lets start with the cause. Is socialism the cause of the tall poppy syndrome? Robert Hughes in his magnificent history of Australia, described the way in which Australia’s convict roots shaped our culture, especially the way in which criminals were put in work gangs of four regardless of race, ethnicity, language or social class. Thus a natural flattening occurred, and anyone who put their ‘head up’ was pulled down. So maybe the real cause of the tall poppy syndrome is Australia’s convict heritage? Well this is the point in which the New Zealanders will put their hands up. Many Australians who have spent significant time living in New Zealand will often note how the tall poppy syndrome is more entrenched in Kiwi culture than in Australian culture. And as any proud Kiwi will tell you, New Zealand in contrast to Australia was never a penal colony. So that scrubs that one off the list of possible causes.

So is this just a trait then of living down under? Is it a cultural anomaly caused by the fact that Australians and New Zealanders live at the bottom of the world, away from the cultural action of Europe, and North America? Well no, the tall poppy syndrome, is also found in the UK. As I discovered when I recently visited it is also entrenched in Denmark and Scandinavia, where it is known as the ‘Jante Law’. The tall poppy syndrome can also be found in the Netherlands where it is known as ‘maaiveldcultuur‘.

Now we are starting to get somewhere. Any good student of Church history will be starting to note a pattern. With the exception of Catholic Ireland (which probably says more about it’s historical relationship to Britain) the tall poppy syndrome seems to take root in protestant countries and cultures affected by the Reformation. The natural suspicion of papal authority flows into a wariness of earthly authority both sacred and secular. The simmering distrust of authority in European culture could of course be seen in the feasts of fools, held regularly in pre-reformation Europe in which Church authorities were mocked on specific days during the year. But such sentiments obviously came to a fore in the Reformation as northern Europe instituted a corrective which reminded it’s citizens that ultimate authority resided on heaven and not on earth.

So then is the real cause of the tall poppy syndrome the Reformation and is Driscoll wrong then about socialism as the culprit? Well yes and no. Archie Brown in his history of communism notes that the initial inspiration of socialism was the early church (particularly Acts 2:42-47). Brown also observes that the later revolutionary, and anti-authorative spirit of the Reformation was also a primary influence on the development of socialism. Thus one of the most powerful early streams in  the birth of socialism was the Christian socialism of John Ruskin (that is until Marx and Engels begun to lay the frame work of a materialist socialism and Lenin worked in the Second International to undermine the faith based Christian and Jewish socialists) . So a more accurate statement would be yes the tall poppy syndrome was influenced by socialism (which was itself influenced by the Reformation) but to a greater extent it was influenced by the effect that the Reformation had upon the way that protestant countries viewed authority and leadership.

So why then does the United States buck the trend? It is a country that was settled by large amounts of people from cultures such as Britain, Ireland, Holland and Scandinavia which valued the egalitarian ethos of the tall poppy syndrome? It was also a country in which a major founding influence was the Puritans who carried the Reformation’s suspicion of papal and governmental authority. Well probably at its beginnings, the social sobriety of the tall poppy syndrome would have been evident in American culture. But as American culture developed, certain influences gave birth to the more culturally respectful view of leadership that we see today. Jay Winik notes in The Great Upheaval: America and the Birth of the Modern World that the United States as an infant democracy in a world of monarchies had to give weight to the office of President to avoid international diplomatic isolation. There was even a move to address the office of President as ‘his majesty’.  Therefore positions of leadership in the United States developed a greater sense of public respect than in other Western Countries.

To fully chart the emergence of the unique mix of entrepreneurialism and rugged, expressive individualism that America has given to the world would take too much time here. ( If you are really interested Neal Gabler and Barbara Ehenriech do a fairly good job.)

So putting causes aside is the tall poppy syndrome something that the Church in cultures that posses it need to work against? Well I think that it is all down to extremes, at its worst it can be a poisonous response which alienates the innovator, the change agent and the creator, it can be a deadening device which creates a banal culture of the lowest common denominator. It can be sinful expression of what the Germans label Schadenfreude, that is a delight in the misfortune of others. However a dose of  the tall poppy syndrome taken sparingly can be a great antidote to the messiah complex and the idolisation of leadership. It can remind us of the great biblical truth that all have fallen short of the glory of God, and that every one of us in a position of leadership and influence is still a sinful being, who at times will bring that dysfunction to our positions of leadership.

Equally so the American spirit of Entrepreneurialism can have its benefits, it can foster great social change, it can free the individual to innovate and create without fear of retribution. I often note when I am in the United States that I don’t have to play down the fact that I have written a couple of books, something I find myself doing here in Australia. However taken to it’s extreme it can also have a dark side. It can result in a slavish, idolatrous and dangerous view of leadership. It can make us look for a Messiah figure in someone apart from the genuine Messiah. It has also given birth to the cult of celebrity worship that we see spreading across the world, and sadly infecting the Church.

So I think that for Church Planters in cultures that possess a tall poppy syndrome, it is about redeeming the cultural value. Putting the value back in its correct place.  It reminds us to not take ourselves too seriously as leaders, to remember that we are called to be a new kind of leader, that is a servant leader who does not think of themselves as better than others. The same applies for the American value of entrepreneurialism, in its right place it can be a wonderful gift. As with almost anything it is about putting this in their right place. As G.K Chesterton in Orthodoxy rightly observed the problem with the world is not the vices but the virtues that are out of their right place.  So it is all a question of bringing any cultural trait or value under the Lordship of Christ.

But hey what would I know? (Note Aussie ‘tall poppy syndrome influenced’ self effacing end this post)


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