WHAT HUSH PUPPIES TELL US ABOUT THE GOSPEL
Being a Christian is rarely fashionable and Jesus indicated this would be so; but this need not be a bar to its appeal, as the story of a brand of shoe suggests
Among the books jostling for attention as the most influential of the new century, The Tipping Point (Abacus, 2000) has a stronger claim than many. The thesis of Malcolm Gladwell is that social fashions and trends are contagious and that a small number of people can influence the way countless others act once a tipping point is reached and the contagion assumes epidemic proportions.
Stories to make Gladwell typically argues his case by joining apparently random unusual social models. Defying the academic trend towards every greater specialisation, he wanders across disciplines that would otherwise not speak to each other, demonstrating the wisdom we can accumulate when they do. Some feel this eclectic methodology lets him down and there is occasional evidence to suggest this, notably in the theory of crime reduction in New York City posited in The Tipping Point. Gladwell’s ready admission of failure is sign of an honest, enquiring mind and his use of human stories to make greater sense of life chimes well with a post-modern audience.
He argues for the way social norms are transmitted like a virus by, among other cases, the decline and resurgence of the Hush Puppy shoe. The makers of Hush Puppies were on the point of scaling out the design, with sales under 30,000 per year in 1995, when two executives ran into a New York stylist who said the shoe had become fashionable in certain key Manhattan clubs. Intrigued by this development, the makers waited to see what it meant. Within two years, the impact of an anti-fashion statement by a small number of clubbers (i.e. as no-one else would be seen dead in these shoes, we will make a niche personal statement of cool by donning them) was such that the company was selling more than 170,000 pairs of Hush Puppies per year. Gladwell’s contention, that fashions and ideas spread like a virus and that a few key people with influence can be responsible for big changes in how other people live is now accepted wisdom.
Makers of trainers have picked up on this idea, paying style-conscious young people to spread the message about new brands of trainer which the company helpfully gives them free of charge. Young people like this are known as ‘change agents’ in the business of advertising. Gladwell also refers to the need for an idea or trend to have ‘stickiness’ for the message to sink in and he analyses what causes one thing to be sticky but not another. No amount of slick media advertising beats the impact of word of mouth because people are authentic in ways that advertising campaigns never are.
Jesus calls his followers to tell others that he is risen from the dead. He began with a tearful and confused Mary and, if we choose to apply Gladwell’s theory, this news ‘tipped’ on the day of Pentecost when thousands came to faith. God intends the good news to spread by word of mouth using his own ‘change agents’. The role of the Holy Spirit is decisive as the message has to ‘stick’. This is alluded to in the Parable of the Sower: only the good seed ‘stuck’ in the hearts of the hearers; the Holy Spirit does this work.
Churches grow as disciples take this message out; it is not sufficient merely to wait for people to come in because no reason is being offered for doing so. Christian faith is contagious in its love, joy and peace and it only takes a few to pass on the contagion for it to spread. Being a Christian is rarely fashionable; Jesus indicated this would be so. The bright young hipsters in Manhattan who chose to wear Hush Puppies because they were confident enough in their identity to look un-cool have issued us an unexpected challenge. If they were willing to bear the once unspeakably naff brand of Hush Puppy, who are we to be ashamed of the Gospel?
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