Prince Harry, Elon Musk, and godly disruption
What are “disruptors” and why do modern media praise them? Does such a thing as “godly disruption” exist? Kelsey and Jonathan explore the cultural dialogue around disruption and disruptors.
KELSEY REED: Hello, welcome to Concurrently: The News Coach Podcast from World Radio and God’s WORLD News. We’re here to come alongside you as you disciple kids and students through culture and current events. I’m Kelsey Reed. I’m here today with Jonathan Boes.
JONATHAN BOES: Hello!
KELSEY: Together, we want to model conversation and apply tools you can use at home or in the classroom. We would love for you to send in your questions for us to address in future episodes. Please send them in to firstname.lastname@example.org.
JONATHAN: Today, we’re tackling an idea that comes from several different news stories. It’s a concept you see all over today’s culture. It’s something that really came into my consciousness pretty recently, but once I heard this term, I noticed it everywhere. It’s so obvious how much this idea has permeated our world. This is the concept of disruption, or perhaps the virtue of being a “disruptor.”
So a disruptor would be a person, a business, or an institution that breaks traditions, challenges norms, and disrupts the way things are done. Some recent examples that come to mind: Maybe the most recent example would be Prince Harry’s controversial autobiography, Spare, where he continues his path of disrupting royal traditions. But we even see this in politics. Donald Trump was lauded as a disruptor, challenging the norms of presidential elections and the way politicians interact with other politicians and people. You could even say Kanye West has been seen as a disruptor, who was celebrated for his disruptions until they went too far.
So today, we’re zeroing in on this culture of disruption that has seeped into business, politics, and celebrity. When your kids and teens encounter news media that praises disruption, or lauds people as “disruptors,” how do you begin to walk them through that?
KELSEY: So we’re going to start with some questions to draw out the observations of this theme across multiple stories and multiple sections of our culture. To start off: Jonathan, where did you first see this term, disruption? What do you sense are its origins, at least from your experience?
JONATHAN: When it comes to the origin of this term, as far as I can tell, the idea of disruption as positive comes from the business world. It comes specifically from a Harvard Business School professor named Clayton Christensen, who has this concept of “disruptive innovation,” which is usually a smaller company coming up with a new concept, a new way to do things, that changes the landscape of its industry. For example: Airbnb totally changing the travel lodging industry, or Uber totally changing the taxi industry. Those sorts of disruptions.
KELSEY: I’ve observed some of what you’re talking about. I remember seeing something along the lines of the “Top 10 Disruptors in Business,” which interestingly enough, were all women who are going about leadership of small businesses in a different way than we might have expected from some of our experiences of business culture. So all right—where has this idea expanded into other areas of culture?
JONATHAN: I observe that it has expanded out of business to individual people, not disrupting the business world necessarily, but disrupting norms and traditions in other arenas as well. It’s the idea that a social media influencer could be disruptive, or a celebrity could be disruptive, and that could be something that is lauded.
When we’re talking about the way the idea of “disruptor” has changed or evolved, one figure people might draw a connection to is Elon Musk, as somebody who bridges this gap between the disruptor as business and the disruptor as person. He has this company, Tesla, seeking to disrupt the automobile industry. His internet venture, Starlink, seeks to disrupt the way internet is done. But also, he as a person—I think culture has traditionally thought of these billionaire business people as living to some sort of higher standard, whereas he’s one more bro on social media, posting memes, very intentionally unprofessional in the way he carries himself, disrupting our image of the billionaire CEO innovator. So I think, in the figure of Elon Musk, we actually find a connection to this changing idea of disruption that might help us ground it as we’re talking about it.
And I do see something like this in the church, though not always called “disruption.” There’s this trend right now of deconstruction stories, people essentially disrupting their traditions and norms. But even people who have not deconstructed—this is going back a few years, but you think of pastors like Mark Driscoll, who looked at the way church was done and decided to disrupt it. We’re going to have grunge music, we’re going to preach in a very aggressive, modern style. So I would say this is even a concept that has come into the church, as something that at least some Christians would say is to be celebrated.
