The End of Trickle-Down Education

Last week, I taught a week-long intensive course at Alliance Theological Seminary in Nyack, New York, and I had a wonderful time.

At one point, I reflected on the changes that I see coming in theological (and other forms of) education.  One student typed as I spoke, and he sent me this direct quote,

“I don’t believe in the trickle down theory of knowledge anymore. That is bankrupt. That is not the way the world changes anymore. That is because there are institutions involved in communicating that knowledge in a power-oriented manner. How will knowledge be communicated? Aesthetics. Imagery; symbolism and the power of symbols. Pedagogically, we realize that people learn things in all sorts of ways. Somebody learns well by didactics, aurally, kinesthetically, visually, etc.”

In fact, I spend a lot of time on this subject, but primarily in private.  That’s because I’m often trying to convince academic/professor type people to write at a more popular level — either for one of the Emergent Village lines, or, really, anywhere.  But it’s tough, because most of them have several books in the queue with Eerdmans or Westminster/John Knox, or some university publishing house.  In fact, at Princeton, the president has made it clear to faculty that they are to publish only with university presses.

That has to do with tenure and peer review, in part, but it is also based on an academic elitism that is in death throes.  The “trickle-down” theory of education says that the brightest minds teach and write at the highest levels, influencing their own guild and the graduate students, who, in turn, influence the masses.  But it takes about one example to debunk that claim.

That’s simply not the way that knowledge and influence work anymore.  And it saddens me that some of the most brilliant professors I’ve had (particularly at Princeton) are destined to retire in anonymity, even though their ideas could radically transform the church and even the faith.

Some have been critical of the publishing partnerships that Doug and I have forged for Emergent Village, but here’s the deal: Piper writes at a popular level; MacArthur writes at a popular; even the Pope writes at a popular level.  If we want our emergent theologies to compete in the world of theological ideas, then we have to write populist theology.  And, at this point, the Internet is a powerful tool, but traditional dead-tree publishing is powerful in a different way.  Academic elites bitch and moan about the Left Behind theology that is ascendent in America, but they continue to write for Oxford University Press and are thus destined to sell about a tiny fraction of the books that LaHaye/Jenkins sell.

I was corresponding with Brian Walsh about these very ideas when he sent me the lyrics of this Bruce Cockburn song.

Bruce Cockburn, “Trickle Down”
co-written with Andy Milne

from the album, You’ve Never Seen Everything [True North Records, 2003]

Picture on magazine boardroom pop star
Pinstripe prophet of peckerhead greed
You say ‘Trust me with the money — the keys to the universe’
Trickle down will give us everything we need
Brand new century private penitentiary
bank vault utopia padded for the few
And it’s tumours for the masses coughing for the masses
Earphones for the masses and they all serve you

       Trickle down give /em the business
       Trickle down supposed to give us the goods
       Cups held out to catch a bit of the bounty
       Trickle down everywhere trickle down blood

What used to pass for education now looks more like ignoration
Take the people’s money and slip it to the corporation
Yellow rain golden shower pesticide firepower
Summon feudal demons of sweatshop subjugation

Workfare foul air homeless beggars everywhere
Picturephone aristocrats lounge around the pool
Captains of industry smiling beneficently
Leaking hole supertanker ship of fools

       Trickle down give me the business
       Trickle down supposed to give us the goods
       Cups held out to catch a bit of the bounty
       Trickle down everywhere trickle down blood

Take over takedown big bucks shakedown
Schoolyard pusher offer anything-for-profit
First got to privatize then you get to piratize
Hooked on avarice- how do we get off it?

       Trickle down give me the business
       Trickle down supposed to give us the goods
       Cups held out to catch a bit of the bounty
       Trickle down everywhere trickle down blood

       Trickle down give me the business
       Trickle down supposed to give us the goods
       Cups held out to catch a bit of the bounty
       Trickle down everywhere trickle down blood

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  • Yeah, this is absolutely right on. We need a lot more NT Wrights and Leonard Sweets to combat that whole Left Behind sort of stuff, not to mention the watered down popular Bible study genre (BSF, Beth Moore, etc.) that defines so much of the American church’s theology (particularly in the South, where I live).

