How does a culture change? Some have propsed the Great Man theory while others, the Great Network. We see in the Bible two men who impact the nation of Israel after their exile: Ezra and Nehemiah. It’s said that these two leaders built two walls. Ezra built a spiritual wall by teaching God’s laws while Nehemiah built a physical wall to protect Israel. The personality of both men are crucial and can often be seen as the main reason for change.
This is the Great Man theory. A certain charismatic visionary enacts change almost singlehandedly: Martin Luther, John Wesley and many more. Is that always true?
James Hunter disagrees. He proposes that the change is not initiated by the Great Man but rather the Great Network. He writes:
The key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institution s that come out of these networks. And the more “dense” the network…the more influential it could be. This is where the stuff of culture and cultural change is produced.
In other words, the seismic shifts in culture results from the collective effort of a group rather than a great individual. This web of networks seem to overlap with many spheres of society and any tingling of the web sends shockwaves to the rest. But can we trace it to the impact of Ezra and Nehemiah? I think we can.
Peppered throughout the book of Ezra and Nehemiah are people who contributed to the temple and building the wall (Ezra 2, 8; Neh 3, 7). In the midst of these “boring” chapters filled with who build what next to who, it implies that the Bible testifies to their importance. These priests helped Ezra teach the people. These builders helped Nehemiah construct a wall within 52 days. There is a shift in the biblical account from a Great Man (Abraham, Samuel, David) to a Great Network.
Andy Crouch focuses on the Great Man theory of change. In his book Culture Making, he extracts the idea of change from Jesus’s discipleship of the 3:12:120. A Great Man impacts 3 people, which spreads to 12 and then to the masses, 120. I believe the 120 is the Great Network. In this era of hyperconnectivity, networks play a substantial role.
However, I don’t believe the Great Man and Great Network are mutually exclusive. Both are necessary for change. Often a Great Man is needed to kick-start change till a critical point is reached and the Great Network takes over. It is like someone tossing a fist-sized snowball down a snow cap mountain. The ball rolls and rolls, getting bigger and bigger till a critical size launches an avalanche. That’s how change occurs.
In Malcolm Gladwell’s bestselling book Tipping Point, he highlights three kinds of people who make change happen: Maven, Connector and Salesperson. He explains:
Mavens are data banks. They provide the message. Connectors are social glue: they spread it…Salesmen persuade us when we are unconvinced of what we are hearing, and they are as critical to the tipping of word-of-mouth epidemics as the other two groups.
These three types are critical for moving change past the tipping point. A Great Man needs Great Networks and vice versa. None can enact change without the other.
But there’s a missing ingredient.
Behind a Great Man and a Great Network lies a Great God. Without God, no change occurs. He is the sovereign God of the universe and nothing is outside his control. Both Ezra and Nehemiah were men of prayer and put their trust in God to help them. We must rely on God continually if we ever want to achieve anything of significance.