Discuss: The Christian background

How does Kavin Rowe’s notion of “background” press us to consider the assumptions that structure the patterns of our institutions?

This morning I ate breakfast alone at my desk while making a to-do list, checking e-mail and reading an article about why Platonists love Roger Federer -- all this with headphones on and in relative isolation from other human beings. This isn’t particularly odd behavior for the modern workplace, but it would be absurd to members of a monastic community, I imagine. My eating practice would make no sense against the assumptions that structure its daily communal life. According to Kavin Rowe, some component of that community’s “background” -- the interpretive structure by which we form assumptions and therefore make sense of the world -- would signal to them that Christians are not the kind of human beings that eat alone, while multi-tasking and with 47 different kinds of technological distraction in front of them. Worrying about Platonism and Roger Federer is another matter entirely.

This week at Faith & Leadership, Rowe describes an approach to “Christ-shaped leadership” that has little to do with specific techniques or pious affectations, and more to do with the development of a fundamentally Christian “background” that frames Christian thought and practice (read “Christ-shaped leadership” for yourself; it’s categorically better first-hand, and his explanation of “background” entails some fancy hermeneutical and ontological gymnastics that resist glib summary).

Rowe suggests human beings navigate the overwhelming and “buzzing” complexity of the world through:

“Strategies that help to organize our lives by means of focused patterns. These patterns are “sense makers”: they reduce the appearance of complexity by screening out certain things and highlighting others, and they make the world appear to us in specific and manageable ways -- ways that make sense of the buzzing. Most often, these patterns are not “seeable” in the foreground of our lives. Instead, they form the background.”

These patterns form our “background.” But Christians do not need any old set of patterns, they need distinctly Christian ones, and ones that have structural bearing for the shape of Christian institutions:

“Christ-shaped leadership is about developing a fundamentally Christian background in your institution or organization. The point is to extend, deepen or, in some cases, begin to provide the sort of structure -- both interpretive and concrete -- so that Christian thought and practice are done by habit, as second nature. They are what ‘make sense’ to do in your institution.”

How does this strike you? I think Rowe takes us through more than a complicated intellectual exercise. He presses us to consider the assumptions that structure the systemic patterns of our institutions, some that may need pruning (as Greg Jones suggests) in order for Christians to work toward their telos.

Where does background show up in your institution’s life? How would reflecting on it possibly inform your work?

Benjamin McNutt is the editor of Call & Response. You can follow him on Twitter at @benjaminmcnutt.