    The problem I see with getting folks to publish popular books is that it’s tough to simplify honest theology. God is not simple. But, if you’re willing to dumb it down and make it all about heaven and hell, then it’s easy to simplify theology into something people from a _____ for Dummies culture want to read.

    The tide does appear to be changing though. Tony and Doug are great examples.

  • Don’t you think this subject needs to be a both/and and not an either/or. I might have to disagree with your statement that trickle down education is “simply not the way that knowledge and influence work anymore.” Now, I definitely agree that it would be beneficial for some of the academically savvy to produce books that are more approachable or ‘pop,’ but there’s got to be room for both types. Having worked in college ministry on a campus of engineers, I will tell you that they were more easily engaged with university or gradschool level theology books than with the pop books out there. There should still be a level that academically and spiritually challenging things are discussed, and I think there’s a biblical precedence for that. Even Peter points out that some things are going to be really difficult to understand, so if even Paul struggled with writing accessible scripture, I don’t think we should limit ourselves to accessible only books. At the end of the day, there should be a spectrum of books for those seeking different levels of academic engagement. Do you think that our level of intellectual engagement is lacking in our spiritual communities right now? I know I certainly do, which leads me to want academics to produce more approachable books, but don’t make it too easy… I don’t think scripture left it open to that… we should seek to understand the difficult things Paul writes about… seek sound doctrine as Paul communicates to Timothy. Thoughts?

  • I agree that we need both/and, but the academic stuff is ALREADY being written. As Tony says, the void is at the popular level. I personally love reading Pannenberg, Brueggemann, Leron Shults, etc, but I don’t get much response when I suggest their books for my small group to read. I see that gap being filled by Emergent’s publications, plus other examples of popular-but-GOOD theology, like William Young’s THE SHACK.

  • I wonder if the distinction we are running into is not one between popular and trickle-down writing, but between clear and unclear writing. The reason why the Pope’s writings are perceived as popular, yet respected by philosophers and theologians, is that he is so clear. G.K. Chesterton, C.S. Lewis and Josef Pieper are such writers who deal with the most complicated ideas in their writings, but present them in a way that reveals these ideas as being in play in everyday experience. In fact, Fulton Sheen presented modern philosophy in all its complexity to tv viewers and garnered the highest percentage viewership for a minister in TV history because he was so clear. On the other hand, I have found plenty of Emergent books to be popular but unclear (and others to be very clear).

  • Annie

    hmmm. this is tricky. I think I agree with you but I have questions.

    first, peer review. peer review does produce a kind of disciplinary conformity but its also an important locus of authority, mediated communally. Attaining credible status in academia is not about appealing at the popular level–people just love dan brown and lahaye/jenkns, after all–but about convincing your peers that you’ve mastered the conventions of the field. sounds very mechanistic but it’s also about understanding the conclusions our collective efforts have produced. unless you decide the whole enterprise is bankrupt, it seems like keeping a hold of peer review could be really valuable.

    I say this because there are some scholars/authors who side-step peer review for the express purpose of publishing ideas that would never pass muster. There’s a renegade aspect there–I’m telling you the truth the academy doesn’t want you to know!–but it also creates problems, I think, for scholarly credibility. Publishing a book doesn’t earn you credibility but the demonstrated ability to convince those who are most familiar with your material that you know what you’re talking about might.

    I say that because there are sometimes very good reasons some ideas wouldn’t pass muster. “Holy Blood, Holy Grail” couldn’t pass peer review because the evidence is bogus and the authors make a shoddy argument that just doesn’t convince. That’s the reason. It’s not because the academy is in the vatican’s back pocket and doesn’t want you to know Jesus married mary magdalene.

    My point being, I do see the problems engendered by peer-review as the system currently stands but I also see enough benefit to suggest preserving it in some form.

    Yes, I am just a tiny little bit elitist.

