Ruths Solution: Power and Influence

Faith, Ministry
This entry is part 2 of 4 in the series Ruth's Solution

“Power and Influence”

My interest in Ruth’s story arises not only from its obvious parallels to our own time, but also from the fact that it revolves around simple relationship strategies that allowed a few people to enjoy a relatively small social success that contributed directly to the rise of a great nation. In the modern era I fear that we have relegated social or spiritual change to great men who exert great power through great events. Many of us common folk may be asking ourselves: What do my daily actions and relationships have to do with God’s great purposes in the world? What can I possibly contribute to the big picture from way down here in the trenches?

Ruth’s answer to that question will involve demonstrating positions of influence that function alongside social power structures and illustrating relational patterns that make effective use that influence. What does all that mean? It means that no matter who you are or how much power you hold, you can make deliberate daily choices that will significantly change the way your community functions. I don’t know about you, but that sounds pretty encouraging to me.

What’s the problem?

Before we look at the alternate sources of influence in this story, let’s take a moment to clarify the problem that needs to be solved. As we saw in the previous post, this story is book ended by the failure or potential failure of two men’s family lines.

Elimelech’s family falls apart when he and his sons die in a foreign land, leaving their widows to fend for themselves. His family is divested of its men and any social power they might have held abroad or at home. So Naomi and Ruth set out toward Bethlehem with no social capital save for their friendship and their relational savvy.

Boaz’ family failure initially doesn’t appear that way at all. His seems to be only a tale of twilight romance between a lonely old business man and an industrious young immigrant widow. Only after the story has reached its resolution and Boaz and Ruth’s son Obed has been born does the narrator reveal what might have happened had Boaz’ line stopped with him. We discover that Israel’s famed King David is Boaz’ great grandson, a fact Boaz would never know but which, had he known, would certainly have motivated him to ensure success with Ruth.

So the problem in Bethlehem is this: If the immigrant widow Ruth is unable to secure a place in Boaz’ social order, not only will Elimelech’s and Boaz’ names fade from history, but the Davidic dynasty will never come to pass. For this to happen, three separate communities must somehow integrate: Elimelech’s scattered family system, Boaz’ fruitless family line, and the town of Bethlehem including its women, laborers and power brokers.

Who is in a position to effect these kinds of changes?

Boaz and Social Prestige

There is no doubt that Boaz is central to this story. He maintains a position of power within the culture, he is never far from the narrative spotlight and he is one of the central players in David’s royal family line. We can begin our discussion of influence and power with Boaz because he clearly holds the strongest position in the narrative. But from a system’s perspective, the question is not only what position a person holds within the network but how position relates to the potential of the rest of the network. As the story unfolds, we realize that Boaz is not simply in possession of power but is actively expressing himself in that role and using it to develop the network even beyond his own reach.

Traditional Bible study approaches reveal that Boaz goes above and beyond what the law requires of him in order to extend hospitality and generosity to others. In the next post, we will see one of the wonderful ways that he does the same through relational patterns. But for now, let me put a finer point on Boaz’ influence. Of all the interactions that together compose the structure of this narrative, Boaz is involved in over 50%. He is the initiator of 30% of all interactions and is the object of almost 20%. This makes Boaz both the largest contributor of relationships and also the most prestigious actor in the narrative network. That he is both contributing and receiving relationships is a strong sign that he is not only powerful but also valued in his network.

But another way of talking about Boaz’ influence is to ask how close he is to everyone else in the story. If we imagine that every direct relationship is 1 meter long then we could find the average shortest distance from Boaz to anyone else. The shorter the path between Boaz and myself, the more likely that I will come under Boaz’ influence. Let’s give this a try:

All Interactions


From the point of view of the Narrator and given our 1m relationship length, Bethlehem is a town 2 meters wide at almost all points with Boaz living in the center. But it’s not quite that simple. For one thing,  we can see that the only path from Boaz to the town’s women will have to be provided by Naomi. (A side note here to Boaz, not every girl is going to come sleep at your feet. You might try just talking to them once in a while!) For another thing, Boaz is often interacting with groups of people (town, elders, women, reapers) rather than individuals. So we can assume that the relational distance in Bethlehem has been simplified for the sake of the story and that Boaz’ influence may not be quite so dominant as it seems here.