KELSEY: As we’re making these observations, let me ask you if some of the other words we might use—I mean, what would be fitting as another way to draw out this theme of disruption? When you were talking about leadership in the church, shedding some of the norms, it made me think of the idea of “progressive.” Would that be a fitting term? Or what else would you find is synonymous with this idea?
JONATHAN: That’s a good question. It’s one that’s hard to drill down on. I’m hesitant to bring in the word “progressive,” if only because that has so much political baggage. And I’ve seen Donald Trump, again, praised as a disruptor—he not being somebody you would label as “progressive.” In business, there’s this idea of disruption leading to progress, right? The new business method that disrupts an industry is usually something pushing towards some sort of progress or innovation. But when I look at some of these other examples—again, Prince Harry disrupting the norms of the royal tradition, the way we think of the royal family—there are progressive elements wrapped up into that, but it is not entirely in the name of progress as much as it is in the name of . . .
KELSEY: Maybe like a reordering of power structure? When you talked about the royal family and Harry came to mind—he’s a little guy in a big system, a very powerful system.
JONATHAN: That’s something I perceive as one of the real appeals of this concept of disruption, and maybe one of the reasons it is so celebrated. It’s kind of the David and Goliath story. It’s usually somebody with less power, coming up with a way to overtake the big guy, to overtake the big established powers. It’s the idea that, if you have the ability to shake up the system, you can get into those realms of power and influence that might otherwise be inaccessible to you. There’s a longing for power and position that can really bring some appeal to this idea of, “Man, if I could just disrupt the system, then I could have this position.” Or else you see a problem in the system, and you say, “If I could disrupt this, I could show people how it’s failing, or why it is unjust.”
I think Prince Harry isn’t necessarily trying to gain more power. He’s actually intentionally stepped away from the royal life. But he is disrupting to try to bring to light things he sees as broken in the royal family structure, where other figures, like the Elon Musk’s of the world, disrupt business to gain more power and influence.
KELSEY: So we’re thinking of big institutions, things that might have a long tradition of working in one way for a long time. And maybe the appeal is trying to disrupt some of the decay in those systems—not necessarily a progressive posture, like you’ve been careful to define, but something that’s maybe a corrective or even a reform, we might say.
JONATHAN: We’re taking a modern word and pasting it on top of something old, but could you say the Reformation was a disruption of Christianity. There’s a sense in which Martin Luther and his fellow reformers were shaking up the church and disrupting it because there was, in the existing power structure of the Catholic Church, this corruption and brokenness that needed to be interrupted.
KELSEY: And we would affirm that. So we’re starting to creep into some of those questions that draw out what is positive about disruption or, from a biblical lens, what could we affirm in this trend.
JONATHAN: In the original business context this comes from, this idea of disruptive innovation, there is an emphasis on “innovation.” It’s not necessarily antagonistic. One business comes up with a better idea than the established norm, and all the established players suddenly have to scramble to catch up. That seems like something generally affirmable. It’s kind of how a capitalistic society is designed to work, that somebody with a better idea, a better way of doing things, actually has the ability to get ahead. Maybe “affirm” is too strong, but at least it seems relatively morally neutral to look at something like Airbnb or Uber disrupting the taxi industry or the hotel industry. It’s kind of just the economy at work.
KELSEY: So we’re saying it’s not necessarily synonymous with “destructive.” Disruptive, destructive, not synonymous necessarily. I think, as with anything, unfortunately, there’s a broken aspect of it. In the Asheville area where we live, unfortunately Airbnb didn’t merely disrupt the hotel industry. It did some disruption to our real estate industry too. So we have to think of it in those terms. There is something we can affirm, but there might also be something we can challenge. It’s not necessarily all destructive. Some of it is very creative. But what are the frameworks we use to determine these things?