    Second, tenure. Established scholars can easily turn to popular presses and I’ve known many who have done that but to stake your career on writing for a popular audience seems dicey. At the least, it would depend on the tenure requirements of one’s particular institution. It’s difficult enough for scholars who do interdisciplinary work to make a go of it. Institutions are happier when one’s work is easily categorized just like they’re happier with standard modes of academic publishing.

    That isn’t to say writing populist theology is the wrong answer. I agree with you on that point. I just wanted to say more strongly that you’re potentially asking folks to jeopardize their careers. Sounds very exciting and renegade and transgressive and that but it’s not necessarily the best way to pay your bills. Just saying. In addition to being a tiny bit elitist, I’m also aware that playing along with is the best road to tenure.

    I thought I had something else to say but apparently I don’t.

  • T –

    Man, I’m grateful you are thinking hard about this stuff. I’m encouraged by your approach to the whole “dead-tree” publishing, most of which I find so appalling.

    “Academic elites bitch and moan about the Left Behind theology that is ascendant in America, but they continue to write for Oxford University Press and are thus destined to sell about a tiny fraction of the books that LaHaye/Jenkins sell.”


    However, I question whether the right target audience is people who read Macarthur, Piper, and LaHaye.

    “How will knowledge be communicated? Aesthetics. Imagery; symbolism and the power of symbols.”

    If this is true, how can those who care about “emerging theology” support, embrace, and collaborate with those who speak the language of symbols powerfully? Moreover, what “knowledge” is worth fighting for and how does a persons life/theology/narrative really change. I wonder how open to change Piper’s readers are?

  • I appreciate a lot of what you’re saying Tony. But I’m also thinking that the kind of publishing Emergent is doing is still a kind of “trickle-down,” right? I mean doesn’t this still set up certain people as the authority/experts who are in power (the authors, editors, etc) and those who buy the books as merely passive consumers? Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not against books, and I really appreciate the books Emergent is putting out. But if you don’t believe in “trickle-down” anymore, then it seems like you should be focusing in another direction, right?

    Also, if you think knowledge will increasingly be communicated through symbols, etc, how does that fit with a focus on publishing books? Maybe we can get creative with books (“Jesus for President” is a good example) but that can only go so far.

    Like I said, I’m not against books. I love books. Write more books, promote more books. However, if “trickle-down” is dead/dying and knowledge is going to be communicated more and more through symbols, then we need to start looking in other places as well, and perhaps even more than we look to books, right?

    If wikipedia is the new way, then everything is flat now. There are no more powerful authorities/experts. Knowledge will be communicated from below (or maybe from side-to-side since it’s all flat). How do books fit with this? It certainly can’t just be academics stepping down and gracing the masses with their presence. It has to be a tearing down of the power divisions altogether.

    Ok, that’s enough…just thinking here. Good thoughts Tony – important stuff.

  • I agree that reader-friendly writing is important if any bridge is to be built between the academy and, well, everybody else.

    However, I think you misunderstand Neal Locke’s criticism. It’s not about publishing partnerships and it’s certainly not about the internet, it’s about freedom and dissemination of information – which are two things I think the academy should be about.

    To oversimplify, the purpose of Creative Commons is in part to combat the perpetual extension of copyright law which prevents works from entering the public domain, and has led to our current culture of permissions and the understanding of information as product. Part of the beauty of Creative Commons is that is circumvents the tangle of restrictions by explicitly granting certain ‘rights.’

    Perhaps you’ll consider purchasing, or freely downloading, Free Culture by Lawrence Lessig (who has been mentioned on your blog previously) which gives a more nuanced account of the present day problems with the understanding of information as product.

  • I agree that more populist theology is needed, but also would point out that there is a good bit of populist theology out there already that isn’t of the Left Behind ilk. Yet its influence, comparatively speaking, is marginal. I’m thinking of Spong, Nouwen to a certain extent, and my favorite, Buechner. I don’t think that what makes the Left Behind series so popular is that it is populist, but that it taps into an existing discourse and media infrastructure that has been built and expanded over the course of eight decades.