Perhaps you can see from this that one way of describing the progress toward resolution in this story is to track the average distance from a character to all others. Boaz’ average distance will change somewhat over the course of the story because Naomi and Ruth are coming closer to him. But it would be even more interesting to look closely at Ruth’s distance to others over the course of the story, especially in comparison to Naomi’s. Ruth starts quite distant from all others and through the combination of Boaz, Naomi and her actions arrives finally at a point far superior to even the elders or the kinsman redeemer.

Naomi and Network Brokerage

I may be quite close on average to everyone in my network, but what if I don’t have direct access to more than a handful? To put the question in Boaz’ terms, what if Ruth was located on the far side of the “women” with whom he had no connection? Or perhaps a little more hopeful situation, what if she lived on the other side of the “town” that he was connected to only generally?

Naomi’s influence in the network arises from the fact that she is the central person connected all the networks that need to be integrated. She is not as connected as Boaz, but she is well connected because it is highly likely that a message moving from point A (the elders) to point B (the women) across the network will have to pass through her hands.

Just as the network crumbles if you remove Boaz, the same is true if you remove the widow Naomi who has significantly less power and far fewer direct connections than Boaz. In fact, the combination of Naomi’s role of broker in the narrative combined with her forward thinking relational patterns are critical to effecting Ruth’s introduction to Boaz and integration into the town.

These are only two examples of the way that network positions differ in their influence from social power. The real magic comes into play when we see how our main characters leverage their positions by Christ-like behavior in order accomplish God’s goals. More on that in the next installment: “Winning Strategies”.

This entry is part 1 of 4 in the series Ruth's Solution

In the history of every community, there are points when the future success of the many hangs on the behavior of the few. These moments may be dramatic and perilous, like the cold December morning in 1237 AD when Russian emissaries from the walled city of Ryazan turned their backs on an army of Mongol warriors who had demanded their surrender. The miscalculations of those sorry men resulted in the complete destruction of Ryazan and marked the beginning of the Mongol horde’s expansion into Eastern Europe.

But these pivotal moments can also be completely mundane, depending not on the judgements of emissaries or the skill of warriors or the wisdom of kings but on average men and women from average circumstances going about their daily business as life presents it. Such was the case as two women arrived at the eastern gate of Bethlehem in ancient Israel. The women were both recently widowed, one an Israelite woman named Naomi and the other her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth. They were returning from the land of Moab where Naomi, her husband and sons had moved years before to escape famine in the region of Benjamin. Completely empty handed, Naomi was now returning to her home town with her foreign daughter-in-law hoping to make her way on more familiar territory.

Unbeknownst to anybody in the town that day, the future of Israel, the reign of her greatest King, the wealth of his beautiful hymns, and the prophecies birthed from his memory depended completely on the assimilation of these two refugees into the heart of the community.

The story of these two women’s return can be found in the Bible’s book of Ruth. The book amounts to no more than a hiccup after the great sighs of the Exodus from Egypt and the wheezing exhaustion of the period of the Judges. It is brief and microscopic compared to the great events that surround it; it is a domestic sidenote in the unfolding tale of great men and competing nations. And ironically, the whole story turns on this moment.

The precariousness of Israel’s situation as well the relational decisions that lead to its solution are elegantly demonstrated through an analytical technique called social network analysis (SNA). Simply put, SNA investigates the relationships between individuals in a system and reveals both an overview of the resulting network as well as insights into the relational patterns that lead to that system’s success or failure. SNA has been used to target populations for immunization, disrupt networks of terror or crime, increase the efficiency of large corporations, and even analyze film and literature.

