I come from Australia. In my home country, we have a phenomenon known as the “tall poppy syndrome.” The idea is that when one poppy grows taller than the majority of poppies, it should be cut down!
This means that “high achievers” are not always encouraged to continue to achieve, and will often be subjected to cultural backlash. The only exception I can think of is sports. Sporting heroes are worshipped, as in many other western cultures.
The roots of the tall poppy syndrome are likely to be found in Australia’s convict settlement in the nineteenth century. This phenomenon is, of course, totally foreign to Americans. On the other hand, in the States, the unbridled pursuit of achievement seems to go forward as an unquestioned, inherent good.
“Thinking about this as an Australian living in America, I can identify cultural blind spots on both sides.”
One purpose of this series is to engage the question, What do the Scriptures say to both cultures? Moreover, have our churches simply imbibed the assumptions of our cultures? I suspect that is true in Australia, at least in my experience. The tall poppy syndrome exists in the church, but is sometimes “sanctified” as people say they are “keeping you humble,” because we all know how much God hates pride.
Thinking about this as an Australian living in America, I can identify cultural blind spots on both sides. Such pondering has led to my interest in the topic of achievement, and has raised several questions that I hope to address over the course of this year.
This first installment introduces the topic and why I will be addressing it. By “achievement,” I do not simply mean “success” (there are plenty of books on that topic), though there is of course much overlap. Also, I am not interested in how to achieve, or create success, which again is a topic well covered in the literature. Rather than exploring techniques for achievement, or for getting things done, I am interested in a theological exploration of achievement itself.
Opening a Conversation
1. What do I mean by “achievement”?
Well, that’s a very good question. In fact, defining achievement is one of the things I’m interested in working out. By “achievement” do we really in fact mean “high achievement,” in the sense that an achievement is something special, or outstanding? Or is “achievement” more pedestrian than that, including doing a day’s work, fulfilling basic responsibilities, and so forth?
2. Is “achievement” a biblical category?
However we choose to define it, is it something that the Bible teaches as a distinct theme? Or is it more of a modern category that is largely alien to the world of the Scriptures?
Clearly, achievement is a category that we employ today in our modern cultures. So, if it turns out that it is not really a biblical category, at least not in the way we mean, how should the Bible shape our thinking? Does this mean it’s not a helpful category, or does it mean that we need to populate the category with biblical wisdom and teaching about other topics that intersect with our modern category?
3. Whatever achievement is, how should Christians think about it christianly?
Issues of identity, security, satisfaction, pride, and glory are just some of the areas of life that are touched by achievement. Why do some people strive to achieve? Why do others not really care about achievement? Is one a right attitude, and the other wrong? Is it godly to want to achieve great things? What is fuelling such a desire?
These are some of the questions I will be wrestling with in this series. As you can see, I have more questions than answers at this point. I hope some answers will come to the surface through the next year.
I invite you to join me on the journey.