When I was in divinity school, Dr. Stanley Hauerwas was probably our most famous faculty member. This famed ethicist had written many books, was well known around the lecture circuit, and had even been declared “America’s best theologian” a decade earlier. Hauerwas’s name commanded respect among the students and alumni I encountered, and Duke’s promotional materials featured him prominently. I knew dozens of pastors and professors with his books on their shelves— especially among Methodists. So imagine my surprise when I started working at my first church and casually name-dropped Dr. Hauerwas only to be greeted with: “Who?”
Universities often have the stereotype of being “ivory towers,” spaces of isolation from the rest of the world, but I think this phenomenon extends beyond academia. How many church gatherings have you attended where it felt like the people around you were speaking in code? How many times have you attended a party and clutched your drink for dear life as the friends around you communicated only in inside jokes? How many times have family members with different political persuasions almost come to blows with you because of their concern for issues that aren’t even on your radar? The problem behind all these scenarios is the same:
when you surround yourself with people who act and think and believe like you do,
when you consume media that only reasserts your own views,
when you only interact with people who like all the stuff you like,
you risk losing touch with the people who don’t.
While the internet echo chamber and our create-your-own-adventure approach to news have certainly exacerbated this effect, humans may have always had a tendency to silo themselves. After all, the term “ivory tower” is centuries old, even if it didn’t take on its modern negative connotation until the 1830s. A bubble of likeminded people can be a safe, fun environment, and limited time in a bubble can feel invigorating or even inspiring. But we can’t stay in our bubbles forever. They aren’t real, and they can’t last. Every bubble eventually pops, and then you’re left out of place in the world beyond its safe soapy confines.
Over the years, I’ve unwittingly found myself in many different bubbles.
I grew up in a moderately conservative Evangelical church. Most members believed the world was hopelessly corrupt and Jesus was on his way back to fix it after a great war and some other stuff very loosely based on the book of Revelation. We spoke a common language (purity, accountability, evangelism). We read many of the same white male authors (C.S. Lewis, Joshua Harris, Tim LaHaye, the Prayer of Jabez guy). We read the same Bible (NIV), and we read it the same way (“literally”). But before you get the wrong idea about the church, know that these folks were kind to me, and most are still like an extended family. Still, as it became increasingly clear I had more in common with people outside the bubble than within it, I needed to leave.
When I eventually replanted my feet in Christianity late in college, I attended more liberal and progressive churches and student groups. While my views still skew progressive today, I quickly noticed something: We spoke a common language (community, justice, love). We read many of the same white male authors (Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne, Donald Miller). We read the same Bible (NRSV), and we read it the same way (inquisitively). Were these new communities any less a bubble than the church where I grew up?
Any community has the potential to become exclusive,
and exclusive communities quickly become bubbles,
and bubbles skew our perception of the world.
So what’s the antidote to this?
Go to a public space (bar, coffee shop, airport terminal, etc.) and just listen.
See what others have to say.
Become aware of your bubble.
Open your views to critique.
Allow yourself the choice to maintain, adapt, or abandon your views.
And do this often.
While a bubble may be affirming for a brief period of time,
if we genuinely want to make the world a better place,
we have to start by spending time in it.