One of our daughters spent a semester at The University of Florence in Italy years ago so Carol and I took the opportunity to visit her. One morning, they encouraged me to visit the Basilica of Santa Croce while they were shopping. It was early and the stone interior was still cold but the morning light filtered through the windows and the absence of any other visitors made it my private chapel for a time. Centuries of Florentine families were buried in the floor and the walls. Every square inch was given over to providing tombs for the wealthy, powerful and respected families of the Renaissance.
I glanced over to my left and noticed the tomb of Galileo and then over to my right I saw the tomb of Michelangelo. Next to that was the memorial for Dante and further down the tomb of Machiavelli. I had a moment of being stunned by the concentration of genius represented in this one small space and that was followed by a laugh. “What a dinner to have with the four of them together!” Of course, it is exactly that concentration of talent that made Florence the epicenter of the Renaissance. While they did not all live there at the same time, the established mixture of power, creativity and proximity produced the cultural explosion that has influenced the world ever since. Steven Johnson in his book, “Where Good Ideas Come From” writes: “Serendipitous discoveries can be facilitated by a shared intellectual or physical space. When ideas converge in a shared physical or intellectual space, through people from different disciplines meeting, creative collisions happen.” In other words, our picture of the lone genius in their lab or garret making great discoveries is far from accurate. More often than not great discoveries come from collisions of other ideas and personalities.
No Isolated Genius
Look at our own history as a country. There might have been a Revolution but there certainly would not have been documents like the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights or the Constitution had there not been that small group of men and women sharing space and constant interaction – even friction – with each other. The Clapham Sect in 18th Century England led by William Wilberforce, Henry Thornton and Henry Venn accomplished together what none of them could have done alone, partly because they lived in the same village. We know about The Inklings formed by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R.Tolkien, Charles Williams and others living in Oxford and meeting every Tuesday at the Eagle and Child for reading and discussions of their unfinished works.
It’s only recently that I’ve noticed another diverse group who lived in close proximity to each other for years. One of them was awaiting trial for turning the world upside down and the others were living with him in a rented house. Five different personalities were sharing meals, space, ideas, experiences and perspectives. I’ve overlooked it for years because it comes at the end of Paul’s letter to the Colossians. I’ve read it quickly and not thought much about it – until now. Who are the five? First, Paul the Apostle and the man waiting for trial but as a writer in the most productive period of his life. Second, his friend Luke who may have partially researched and written the Gospel by now but was certainly working on his second book – the Acts of the Apostles. Third, Mark, the young man who could not take the hardship of travel with Paul and Barnabas and was the cause for the permanent split between them. Now, decades later he is in Rome with both Paul and Peter and his notes from the conversations with Peter become our first Gospel. He cannot know it now but he will become the first martyr of the Coptic church and later the patron saint of Venice. Fourth, Timothy, the protege of Paul who is soaking up everything he can before being sent off to become not only Paul’s most trusted representative but a young pastor in a troubled church. Finally, an escaped slave from Colossae, Onesimus, is there as a new believer preparing to return to his owner and carrying not only several letters to the churches but also a personal note to his owner tucked into the envelope. Who could have known then that he would, according to Church tradition, become the Bishop of Ephesus?
Imagine those conversations over the two years they were together. Picture Luke fact-checking with Mark or Paul bouncing ideas off Timothy and Onesimus. Maybe our images of Paul sitting alone in chains writing his letters is not the real picture. Perhaps it was more like Clapham, Oxford or Florence than we think. It was not an isolated genius creating a revolution but a community of extraordinary people together for years changing the world.