Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Good Seminarian

I am reading a book by Malcolm Gladwell entitled The Tipping Point. The book explains how ideas, products, or fads spread. There are three main factors according to Gladwell: 1) having people involved who are well-connected, who are gatherers of information, or who are persuasive. 2) having an idea or product that is "sticky," or that is worth spreading in the first place. 3) having the right environment in which the idea can spread.

To prove the importance of environment and the influence it has over us, Gladwell documented several research experiments done in this area. One experiment involved seminary students at Princeton Theological Seminary. The seminarians were instructed to compose a speech on a given topic that they would subsequently deliver in another building across campus. Along the way to the other building, the seminarians would come across a man who would be gasping, coughing, and in obvious physical pain. At the beginning of the experiment, the seminarians were questioned as to their motivation for attending seminary. Then they were given a topic for their speech. Some were given a generic topic such as the benefits of a seminary education. Others, however, were told to give a speech on the story of the Good Samaritan. Finally, on their way out, some of the students were told that they were a few minutes late for their speech and that the review panel was waiting on them in the other building. The others were told that they finished early and that they had a short time before they would be expected.

The researchers wanted to see what factors would be most common among those who stopped to help the man in need. Three factors were considered in the experiment: their motivation for attending seminary (i.e. to be better prepared to help people, obey God, etc.), the topic given (which would be the focus of their minds as they encountered the man), and the time available to the students as they encountered the man. The results are interesting and just a bit convicting. The only factor that made a difference was time. Even those who had just prepared a talk on the Good Samaritan practically stepped over the man when they were told that they were late.

Thinking through my own experiences, I can believe these results. I can think of times when I stopped to help someone. It is usually when I am not in a particular hurry to be somewhere. Other times, I pass by hoping someone else will help the person in need. I am sure that the priest and the Levite in Jesus' parable would have had similar excuses. Do we assume that the Samaritan had a more leisurely lifestyle? This couldn't have been Jesus' point, to help others when it is convenient. No, Jesus' story is about loving our neighbor. Coming to the assistance of a neighbor only when it is convenient for us can hardly be called good or loving. What we learn from Jesus' story is that we when help someone in need even when it costs us, even when it makes us late for an important appointment, there can only be one factor at play: love.

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