SNA begins with a catalogue of interactions between individuals. I have counted 97 interactions in the book of Ruth in the following categories: family and genealogical relationships, narrative interactions, speaking events, mentions of a third party, and favors. A network map is created by drawing an arrow from each actor to its object until all interactions have created a spiderweb of relationships. Here is the resulting network map from the book of Ruth. For clarity I have colored the nodes (dots) according to their social context and drawn arrows according to relationship types (dotted for family ties, dashed for weak interactions, and solid for strong interactions). 

All Interactions

Ruth’s social network

What stands out to you about the shape of this network? My eye goes first to the genealogic “tails” going into and coming out of the “village” and then to the tangle of relationships in the village itself. According to the color scheme, there seem to be three smaller systems built into the overall picture: a geneological system, Elimelech’s family system and the town system. If we divide up the graph to isolate those systems, we gain our first set of insights into the story Ruth.


Boaz, Elimelech and the fragility of family lines

The genealogical tails that we see in the large system don’t actually come to light until the last few sentences of the story. What Boaz cannot know is what we see quite clearly in this chain: King David’s existence depends on the birth of Boaz’s son Obed. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, this relatively simple task is not so easy for Boaz. In spite of his success in agriculture, we discover that Boaz has been unlucky in love. Fields aplenty with no fruit to show for his labors.

This lineage problem demonstrates one of the insights of system theory: linear networks are notoriously fragile. Because each link in the chain is critically important, any interruption will compromise the entire network, including the many people represented by each male in the chain.


Elimelechs “Fan Network”

We find a perfect example of this susceptibility problem in Elimelech’s family. The book actually begins with the failure of Elimelech’s line which in retrospect heightens the precariousness of Boaz’ potential lack of an heir. Elimelech’s network (called a “fan network”) represents a step up from Boaz’ family line. He has successfully married, had sons and married his sons to their wives. Elimelech’s social network is expanding and we can assume even more stability in his line because of (unmentioned) relationships between Naomi and her sons. But when the men of the family die in Moab, the lineage problem rears its head again and the family disintegrates with each female returning to her original home divested of family and therefore also of future.

So while a family line allows power to be efficiently managed, contained and directed, as long as that power is centralized in one person per generation the system is susceptible to complete failure.

Boaz surely never saw these final verses in his own story and so our sense of retrospective urgency might only have amounted to abiding loneliness for him. But to be fair, none of us have access to the last chapters of our life, do we? We conduct ourselves as best we can in the moment entrusting our future to the Fates or to the mercy of God. But perhaps there are other ways to pass our blessings forward. Perhaps there are patterns of relating that lend more stability, resilience and effectiveness to our relational networks.

Boaz "Hub and Spoke" Network

Boaz “Hub and Spoke” Network

Here it is important to look again to Boaz who in the absence of a spouse and offspring has clearly become the hub of his community, making it a surrogate family of sorts. As networks develop toward health, they move through a series of stages: separated clusters, hub & spoke, multiple hubs, and finally core & periphery. Boaz has clearly assumed his role as the hub in his community and so advanced its move toward maturity. Is this a power position for him, or is it a strategy for influencing network health? All will be revealed!

On a similar note, as we move forward in Ruth’s story you will notice the role that women play in stabilizing the social structure of the narrative network. But notice as well that they accomplish this not by assuming the same fragile linear power structures previously held by men but by skillfully exerting influence from where they are in the system.

Could it be that influence over community health has much less to do with power than it has to do with skillfully leveraging one’s position within the community?

Implications and Questions:

  1. What types of interactions would you include in your relational map?
  2. What stands out to you about the shape and character of Ruth’s network map?
  3. What advantages and disadvantages are represented by “the pastors’ wall” found in many of our churches?
  4. Where are power and influence located on Ruth’s network map?
Faith, Ministry

March of the Cephalophores


As Halloween approaches, I’ve taken up a morbid turn on a question that dominates my thoughts about ministry and the gathered Christian life.

