Models, not Morals

iceberg-wgraphicsBible stories don’t give us morals; they give us models of how the universe works.  If we shared our stories with our kids this way, perhaps they wouldn’t find them so breathtakingly dull.

As discussed in a previous post, every cultures passes on its “How Things Are” ideas through stories. These are mental models of reality, showing how A results in B, which perhaps unexpectedly leads to C.  The culture I grew up in had the odd habit of turning these stories into morals, transforming them from “Here’s how things work sometimes” into “Always do this and not that.

What we have in the Bible is a bunch of mental models that sort of fit with each other and sort of don’t; they are what Walter Brueggemann calls “texts in travail.”  These models don’t always agree with each other, because models are by definition incomplete descriptions of the universe; there is always more story to be told.  As we grow up collecting these models, we gain tools for seeing the world as a complex system of relationships that can be touched and sort of understood but never quite controlled.

What we needed in our family is a shared way of talking about these models…

Introducing: Systems Thinking

As our family works through the models in the Bible, we are using the tools of Systems Thinking to clarify models, see how they connect with each other, and revise them as we learn. We start by identifying how various story elements change over time, and we visualize them with Behavior-Over-Time Graphs.  For example, when we start reading about Jacob, we see this:


If we’re trying to teach morals here, we’re not doing a very good job of it.  But the story continues, and we see some larger patterns:


So as we’ve gone deeper into Jacob’s story, we see that being a tricky bastard can result in short-term success, but can take a toll on a person’s relationships.  Note that this isn’t a moral; it’s not telling anybody to do anything;  it’s just describing how certain actions tend to produce certain results.  Using another systems thinking tool, we can see this model in a Causal-Loop Diagram:


This visualizes how trickery produces relationships w/o trust, which in turn make it more necessary to use trickery to get what you need, b/c you don’t have friends to depend on.  The snowball in the middle indicates that there is a self-reinforcing “snowball effect” in play here.

Other places in the Bible will talk about a “balancing loop” between human evil and God’s wrath. And we’ll get to an interesting twist when this guy named Jesus comes and turns all our models upside-down.

Systems Thinking provides a visual language for talking about our mental models of how things connect with other things.  Since I understand my religion in dynamic relational terms (rather than in terms of static things), this way of talking about ideas is perfect for me and my kids.  So as we go forward in our We Make the Road with Kids experiment, we will be using these tools to take our conversations into more visual and non-linear directions.   We will show our work as we go, and I hope you will start to see its value.

Learn more:

VIDEO: Watch these first-graders using causal loop diagrams to understand how fights break out on the playground, and trying out different ways to intervene in the system. Incredible!vimeoscreen

Article: Developing Young Systems Thinkers: “Their ability to do these graphs really surprised me. The graph itself wasn’t perfect, but the conversation and vocabulary that children used as they talked about the graph was at a level I have never heard before.”

CampSnowballCamp Snowball:  Systems Thinking, Sustainability, and Building our Capacity to Shape the Future.


So what do you think?

Have you heard of systems thinking before?  Have you used it? What do you think about the idea of using it in Bible education?  Leave comments!


  1. […] An example of using these stories as models of reality, using the visual language of Systems […]

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