JONATHAN: That was a great point you just brought up about Airbnb, because you’re getting at this idea of counting the cost, not just running into a disruptive method without thinking about what you’re doing. I identified the idea of disrupting the hotel industry as neutral. But you’ve pointed out, that messes up the housing market, which messes up the lives of families. And so even when it seems like our disruption isn’t antagonistic, there’s still a need to stop, think, use wisdom, and say, “What ripple effects will this have?” We are changing something fundamental. Even in our episode about ChatGPT disrupting the way writing work is done—let’s stop and think, what effects will that disruption have in other arenas of life?
KELSEY: We’re coaching, then, that idea of careful reflection. It’s really actually quite fun to be able to do this. I love having these conversations with you, Jonathan, because we draw out so many more dimensions. It fuels my curiosity. It fuels my hope and my hunger to learn more. And I hope, listener, that is what we’re doing for you as well.
JONATHAN: One other aspect of disruption that maybe we could affirm—we kind of touched on it before—is when there is something wrong or broken or evil established. My mind goes to Rosa Parks. She disrupted race relations for the glory of God, because her society devalued people of color. Even looking at the situation with Prince Harry and Meghan, people are uncomfortable with the way they are disrupting the royal tradition, and there are so many dimensions to that we could get into. But if we take their story at face value, there was a real issue of racism in the royal family, and part of their disruption is at least an attempt to address that real brokenness.
KELSEY: So these disruptors are making us think. They’re making us sit there and reflect over their action. I love that. That excites me. I get tickled about the idea of what it means for us to sit and discern. But then, that’s my job. So of course I’m excited about that. We’ve touched a little bit on the negative. Let’s press into that space a little more. What have we observed that’s negative about disruption? Or what can we challenge?
JONATHAN: So we’ve touched on this a bit, where I was mistakenly evaluating Airbnb as totally neutral. There’s this idea we get from so many deep thinkers, like C.S. Lewis and Roger Scruton, that it’s easier to destroy good things unthinkingly than to preserve them. When we are pushing for change, it’s really easy for the sake of progress to undo traditions that are actually there for a reason, for a purpose. Again, there’s that word. When it comes to disruption, counting the cost of what is being disrupted. So in politics, a lot of disruption has not just looked like a disruption of power structures, but a disruption of civility. I think anybody who’s been paying attention has noticed the nastiness, the lack of respect. The political situation has become so disrupted that there’s been a breakdown of civility.
KELSEY: So we’re challenging the divisiveness that can come out of disruption.
JONATHAN: We made the point earlier that not all disruption is destructive, but there is definitely destructive disruption. A lot of these disruptive figures in Christianity—I mentioned Mark Driscoll earlier—by disrupting the church, he gained so many followers and had a huge impact in lots of positive ways on people’s lives. But he also caused massive destruction, which has been chronicled in “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” the podcast reported by Mike Cosper, chronicling how what started as this desire to disrupt for the sake of jostling the church out of its comfort zone ended with destruction, because it disrupted more than the established norms. It also disrupted authority and accountability.
KELSEY: Things we definitely want to preserve, because they allow us to function in the healthiest place as those who are still progressing towards—and I’m using it in the Christian sense—the progress, the process of sanctification. We need those checks and balances of authority and accountability as we mature in our Christian expression. So we want to preserve those things.
I can’t help but think about salt and light when I think about preservation. When I think about how we are careful, or caretakers of things, instead of just “Okay, I’m going to tear it all down, because this no longer functions for us anymore, so there must not be anything good about it. Let’s take it all down.” I’m thinking about the biblical concept of salt and light, and I’m thinking about a former discussion we had about what it means to caretake or create culture, to make culture. It leads me to ask some of these questions that might relate to response. So what is the Christian response, not only to this theme, but to recognizing maybe that we have been disruptive? What are some of the ways we can wrap our minds around this concept for our Christian walk?