My question is this: does the church really understand what it means to be the Body of Christ?

My sense is that we often interpret Paul’s body language as nothing more than a clever metaphor which enables him to speak about the exercise of diverse gifts within the church in a way that does not compromise our unity. Like any good metaphor, speaking of the Body allows him to expand further on the way that this giftedness and unity are meant to function in various contexts. The image of the Body is then the Christian metaphor for our peculiar model of community.

But I think Paul is suggesting much more than that. Consider this: while speaking of the church as “a” body really is a clever metaphor, isn’t it almost scandalous to speak of the church (either universal or local) as “The Body of Christ”? That suggests a relationship between Jesus and his church that is much more intimate than a clever organizational model. It suggests a very real connection between head and body, between will and action (per 1Cor 11-14). It suggests even a mystical union of the risen Jesus Christ and his earthly church so that the maturity of the Body fulfills the intentions of the Head (per Eph 4).

I suggest that Jesus’ purpose of restoring the image of God for humanity is not so much about accumulating “saved” people into a sunday morning grouping called “the church” but instead about creating a new kind of humanity which is so connected to Jesus the head that it functions at all levels as his body would.

Is this what you expect of your church? Is this what your church is working towards?

But back to Halloween. If the church is meant to be growing up into the head and so into Christ-sized maturity (as Paul argues), then having our “head screwed on straight” becomes pretty important. A lot of what goes wrong in the church both locally and also globally can be argued to arise from misplacing, misusing or downright ignoring Jesus’ headship.

Turns out that a popular genre of both horror films and Christian martyrs is the cephalophore – greek for “head carrier”. Not only does this provide for chills, gore and nightmare fodder, it turns out to be a pretty potent metaphor. According to horror philosopher Eugene Thacker, “The decapitated body is, arguably, one of the most precise allegories of philosophy. The head, bearer of the brain and the seat of reason, is detached from a body that it can no longer govern.” (Eugene Thacker, “Tentacles Longer than Night”).

How is it then that the body of Christ goes about losing its head?

Enter the cephalophores

Ambulans capita (The Walking Head)

St. Denis picks up where he left off.

St. Denis picks up where he left off

St. Denis, the patron saint of Paris is perhaps the most famous of this group of head carriers. Denis is said to have responded to his beheading by picking up his skull and carrying it to the graveyard where he selected a choice plot for his burial. How he saw the way or chose the plot we do not know though we can assume that this transfer of awareness and will from head to body is the substance of the miracle.

St. Denis’ light-headed stroll illustrates a situation in which the church assumes the real absence of Christ and goes on about its business autonomously. This is maybe the easiest pit to fall into. After all, our head has in fact been separated (or more accurately “ascended”) from its shoulders. The temptation is to assume that the next best thing to having him here with us is to behave as his proxy. But problems abound and maybe principally among them is our tendency to head off toward the graveyard as opposed to continuing the work of the head.

Ambulans capita can be identified by its low cut collar and irregular gate. If spotted in the wild, one is advised not to interfere in the subject’s wanderings as it tends to be single minded in its pursuit of subterranean repose.

loquentes capita (The Talking Head)

St. Justis was always talking his head off.

St. Justis was often chided for talking his head off.

St. Justis adds a fun twist to the grave-ward stroll by adding a sermon to the mix. Legend has it that after walking a few miles head in hand, Justis encountered a young girl with whom he shared the gospel. I suppose this is something like a crude form of evangelistic pamphlet sharing, which may explain why so few come to faith that way.

The headless church can accomplish something similar by focusing all of its energy on proclamation. There is a potential benefit in this situation of taking observers attention off of the headless torso stumbling toward the graveyard. But once listeners realize that the words spoken have no attachment to a body that might display them, the entire show becomes a spectacle.

