Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Little and The Overlooked – What Really Changes the World

Written by: on February 22, 2023

A common illustration of the great effect of small mistakes involves navigation. Whether one is steering a ship or flying a plane, the slightest unremitted adjustment in the direction can throw one completely off course. A single degree of difference can cause one to be thousands of miles off the intended destination.


A Lesson From Winchester


In Simon Winchester’s book The Map that Changed the World[1], the story of William Smith displays this truth. William Smith was a canal digger who unearthed a revelation that would shape history as we know it. He discovered the different layers upon which the rocks were arranged and the differences in the fossils that were excavated in these layers. He embarked on an expedition around England, observed the rocks, and created a map, which would eventually become the map that changed the world. But he experienced great hardship due to the resistance his discovery found from the deeply religious English community. It wasn’t until later on in life that his achievement was recognized and he was honored.[2] If one was to find Smith ten years after his highly advanced, ground-breaking map of England was created, one would not find a successful, highly-esteemed man. Rather, Smith was seemingly unremarkable, unassuming, and worthy only of pity. No one would guess this was a man whose work would greatly shape science, the industrial revolution, and the world.


The lesson I want to highlight is this: the little, overlooked moments in history are often what shape the world for future generations – for good, for ill, or, more often, an amalgamation of both. To parse this out further, I want to highlight another example of this lesson from Tim Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography[3], and then pull the thread from Marshall back to its origin.


Africa – Colonialism’s Artificial Borders


Marshall’s Prisoners of Geography highlights how much of what happens in the world, the conflict, geopolitics, and economic growth, is a result of the cards that were dealt from the land people live on. The geography of one’s country can provide advantages and disadvantages. Marshall contends that “The rules of geography which Hannibal, Sun Tzu, and Alexander the Great all knew, still apply to today’s leaders.”[4] This is a surprising assertion for us who imagine ourselves immune to the limitations of nature due to the advancement of technology. But this sobering limitation, as Marshall lays out in his book, is still true.


In his chapter on Africa, a fascinating insight emerged. This insight affirms the lesson that small moments in human history, whether they be decisions, actions, or ideas, have lasting ripple effects.


In writing about Africa, Marshall informs the reader about the line drawing to create “nation-states” that the European colonizers forced upon the locals. He writes,


But colonialism forced those differences to be resolved within an artificial structure the European concept of a nation state. The modern civil wars are now partially a result of the colonialists’ having told different nations that they were one nation in one state, and then after the colonialists were chased out, a dominant people emerged within the state who wanted to rule it all, thus ensuring violence…, one of the biggest failures of European line drawing lies in the center of the continent, the giant black hole known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo- the DRC. Here is the land in which Joseph Conrad set his novella Heart of Darkness and it remains a place shrouded in the darkness of war. It is a prime example of how the imposition of artificial borders can lead to a weak and divided state, ravaged by internal conflict, and whose mineral wealth condemns it to being exploited by outsiders.[5]


These artificial lines have since caused immense harm, conflict, and an unending list of problems careless colonialism created. Such decisions affect history far greater than those making the decisions realized.


But what was the idea that shaped colonialism, and what its inception? To answer that, we turn to Dr. Willie James Jennings, author of The Christian Imagination.[6]


The Genesis of Race-Based Social Stratification According to Jennings


Jennings work on identifying the conceptual origins of race in The Christian Imagination begins with a Portuguese historian by the name of Gomes Eanes de Azurara (or Zurara). This was Prince Henry of Portugal’s royal chronicler.[7] Jennings writes about Zurara’s account of a “ritual of slave capture and auction” in which Prince Henry was present.[8] In reflecting on the event, Zurara locates the suffering of the African slaves within the providence of God, and highlights (possibly for the first time) the differences of the African slaves, thus providing language for whiteness and non-whiteness. Jennings writes,


Zurara deploys a rhetorical strategy of containment, holding slave suffering inside a Christian story that will be recycled by countless theologians and intellectuals of every colonialist nation. The telos and the denouement of the event will be enacted as an order of salvation, an ordo salutis – African captivity leads to African salvation and to black bodies that show the disciplining power of the faith.[9]


Thus, the trajectory of human history was altered. The repercussions of race-based social stratification is endless.




The unassuming and overlooked people (William Smith), decisions (European creation of African nation-states), and ideas (Zurara’s race-based social stratification) often, with the seemingly slightest adjustment, greatly alter the direction of human history. As Christian leaders in our rapidly-changing world, we must now, more than ever, slow down, pay attention, and ask God “What is going on? What are we overlooking that is going to have great effects on the future?”


May we be attentive to the Spirit’s highlighting of the unassuming and overlooked.

[1] Simon Winchester, The Map That Changed the World: William Smith and the Birth of Modern Geology (Harper Collins, 2009).

[2] Ibid. 281-290.

[3] Tim Marshall, Prisoners of Geography: Ten Maps That Explain Everything About the World (Simon and Schuster, 2016).

[4] Ibid. 5.

[5] Ibid. 122-123.

[6] Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale University Press, 2010).

[7] Ibid. 15-16.

[8] Ibid. 17.

[9] Ibid. 20.

About the Author


David Beavis

David is Australian by birth, was raised in Southern California, and is the Youth and Young Adults Pastor at B4 Church in Beaverton, Oregon. David and his wife, Laura, live in Hillsboro with their dog, Coava (named after their favorite coffee shop). M.A. Theology - Talbot School of Theology B.A. Psychology - Vanguard University of Southern California

4 responses to “The Little and The Overlooked – What Really Changes the World”

  1. mm Chad McSwain says:

    David – great connections to all three books. It is wild and alarming to see the lasting repercussions of ideas, whether they are nation states or how certain people fit into the salvation story. In particular, how these ideas are adopted (adapted) to our human bias against one another.
    What ideas, in our time, seem alarming to you when you think about the long-term implications of them?

  2. Jenny Steinbrenner Hale says:

    David, I like how you wove your blog together with threads from Winchester, Marshall, and Jennings. Thanks for highlighting all of those connections for us and for pointing out your beginning theme: small mistakes can have catastrophic consequences. I appreciate how you ended with your questions to God and a call to be attentive to the Spirit. I am going to be thinking about the message of your blog and considering your closing questions. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the little and the overlooked – what really changes the world!

  3. Tonette Kellett says:


    The message of your blog is a powerful one. It is one to chew on for some time to come. Thank you for weaving these three books together like this.

  4. Alana Hayes says:

    Wow. Just. WOW.

    How do you think that we can we learn and share more information from the stories of little known individuals like William Smith? Its so strange to me that such a pioneer…with ideas that has shaped history is somehow still almost lurking in the shadows at the same time….

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