JONATHAN: Just to recap where we’ve been, so we can ground our response in what we’ve observed and analyzed about disruption: We see disruption as something that started as a business concept and has leaked into other arenas, where people are being hailed as disruptors. We see this even in the church. We’ve noted there are some forms of disruption which are simply creative or innovative, but even those can have an unseen cost if not pursued with wisdom. And some forms of disruption are inherently destructive, possibly for an intended good purpose of disrupting a system that is corrupted or broken, but possibly for ill purpose as well.
KELSEY: It reminds me of that idea of “sins of commission” and “sins of omission,” that sometimes we’re doing something that is harmful by accident, as it were. I don’t really agree with what I just said there—it’s never really accidental. But sometimes we are falling into something that is harmful without intending to do that. Or sometimes we are failing to do something constructive to our process. And other times we’re outright just doing something destructive. So you’ve named those categories. We’re wanting to be aware of them, as we shape an appropriate and beautiful and hopefully maturing Christian response in this area. How do we wrap our minds around the idea of even the church as a disruptive element or presence within the world?
JONATHAN: I think back to the perspective we’ve used over so many episodes of the redemptive narrative. When we are in the new creation, when there are no tears or pain anymore, there will not be disruption. Disruption by itself is not a good thing. I don’t think we’re going to see it existing with God in eternity.
But our current position in the redemptive narrative is that we’re still living in this fallen world. Godly living in an ungodly world is going to be disruptive. But to me, that disruption seems like not the end goal, not even necessarily the means, but a byproduct of pursuing godliness in a broken world.
KELSEY: So Christian living rubs into the ways that are ungodly. I think what I’m hearing you say is that, when we are pursuing godliness, that’s going to naturally conflict with the ways people might be committed to, their own ways. “I don’t want my comfort infringed upon, I want to have my way.” If we’re saying “No, it’s about living God’s way in the world,” that’s going to have a natural conflict with a self-serving perspective.
JONATHAN: The Bible tells us two things that seem odd next to each other. One is that we’re supposed to try to live at peace with people as much as we can, and the other is that the world is going to hate us. So good luck, right? We can try as much as is in our power to live at peace with the world. But eventually, the world is going to grate against that, because a world that is fallen is going to grate against wholeness. A world that lauds the self above all is going to eventually grate against people who try to live selflessly. A world that lauds pleasure above all is going to grate against people who say pleasure isn’t the highest end.
A logical fallacy that I often see is this idea of, “Well, the Bible says the world is going to be against us, or the world is going to hate us. So if I’m being hated, I must be doing the right thing. I must be following a godly path.” We can see the fallacy of that when we say it so plainly, but there’s that thinking, like the world is against me so I must be doing something right. I think a similar thought applies to disruption. Just because we are being disruptive does not mean we are being godly. If we are being godly, there will probably be some disruption. But just because there is disruption doesn’t mean we’re being godly.
KELSEY: I’m reminded of the two cultures. We didn’t necessarily name it this way, but to me, this is a great moment to name the two cultures. Culture in and of itself is not a bad thing. We make culture, all human beings make culture. But there is a culture we make that is an alignment with the Father and His ways for His creation. So the one culture we might even call the Kingdom. And then there’s another culture, that self-serving culture you’ve been defining well, I think. And those are naturally at war with one another without having to be intentionally warring towards one another. It is enough to be those who are acting out their convictions in the world and a desire to do that which pleases the Lord. I would even say, if we are trying to win the world for Him, we’re not trying to battle against the second culture, but to show it a more beautiful way.
JONATHAN: The early church disrupted the Roman Empire. But it did not set out with this end goal of “We’re going to be disruptors.” They set out with the end goal of “Go, make disciples of all nations.” We see so many instances in the New Testament of the apostles, just on the streets, in the temples, preaching the gospel. And that alone caused disruption. They weren’t going out seeking to be intentionally antagonistic or disruptive; it’s just their message was disruptive to their culture. And their end goal was not to be disruptors, but to be bringers of life.
