Tall poppies, Mark Driscoll, and the Christian

Australian culture is renowned for tall poppy syndrome – we love cutting down the exalted. We’re a sea of lavender with no place for sunflowers. It’s the same in Christian circles as it is in the real world. We do it, but it seems we increasingly feel guilty about doing it. Is tall poppy syndrome a bad habit? I have to admit its one of my favourite things about our culture. We don’t like pretension. We don’t like big noters. We try to avoid blowing our own trumpets. But because we’re aware that this is a cultural foible it seems we’re trying to stamp it out.

When I posted about Mark Driscoll’s Facebook overadequacy (or perhaps short man syndrome) a couple of people immediately responded that this was “tall poppy syndrome” and that it was wrong. I suspect Driscoll himself would see it that way (except he pays no attention to bloggers or criticism).

Funnily, “tall poppy syndrome” was one of the 18 problems Driscoll diagnosed Australia with – could this be a self fulfilling prophecy? He knew we’d criticise him for being (metaphorically) big, loud and arrogant, so he circumvented that critique by making it a problem. Without really putting the case against it together. Here’s what he said:

You suffer from tall poppy syndrome. You need to work this into your preaching and teaching so that people see that the tall poppy syndrome is a sin. Thinking that 1000 people in church is a high water mark is unhealthy. The culture generally chops down people who rise up, and the church does the same. That’s a sin. My church gives 10% to plant churches—$1.2 million this year.”

I don’t think tall poppy syndrome is about success. Aussies love a success story, especially a rags-to-riches success story. What we don’t like is people who brag about it. We don’t envy megachurches – we don’t like people who equate their success with their superiority and tell us about it. In short, and pardon my slang, we don’t like “wankers”… tall poppy syndrome is an issue if it’s just thinly-guised jealousy, and it often is. But when it’s pointing to something not quite right about somebody’s self promotion I think that’s ok. I think it’s better than that, I think it’s useful. Especially for those of us who aren’t perfect.

The important questions I think Christians need to answer before chopping a tall poppy to its knees is “who gave the growth” and “to whom is it being attributed” – I think if the answer to both those questions is clearly “God” then we should avoid tall poppyising. But if the answer is anything less – if there’s a skerric of self promotion involved with somebody’s “coaching” or in what they post online – I think we’re right to be a little cynical and to make a little noise.

On the question of Driscoll – God has clearly given him gifts, and his church is clearly growing, and he mostly attributes this appropriately. But it’s when he says stuff like this that I begin to ask questions:

I wrote this book while fathering five kids, pastoring Mars Hill, pursuing my wife, leading Acts 29, growing The Resurgence, traveling, doing media, and so forth. So, it was written in large part late at night, at Little League games, and on airplanes. In many ways, I guess I did my writing much like the apostles did their epistles—on the run, doing ministry.


Arthur says:

I reckon the other thing going on here, which I think comes out in the “wankers” reference, is the differences between American culture and Australian culture. Americans dig authority and Aussies don’t (especially when there’s big-noting involved. Someone says, “You got tall poppy syndrome”, and we hear, “Here it goes again, the Pom general sending our troops to their death in Peter Weir’s Gallipoli… Or something… Maybe that’s a mixed metaphor… Anyway…”

I guess that the charge of “tall poppy syndrome” is sometimes more reflective of our egalitarian culture than anything. We don’t like experts and we like our leaders to be “one of us”.

Nathan Campbell says:

Yeah, absolutely agree. It’s definitely a cultural difference. Probably due to my own bias I think we’re closer to the mark, that and the Jesus like model of humility.

But there I go, comparing Australians to Jesus when I’ve suggested Driscoll shouldn’t be comparing himself to the apostles.

We’ve got a bit of “small country syndrome” – I think we tend to remember everytime another country has “wronged” us because we’re relatively young. Or something.

Nathan Campbell says:

I should point out, just to be clear, I don’t think Driscoll is a “wanker”, nor do I think he sets out to be one, I do think it’s a lost in translation deal and his Facebook statuses are for an American audience.

Arthur says:

Hear hear

I come from Adelaide — major small man syndrome! http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=whNVqvfY-rQ :D

Arthur says:

I just linked to St E on meine kleine blogge, by the way :)

Leah says:

There is a difference between cutting down pretentious people and those who have actually done something impressive (especially while remaining humble).

While I agree with Arthur that culture difference comes in to play, I disagree when he says “we don’t like experts”. We are fine with experts… we just don’t like it when they are arrogant and up themselves, as Mark Driscoll often comes across. Those sorts of people often deserve to be on the pointy end of tall poppy syndrome.

AndrewFinden says:

Hehe.. in looking up the german gender of Blog (seems to be either M or N) I discovered the verb ‘to blog’ is ‘bloggen’.
More on topic, though I may have posted this before – Barry Humphries once said that he can always tell when his plane is nearing Australia, as he can hear the dull roar of millions of his country-men patting themselves on the back.
There certainly is a small-country, isolation mentality in Australia. We do punch above our weight, but sometimes I think we feel we should punch even higher – especially politically.