Ioquentes capita is found in a wide variety of habitats. It is known to frequent pulpits, facebook comment streams, coffee houses, and sometimes busy street intersections carrying red-letter placards. While certainly fun to watch, this creature is best observed from a distance. Once eye contact is established in proximity, the subject will demand continued attention until receiving the desired response.

Volantes capita (The Projectile Head)

Jonathan Baker art

Nihil verberat cucurbita pastillus scalpere longo nox equo venator

As if a speaking head isn’t enough to keep you up at night, how about a flying head … aimed at you! If you don’t believe such a thing is possible, I refer you to young Ichabod Crane who I believe is now teaching Social Studies at a charter school in rural Pennsylvania. Ike’s encounter with the famed headless horseman illustrates that where invective fails, a well aimed pumpkin will always bring the point home.

Inevitably, churches will find themselves in a situation in which they must make account of positions considered strange by those with whom they live. What begins as a stare-down can quickly devolve into argument. The headless church, while retaining both the knowledge of the brain as well as the potential energy of the cranium, lacks the ordered reason and direction of an attached and functioning nervous system and tends as a rule to strike out. What is disembodied discourse to Ioquentes is a weapon to Volantes. For such churches there is no such thing as a convert, only a target.

Do not approach. Do not engage. Do not loiter near dark bridges on the edge of haunted woods at night. Volantes capita is highly dangerous and volatile and will most certainly pursue you if you are spotted. If you are noticed, stand stalk still until the subject turns its gaze then walk slowly backward into thick cover. In case of attack, duck, dodge and if worse comes to worse move to rural Pennsylvania.

Artificialis capita (The Artificial Head)

3230237-3251212171-frankWhile headlessness in its various forms is indeed horrific, what terrifies me most is the idea of the artificial head. Thacker calls this the hermetic or hidden head in which the head is replaced by something less than what ought to be ruling the body. The most famous example of this is Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (I recommend Kenneth Branaugh’s adaptation). In an effort to solve the mystery of sickness and death, young Dr. Frankenstein sets out to create the perfect man out of “material” he collects from local cholera victims and criminals. When his mentor dies unexpectedly, he uses his head in order to govern perfectly what might otherwise become monstrous. The effect is not only terrifying but also tragic as the nameless monster develops awareness, adapts to his surroundings and attempts to be what it simply cannot by nature be: human.

My great fear as a pastor is that many church-going Christians and pastoral leaders have managed – with the best of intentions of course – to place a human head where Christ himself is meant to be. The result is so often exactly the same as Frankenstein: frustrated effort and tragic endings both for head and body. The Body of Christ is meant for “works of service” for which it is prepared by specialized parts within the body. The Head of the Body can be no other than Jesus Christ.

The Body of Christ is not “material” that can be harvested haphazardly and sown together to fulfill the purposes of our hermetic heads. Rather it is a new creation whose head is Christ. The Body of Christ is received, not contrived. It is integrated, infused and enlivened by the Holy Spirit and directed and fed by Jesus Christ himself. It is organic. It is living. It is whole. United as it is meant to be under the headship of Jesus, it is not horrific but eternally hopeful.

Kitchen – Bathroom Corridor Functioning!


It’s been a long time coming, but we were finally able to functionally complete our kitchen and bathroom corridor along with stairs to the bedrooms. This was the biggest hurdle to our being able to move into the house and we made it only by the skin of our teeth. We were able to find a radiator right in our budget and install it ourselves. I suggest to anyone looking for one of to check the range of bathroom radiators by bathroom city. The last push required an additional worker – now the Sten and Ruudi team, the help of Lea’s brother Arvo with electricity, and my good friend Clif on plumbing. So now we’re finally moved in. Construction continues on the living room and guestroom and we’re waiting for the arrival of new windows in October. But we’re getting closer to an end of this downstairs stage!