It’s a word that has probably been uttered in every start-up pitch meeting in the last decade. Silicon Valley tech bros toss it around enthusiastically, and Wall Street investors react to it skeptically.
Or its buzzy adjective: disruptive.
Originating in the 1990s with the “disruptive innovation” theory of Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, the term has since become ubiquitous. The list of “disruptive” companies—game-changers who rewrote the rules of their respective industries—is long and growing: Uber disrupted the taxi industry, Airbnb the hotel industry, Crossfit the fitness industry, Spotify the music industry, Netflix the movie industry, and so forth.
For the last 10 years, CNBC’s Disruptor 50 list has testified to the way “disruption” has basically become synonymous with tech-driven, innovative entrepreneurship. If there’s a recipe for entrepreneurial success in the 21st century, disruption seems to be a key ingredient.
But the word has expanded beyond business into nearly every aspect of culture. From Harry Styles “disrupting gender binaries in fashion” to Meghan Markle being called “the ultimate disruptor” to disruptive movie studios, disruptive ghost kitchens, “church disruption summits,” and more, disruption is everywhere.
What should Christians make of it?
Growing Cultural Anxiety About Disruption
Though it has typically been embraced as a positive thing—a sort of maverick gumption that somehow makes capitalism feel countercultural—“disruption” is increasingly viewed with a bit more skepticism.
Consider the growing trend of movies and documentaries that relish the “rise and fall” narratives of would-be disruptors (e.g., WeWork, Theranos, LuLaRoe). Or ponder the voluminous, ominous discourse surrounding the looming disruption of generative AI. The recent horror-comedy film M3GAN captures the growing anxiety we feel about profit-seeking corporations championing “disruptive” AI technology without considering its potential dangers. In M3GAN, the horror of AI takes the form of a creepy talking doll whose soulless-but-smart power turns murderous. The greedy CEO (Ronny Chieng) bets everything on M3GAN’s unprecedented disruption of the toy industry, and when he (spoiler alert) meets his violent comeuppance at the hands of the robotic doll, the audience sees it as poetic justice. Innovators and entrepreneurs, beware: reckless disruption can come back to bite you.
Innovators and entrepreneurs, beware: reckless disruption can come back to bite you.
Similarly, lampooning disruption is a key part of Rian Johnson’s recent film Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. Edward Norton plays a villainous Elon Musk–type billionaire, Miles Bron, who calls his inner circle “The Disruptors” and commends them for being willing “to break the thing that nobody wants you to break.” Disruptors will be called crazy and labeled bullies, he argues, but this comes with the territory of world-changing innovation: “As it turns out, nobody wants you to break the system itself. But that is what true disruption is, and that is what unites all of us. We all got to that line, and crossed it.”
Glass Onion rightly considers the “break stuff” mentality of disruption to be dangerous—a sort of adolescent iconoclasm that justifies burning down established systems, institutions, and traditions for the sake of profit, ego, and sometimes boredom. By the film’s end, the fragility (in a figurative and a literal sense) of Bron’s “disruptive” empire is exposed, and it all comes crashing down. As much as disruption reaps rewards, it also reaps risk. This is true in the business world, as every crypto investor right now knows. But it’s also true of disruption in other areas. And we need to be cautious.
Perhaps COVID-19—a global disruption which we still feel, mostly in negative ways—turned the tide of our feelings about disruption. From disrupting education and travel to supply chains and just about everything else, the pandemic showed the dark side of “disruption.” When it’s not on our terms and timeline, disruption can be a drag. But even when it is something in our control, disruption often destroys more than it creates.
At a time when no precedent, norm, or received wisdom is safe from the wrecking ball that masquerades as “disruption,” it’s no wonder anxiety is on the rise. A world of constant disruption is overwhelming.
At a time when no precedent, norm, or received wisdom is safe from the wrecking ball that masquerades as ‘disruption,’ it’s no wonder anxiety is on the rise.
Disruption diminishes the value of continuity and stakes everything on reinvention. The past has little value in the disruption mindset; it’s all about the present and the future. Disruptive iconoclasm always assumes long-held traditions and “the way things have been done” needs shaking up. To be sure, sometimes disruption is needed; the longevity of a norm is no guarantee of its rightness. Questioning established wisdom and long-accepted tenets is occasionally a necessary and fruitful endeavor. But it’s also fraught with peril.
Prone as we are to chronological snobbery, and malnourished as we are in the nutrients of history and time-tested wisdom, it’s usually ill-advised to assume everyone had it wrong until you “discovered” the truth. A good example of this is the recent “rethinking” of marriage to now include same-sex pairings. Never mind that every human civilization for umpteen millennia has taken it as obvious that marriage is necessarily built on the biological complementarity and procreative potential of a male and a female. Progressive Western cultures in the last 20 years have declared themselves enlightened on the real definition of marriage. Everyone who preceded them is apparently ignorant.
Fashioning oneself a “disruptor,” then, tends to involve no small amount of narcissism. Disruptors often have a dangerous disregard for anything that might slow down or complicate their insurgent ambitions—whether that’s history, tradition, bureaucracy, rules, regulations, institutional power, or just the pushback of other people. Indeed, the disruptor often isolates himself from community, family, would-be allies, business partners, and anyone else who might question or slow him down. In the short term, such a posture might make one a renegade hero. But few lone-wolf disruptors end up building things that last.