KELSEY: I love that. I’m so thankful to be reminded of those ways we get to be wrapped up in, because those same commands go for us. Our response, as believers, as disciplers of children, is to train them up, and also to seek faithfulness in this area of extending the kingdom. And recognizing that the world will hate us for those beautiful actions because they rub against that self-serving nature. But hopefully, we’re also winning people for that kingdom. That’s the church’s response. That’s our response.
JONATHAN: So landing in this place of: Disruption may be caused, and that’s not a bad thing necessarily. But it’s something we need to be careful about. If we’re doing something we know will be disruptive, we probably need to count the cost first and ask: Is this a disruption being caused by me living out my calling, living out the gospel? Or is this me being disruptive for the sake of disruption?
Even with your kids and teens—to bring it back into the original context of being a “disruptive innovator” in business, or in whatever culture or artform your kids are taking part in. It’s a great thing if, as your kids grow, they have big ideas that might even be big enough to shake up whatever field they want to go into. We’ve seen teenagers have crazy ideas that change the world. And that is not something to be discouraged as we are talking about this concept of disruption. Just because this word with destructive implications has been attached to the idea of innovation does not make innovation wrong.
But one other thing to draw out is that so much of this “disruption” has been aimed towards people wanting power, or people wanting to make money, whereas our call as Christians—no matter what industry we’re in—is to make disciples, to cause flourishing for people. So there is a particular impetus on us, as followers of Christ, and when we’re encouraging our children who are also following Christ, to take their big ideas and ask those questions of—“Will this idea lead to more flourishing? Will it make people’s lives better?”—instead of just pursuing an idea because it will be game-changing or disruptive.
KELSEY: Another good limiter is: How does this bring glory to the Father? And what you said, of “How does this contribute to human flourishing?” That is a piece of glorifying the Father. So we ask those questions, because they are wonderful guidelines for innovation, for creativity, for going out into the world and doing our work that He has given into our hands to do, that He has given us the ability for. It is lovely work, and it’s ours to do.
JONATHAN: So as always, we want to end by offering some questions or conversation starters you can use with your kids and teens. So Kelsey, if somebody’s child, or the child you’re mentoring as an educator, is coming to you having heard this term in the news—somebody is being celebrated as a “disruptor”—how can parents and teachers begin to walk through this topic with their kids?
KELSEY: Both if they see a story, or if you want to bring a story to mind, you would ask some of these questions:
Where do you notice more of this theme at play in culture—the theme of disruption?
What other words might you use to describe what you see? Synonyms for disruption, or antonyms, even as we’ve explored a bit today.
Is the idea of disruption positive, negative, or neutral? What criteria can we use to draw out our conclusions about these things? Or what informs your thinking in this area?
Who are the exemplars you think of as disruptive? What are positive things you can affirm in their thinking, their feeling, their doing? What are ways their actions concern you, and why?
Is it Christian to be disruptive? Why or why not? What rich words from the tradition of scripture might you prefer to use when discussing a Christian’s impact on the world around you, and why?
Now that we know more about this topic, what can we do with this next? How do we as believers respond?
We love to point to provision and biblical framework for our ideas at the end of every episode. So today, from Matthew 5, starting in verse 14: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
To me, this inspires the work we are called to do in the world, and I hope it encourages and inspires you in your work with your kids. Parents, teachers, mentors of children, you are uniquely positioned to engage the children in front of you. He has equipped you for the work.
What are “disruptors” and why do modern media praise them? Does such a thing as “godly disruption” exist? Kelsey and Jonathan explore the cultural dialogue around disruption and disruptors.
We would love to hear from you. You can send us a message at email@example.com. What current events or cultural issues are you wrestling through with your kids and teens? Let us know. We want to work through it with you.
See more from the News Coach, including episode transcripts.
- Read Disrupting Ourselves to Death by Brett McCracken at The Gospel Coalition.
- Watch Andy Crouch’s explanation of human flourishing.
- Learn more about disruptive innovation from Harvard Business Review.
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