Generous Orthodoxy

Malcolm Gladwell explores the concept “generous orthodoxy” in episode 9 of Revisionist History. Sounds contradictory — because it is. The first half, generous, can be defined as open-minded when it comes to change. The second half, orthodoxy, stems from orthodox which can be defined as traditional. Seemingly, the two do not go together — precisely why Gladwell explores this concept and how to find the “middle ground”.

The exploration of the concept “generous orthdoxy” came to Gladwell when he received a letter from former Mennonite pastor Chester Wanger. In this letter, Wanger explained why he left his Mennonite church, which intrigued Gladwell— and clearly many others as it went viral on Facebook — leading to Gladwell’s interest in the Mennonite community and also in Wanger’s personal experience.

The Mennonite community takes three ideas very seriously: Jesus, community, and reconciliation. The church is incredibly strict when it comes to these ideas — specifically community. Typically, community is used as a metaphor, but the Mennonite community takes the word very literally — forming one huge unity. For example, Mennonites take part in barn raisings. These barn raisings take place when a Mennonite community member’s barn burns down. The community gathers; bringing food and supplies to help build a new barn. This sparked an interest within Malcolm Gladwell’s father who ended up crashing the barn raising — however, crashed doesn’t seem to be the appropriate word as the Mennonite’s were very welcoming, putting him straight to work. Gladwell informs us that his parents ended up joining the Mennonite church later on; possibly because the sense of community in itself was extremely beautiful.

Wanger, however, was the son of a Virginia Mennonite Seminary founder and father of the President of an Indiana Mennonite Seminary. Wanger himself also helped build a Mennonite Church in Ethopia, which is now one of the biggest in the world. This put Chester Wanger in the middle of the Mennonite community.

The fine line that Chester Wanger was able to walk for so long — the one that was a perfect mix between generous and orthodox — was about to be challenged. Wanger’s son, Phillip, comes out as gay. The Mennonite community surely wouldn’t permit this; they barely were able to accept the ordination of women. An orthodox community, such as the Mennonite’s, were not generous — and if they were, it took a long time for their views to progress.

This “secret” was now exposed to the Mennonite community, who ended up almost lashing out on Wanger’s son. The church kicked Phillip out of the congregation, he lost his job with the Mennonite church, and they tried to coerce him into confessing his sins. This “unity” of a church was now abandoning Wanger’s son.

At Princeton University, a graduate school named after Woodrow Wilson caused controversy throughout the campus. Wilson was a known racist and many activists were fighting to eliminate his name from the graduate school. Minorities felt as if the university didn’t value them — especially so when they see a racist man’s picture looking down upon them. However, Princeton was practically made for rich white men — and Princeton likes to showcase these men around campus. A meeting was held to attempt a compromise; some saying that the Woodrow Wilson graduate school should be preserved, but have an informative plaque describing his achievements and also his racist ways. The acknowledgment of the opposing views is seen as good enough. Gladwell, however, sides more so with the protesters. This generosity comes with a catch though; Princeton wants the protesters to accept the orthodox ways of the university — for the school to be appreciated as it is. The protesters, however, CHOSE to go to Princeton — and Princeton never hid what their school was built upon. Gladwell explains that these students would have been better off by protesting the following school year by not coming back — and also getting other minorities and prospective students on board with the protest.

At the end of the podcast, Gladwell gives us his opinion on generous orthodoxy. He explains to the audience that their must be self sacrifice to achieve the middle ground. In Chester Wanger’s case, Wanger gave up his life in the Mennonite community to stand by his son — to keep that same concept of community within his family. He still respects the orthodoxy of the Mennonite community, but Wanger does not act foolish when expressing his own opinion. The Princeton protesters, however, could not find the middle ground. The protesters wanted what they wanted immediately, without any consideration of the other party. Generous orthodoxy can be incredibly influential if executed properly; with an understanding appreciation of the existing authority, the change desired will eventually come about.