    In many ways, I see Emergent Village infiltrating that existing structure in creative ways, which is great. Of course, that has also spawned a number of books that mischaracterize the conversation, which could in turn serve to undermine EV’s effort, though I hope not.

    But, it does not change the fact that the structure is still built upon consumerism — a far deadlier toxin, I would argue, than modernism. Maybe it’s one of those things we have to take a dose or two of in order to change it. I just find the branding of religion makes me squirm, even if I agree with the substance of the religion/book/magazine/article. But, maybe there is no other way, though. And as someone out making things happen, you unfortunately are subject to more than your fair share of scrutiny by people who barely know you.

    For two reasons, I was struck by your thought that you were sadden that so many of your professors would be retire to anonymity and not achieve a revolution in the church.

    One is that this strikes at the perils of our fame-centered culture.

    Two, certainly your professors have had influence on you. Certainly you are having influence on folks who will never read works by your professors. Isn’t this the trickle-down theory at its best?

  • We need both, but we need more of the popular. – especially stories. Like it or not, stories last and research doesn’t.

    In my field, Family Social Science, the shelf life of most research is less than two decades. The story of Cinderella (despite its debilitating effect on stepmothers has outlasted the lion’s share of family research. I would dare say that the story of Cinderella has had more influence on people’s beliefs about stepfamily dynamics than the top 100 family researchers of all time.

    Myth spreads faster than research. In fact, much of research is an effort to counteract myths – and often with little success.

    It would cost the NIH a lot less money to hire artists and storytellers to start spreading healthy myths rather than hiring so many researchers to find “the truth.”

    That being said, I am going to go back to working on my journal article that will probably be published in a family research journal you and everyone you know has never heard of.

  • Tony, thanks for a thoughtful, balanced reply to my original post on presbymergent–you are indeed a man of your word, and I’m glad you’re thinking about all of this.

    We talk a lot about “open source” in Emergent, but sometimes I think our grasp on that subject is about as strong as mega-churches who throw out some candles and advertise they have an “Emergent” worship service–especially when it comes to the publishing industry.

    I don’t actually criticize what you and Doug have set up with publishers, or the writing of books (I bought yours, didn’t I?). I just think that where possible, we need to pursue Both/And publishing arrangements that are “open source” or “creative commons” in actuality. Then we can claim to practice what we preach. And we can’t let the opposition of publishers and academics be an excuse not to, any more than we let the opposition of some denominations/institutions be an excuse not to start emerging church communities.

    Speaking of academics, Harvard just passed a new policy requiring all faculty to publish their works online, freely downloadable. They can still sell print copies, as ling as the first condition is met. I think the world is changing. I hope the church–emerging or otherwise–isn’ once again left behind.

  • Are there any authors that use those university publishers that you would recommend us reading? Getting the word out about them might help a little bit too.

  • Neal, I liked your criticism and made a comment to that effect which is presently in the mouth of the comment filter (my guess is for having 2 links)

    You’re right about the misunderstanding of open source.

    My reading of TNC’s seemed to imply that open source = lots of people working on it.

    For the record open Source = source (content, code, etc) that is open (readable, editable, hackable, redistributable, etc).

    So, Linux is open not because it has a lot of contributors, though it does, but because I could (theoretically, since I presently lack the computer hacking skillz) read and edit the source code. Windows (and for that matter OSX) are closed source because viewing and editing and redistributing the source code requires licensing.

    The open source definition.

  • re: open source…

    In this way, books like TNC’s are not open source because the content cannot be edited or redistributed without permission of the rights holder, or a good fair use argument. Creative Commons is helpful because it explicitly dictates additional conditions under which the work can be reused.

  • symbiont


    It may prove to be too difficult for you to undo all of your formal education as you pursue this new paradigm.

    The fragile secrets and power over peoples minds that publishing houses have held throughout time are indeed being challenged now.

    If you are just realizing this now, you have a long road ahead and I wish you well in your journey.