Whether “disruptor in chief” politicians like Donald Trump, who revel in volatility and scorched-earth iconoclasm (even toward their own parties), or “hell-raising” pastors like Rob Bell, who fashion themselves as “think different” Steve Jobs–esque disruptors, those who make headlines for their disruptive antics tend not to effect constructive, lasting change. A dozen years after Bell was labeled one of the 100 most influential people in the world, is he influencing Christianity anymore? And a dozen years from now, will we evaluate the Trump disruption as something that set Washington on a more productive, ethical, “drained swamp,” rebooted trajectory? Or will we see his “disruption moment” like we see Bell’s now—as an extended publicity stunt that provoked much ire but produced little fruit?
When All Is Disruption, Nothing Is
It’s interesting that DC’s Joker character is arguably the most iconic and popular villain in 21st-century pop culture. From Heath Ledger’s version in The Dark Knight (2008) to Joaquin Phoenix’s in Joker (2019), from Barry Keoghan’s cameo in The Batman (2022) to this year’s “Joker gets pregnant and gives birth” comic, the Clown Prince of Crime clearly resonates in today’s world. And he’s a dandy of a disruptor. Ledger’s Joker sums it up well in The Dark Knight when he tells Harvey Dent, “Introduce a little anarchy. Upset the established order, and everything becomes chaos. I’m an agent of chaos.”
In former eras, “agents of chaos” were clearly villains, but in today’s “burn it all down” world, where deconstruction is chic, they’re heroes. It’s why Disney villains like Cruella are now role models. With her Vivienne Westwood, trash bag couture, rebel aesthetic, Emma Stone’s Cruella trumpets the virtues of transgressive shock and awe. Her message apparently resonates with the bored bourgeois youth of decadent late modernity: Upset the establishment. Make normies squirm. Disrupt, disrupt, disrupt!
In former eras, ‘agents of chaos’ were clearly villains, but in today’s ‘burn it all down’ world, where deconstruction is chic, they’re heroes.
Here’s the thing, though. When everything becomes disruption, nothing really disrupts. When the acts of unsettling and deconstructing become ends unto themselves, chaos reigns and nothing advances. It’s as if we’ve all become like toddlers who relish knocking down block towers but don’t have the patience or interest in building them. And there are signs society is growing weary of constant wreckage. We’re wired to build, after all. We desire sturdy towers.
How Christians Respond to Perpetual Disruption
One way Christians can bring sanity to the anxiety of this moment is by helping distinguish good and bad forms of disruption.
Reckless disruption for disruption’s sake, or for the sake of ego or greed, is problematic. But we can celebrate disruption that has a noble, building purpose (e.g., challenging a systemic injustice or inventing a technology that makes the world safer or the environment cleaner).
Based on how nearly every aspect of the world was altered by his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus was certainly history’s greatest disruptor. The introduction of countercultural Christian morality into the ancient world massively disrupted practices considered normal at the time that now seem barbaric (e.g., abandoning infants to die, withholding rights for women). More recently, it was Christian-led disruption that ended the British slave trade and Christian abolitionists who advocated for the end of slavery in 19th-century America. Disruption can clearly be a good thing for the world.
But Christians need to remember that while much in the world should be appropriately questioned, some things aren’t up for grabs. Any manmade philosophy, economic system, technology, or scientific assumption is fair game for a constructive rethinking. But anything made by God is not. His Word and his design for humanity aren’t open to our disruptive ambitions.
God’s Word and his design for humanity are not open to our disruptive ambitions.
Still, many today try. The Bible is constantly put in the same category as Blockbuster stores or fax machines: outmoded relics ripe for reinvention. Similarly, God’s design for humanity, including biological sex (“male and female he created them,” Gen. 1:27), is increasingly seen as negotiable and arbitrary, open to disruptions of every sort: gender “reassignment,” artificial wombs, “pregnant men,” and headlines like “Trans Man Gives Birth After Using Female Sperm Donor.”
Christians should recognize that orthodox Christian belief and faithful Christian living will be disruptive in its very nature. While many today assume they need to launch a game-changing app, invent a flying car, or adopt novel pronouns in order to be “disruptive,” Christians have a simpler recipe for being disruptive: obey God’s Word and faithfully live like Christ. As tempting as it is, Christians shouldn’t seek to be disruptive by rebranding, reinventing, or coming up with some clever way of making Christianity “relevant.” Such efforts often have the opposite effect.
True and Better Disruption
Christianity is disruptive today for the same reasons it was disruptive 100 and 500 and 2,000 years ago. Throughout human history, sinful human hearts and sin-clouded human minds have chosen paths that are neither good for them nor for their society. Only the work of Christ can free us from slavery to “following the course of this world” (Eph. 2:2) and set us on a radically new path of good works (Eph. 2:10).
The gospel is radical in every age, and the practices of the church are countercultural and disruptive in every context. Alan Noble helpfully reminds us of this in his book Disruptive Witness. We don’t need to embark on an arduous quest to find Christianity’s disruptive relevance in the modern world. It’s right here where it’s been for centuries: in Scripture and the countercultural community that is the church.
As we do our thing, living as faithful Christians in continuity with 2,000 years of believers before us, we’ll become a haven of stability and endurance in a jittery world of purposeless flux. Our secular neighbors are already showing signs of being disenchanted with the increasingly empty flow of constant, overhyped disruption. Let’s pray they’ll be prompted to seek something transcendent and give Christian faith a hearing, listening to the One whose message doesn’t just temporarily disrupt but truly transforms.