Listen to “Grand Central” by Fred Smith
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world… W.B. Yeats
“The Second Coming” is one of the most quoted poems in history for at any moment enough people feel things are truly falling apart and the center cannot hold. But, ironically, centers falling apart is the very thing that keeps history moving forward. If the center were to hold forever everything would be stagnant and unchanging. It is, in many ways, the failure of the center to be permanent that makes all progress possible. Mere anarchy is not the only option.
I know Yeats is describing something very close to what we call our center of gravity. It is the heart of a person or a nation. It is, as we learned seventeen years ago on 9/11, the very thing that has to be successfully attacked and overcome to defeat an enemy. It was in those days that we realized what had been attacked and what we were desperate to defend. Not buildings but those values at the heart of our nation. Call it The Grand Central. But, there are other centers in our lives. We gravitate toward them for many reasons and the prospect of things falling apart without a center is frightening.
One of the surprises of Nike’s “Just Do It” campaign is, despite the initial backlash, their sales overall increased by 31% and their stock is trading above where it was prior to the announcement. Why? Because there is no longer a center market generating sales. “A polarized population is a fact of life for brands, in the U.S. and beyond. That leaves them with a choice; try to carry on catering to a vanishing mass-market middle ground or stake out a position that will infuriate one side but excite the other.” Unlike a political election, “a brand can win with far less than 50.1 percent of the population behind it.” In fact, concentrating on the center of the market or the mainstream is their biggest risk. Their growth will be far outside the center. The old center has become obsolete.
Centers disappear but sometimes they spawn new centers.
In 1517 the center of Christianity was Rome. No one could have imagined that an undistinguished professor of theology in Wittenberg, Germany affixing his questions about indulgences on the door of the local church would have the effect it did. One year later, the pope condemned Martin Luther’s writings as conflicting with the church and in 1521 after refusing to recant he was excommunicated. What began as a reform of the center became the formation of a new center for a movement we call Protestantism with 900 million adherents around the world. Rome did not disappear. It is still the center of Roman Catholicism with 1.2 billion members.
As well, centers move by re-definition.
The center of the early church was Jerusalem but not for long. Sudden persecution forced believers to spread out across the region. New converts created discussions and controversy about rules and membership. Doctrine and practice clashed and the growth of the Church was in danger of being constrained by all the limitations on new believers from other cultures. Paul argued that new believers were not under the same restrictions as those residing at the center and in doing so I believe he saved the Church from itself. Had he not, the new Church would have become little more than a reformation of Judaism and disappeared. This was Paul’s genius. He changed the definition and location of the center of the faith. His gospel became the new center. I think Billy Graham did the same in our time. When he started, the center of the faith was an angry and separated Fundamentalism fighting the Social Gospel and Liberals. He did not go outside the faith in reaction to that as some did. He did not fall back into the center. Instead, he moved the center and redefined it. That is rare and historic but also something to consider today. As Christians, what will become our new center? Will it be around a person? Will it be about doctrine and interpretation? Will it come from the periphery as in 1517? Will it drive some people further in toward what is thought to be certain and others completely out?
Some cannot absorb the strain of the changes and they give in to gravity and the centripetal force of the old center. Some go in the other direction. They are untethered by the centrifugal forces of the moment and become alienated and adrift. Hopefully, those are the extremes. Still, I sense we are in one of those times when a new center – or perhaps many – are being formed.
The old centers will not and should not hold forever but there are more options than mere anarchy.