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  • Speaking from the uneducated blow-hard discipline, I have to say I am firmly established in the pro-populace, trickle-up, single-level playing field of knowledge-sharing and distribution. That’s not to say academic publishing will become a dinosaur, but that information will/is becoming democratized.

  • Ranger

    I agree with those saying we need both/and, and simply for the reason that we live in a pluralistic society where no philosophy or style currently has a firm grasp on society. There are many who still live in the “dead-tree” paradigm and for them it still works. Many live in different paradigms and they work too.

    One problem I see is that some knowledge is not trickle up compatible. For instance, Moltmann’s or Jungel’s theology has taken a lifetime of research and study to produce, and probably takes a lifetime to understand (I’m not there yet…are any of you?). Of course, this could be used against them by those who argue that because of this method their theology tends to be impractical for the church, emotionless and stale. Having a fuller life in the church and relying more on the church for understanding may have led their works in different directions. Barth of course successfully lived in both worlds (academia and the church), but still his writings are not by any means popular reading. But, if Barth would have tried to “sum it up” for the popular level it just wouldn’t work because too many parts are dependent on too many other parts. He could have written a popular level book focusing on one ideal, but that simply wouldn’t have worked outside of the greater meta-narrative, which brings meaning to the particular ideal.

    Someone mentioned N.T. Wright above, and I think he is a fine example of success and failure in this regard. He works at both levels, but his teachings are often misunderstood because people simply read one or two of his popular works, and to fully understand what he is saying they need to read his greater corpus, and most likely even his more scholarly works. Still, he has been much more popular among the masses.

    On the other hand, I think scholars too often take simple ideas and make them unnecessarily complex simply in order to sound scholarly or in order to be innovative. I think today this is especially true among postmodern scholars who use confusing terminology in order to separate themselves from the modernistic masses, but in so doing confuse the masses with which they could have easily related.

    Someone above said, “I wonder how open to change Piper’s readers are?” Maybe this wasn’t intended, but the statement came across as somewhat judgmental towards those who read Piper. I congratulate him for writing at a popular level, and think we need to stay away from judgmental language toward him and his readers. If they want to judge the Emergent crowd that’s their prerogative, but as for us we need to be the ones bridging the gap and building relationships among the church at large (which includes many, many Piper readers). This isn’t a competition and we are just as prone to missing Jesus’ message as they are.

  • wombswithaview

    Welcome to the Cockburn universe. It’s about time.

  • Sorry, that was me. The womb thing is a whole other deal that I didn’t mean to use yet.

  • What I appreciate in the emergent movement is not just the convergence of the academic/populist divide, but also that theology is coming from the church. I mean, ecclesiology is actually coming from people who are pastors and people who work with spiritual communities. Today.

    I often find that some practical theologians don’t go to church. It’s like someone who’s teaching how to take care of a car, and they haven’t lifted a hood in ten years.

    So it’s refreshing to watch this shift, to see how publishing companies are slowly opening up to another type of author.

  • @Scott — I checked the presbymergent comment filter, and for whatever reason, couldn’t find your comment. Care to re-submit it?

    I also think that at some point even “Open Source” isn’t adequate to convey the philosophy that most geeks/hackers/IT workers who use the term actually espouse. “Free Software” and the parallel “Free Culture” movement are actually closer to the values I think that emergent types are in the process of discovering. And that’s free as in “freedom,” not free as in “free beer.” (although there is now such a thing as “free open source beer,” too, but that’s a whole other topic…)

  • I would like to recommend 2 websites that actually are about addressing and meeting the need for teaching popular theology to the Body of Christ. Web based, learn at your own pace styles. Check out: and I would also like to recommend a book by E.H Broadbent, “The Pilgrim Church”. It was written in 1926 and chronicles the stream of history of Christians who were neither Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, or Protestant. For me, this read, was life changing. I did not feel alone anymore, as someone who longed for a Biblical faith walk in this life. The faith that Jesus and the Apostles walked in usually involves martyrdom and seperation from the religious world. “Abundant life” is always viewed as unique by the masses. Another good read is the Martyrs Mirror, and is available online. Enjoy!

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