In their book Connected, Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler tell a rather odd story:
A strange thing happened in Tanzania in 1962. At a mission boarding school for girls near Lake Victoria in the Bukoba District, there was an epidemic of laughter. And this was not just a few schoolgirls sharing a joke. An irresistible desire to laugh broke out and spread from person to person until more than one thousand people were affected.
It started innocently enough, with three teenaged girls in one school. But soon, nearly everyone had the giggles, and the school had to close temporarily. The students went home to their villages, spreading the epidemic and forcing other schools to shut down.
The laughter was not joyous. Victims reported feeling anxious despite their apparent mirth. Medical officials discovered that the strange illness did seem to be contagious; each new outbreak could be traced to within a few days of contact with someone else already infected. They did everything they knew to determine the biological cause, but found nothing, and eventually the problem disappeared on its own.
Christakis and Fowler cite the story as an example of our invisible social connectedness, and in particular, of the phenomenon of “emotional contagion.” But I want to use the story to make a different point.
When people develop symptoms, doctors are called in to diagnose and treat. If new and mysterious symptoms show up in more than one place, epidemiologists step in. How are the cases connected? What’s the infectious agent? The assumption is that the different cases are outbreaks of the same illness; the goal is to isolate and if possible eradicate the disease.
But what happens if there are outbreaks of the Holy Spirit?
I know: it’s a stretch. But bear with me—I’m trying to suggest a way of thinking about the situation described in the last post, in which the Christians at Corinth had developed divisive attitudes about the manifestations of the Spirit in their midst.
Paul is trying to change how the believers in Corinth think about spiritual gifts. If it’s not too strange to suggest this, it’s as if he wants them to think more like epidemiologists. Epidemiologists don’t treat cases of illness as separate. Even if the symptoms are not entirely identical, they’re still assumed to be manifestations of the same infection. To miss the connection, to miss the bigger picture, is to miss everything.
That’s not to say, of course, that the Holy Spirit is an infectious disease (though there may be a “viral” influence in the broader sense)! But it is to say that to take individual pride in one’s spiritual gift, to separate the gift from the Giver, may make about as much sense as a Tanzanian teenager thinking that uncontrollable giggling makes him or her better than someone else.
It’s with that in mind that we’re ready to look at Paul’s list of spiritual gifts in the next post.