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

How to Train Your Elephant

Written by: on April 4, 2019

The first week our family was back in Canada after many years abroad, we decided to take a relaxing trip to the movies after months of stress preparing for the move. Given my children’s ages at the time, the cartoon was the obvious choice and it happened to be “Inside Out”[1] ; a humourous tale about the inner workings of a child’s mind where the core emotions were brilliantly personified. Unfortunately the narrative framing the comical interactions between the emotions was the traumatisation of a child due to her parents’ decision to move; leaving the only home she’d known. And all her friends. And her teammates. The result was that the child began to register core memories that were no longer joy, but also fear, sadness, disgust and anger—essentially destroying her innocence and driving her towards adulthood. I cried my eyes out during that delightful little tale, fully convinced that I had just ruined my children’s lives by selfishly moving them back to my home country. No amount of reason in that moment could shift my gut reaction that what we had just done was wrong. Haidt’s proverbial elephant[2] had headed off in a particular direction and it would not be redirected for quite some time.

In social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion”, a similar look inside the inner workings of the mind and emotions is undertaken—albeit at a more adult level. Haidt draws on personal narrative, history, science and philosophy to ultimately offer a definition of moral systems as “interlocking sets of values, virtues, norms, practices, identities, institutions, technologies, and evolved psychological mechanisms that work together to suppress or regulate self-interest and make cooperative societies possible. [3]” While it isn’t a particularly succinct definition, he illuminates how very complex the creation of our morality is to the end of encouraging us to greater respect and understanding for those who hold differing views from us. Such an endeavour was one that I found extremely useful and relevant as I continue to explore how we, within the church, might nurture love and flourishing across various types of difference. Our moral intuition (characterised as an elephant) is shaped by a multitude of influences. It is this intuition that has the greatest impact on how we evaluate or respond to people and situations. We then use moral reasoning (a rider on the elephant) to justify our leanings. In looking to influence someone we often engage in reasoning when really “(i)f you want to change people’s minds, you’ve got to talk to their elephants” [4].

Community is not generally a guiding moral principle in the West. However Christianity has a high, countercultural, emphasis on interconnectedness. Haidt suggests that “(r)eligions are moral exoskeletons. If you live in a religious community, you are enmeshed in a set of norms, relationships, and institutions that work primarily on the elephant to influence your behavior. [5]” This is not necessarily a hierarchical process whereby leadership manipulates people’s intuition, rather we acknowledge “our capacity to deceive ourselves. In our fragmented state, we have lost the capacity to make ethical discernments with certainty. The reliability of our discernment improves as we reach beyond our individual selves to engage others in the discerning process, and even more so as we seek to know the way of Jesus together as God’s people. [6]” Such a strategy girds Christian morality not in individual faith, but by communal faith which celebrates the tension of individual roles within a communal identity under the Lordship of the eternal God to whom we are accountable.

If then there arises a need to redirect the ‘elephant’ of some of the group, it is useful to have strategies that help. For example if the community is convinced that it is moral and faithful to love one’s neighbour, but the people who have moved next door are unfamiliar, their may be an initial negative intuitive reaction by some. The elephant thus needs to be redirected. Haidt recounts that researcher Robert Zajong “was able to make people like any word or image more just by showing it to them several times.The brain tags familiar things as good things” [7]. Thus sharing favourable images of the neighbours or people who look like the neighbours would incline the community to receive them more warmly. If we add to the experience sharing positive news before talking about the new neighbours, we might engage in “affective priming”[8] whereby a new idea is preceded by a clearly emotively positive idea. Once the community is positively prepared, a visit with the neighbours might be arranged as “(e)mpathy is an antidote to righteousness”[9] , which can best be nurtured through face to face relationship building. “The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people. We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favor.” [10] If, as a Christian community we want to genuinely invite the Holy Spirit to change us, we can be strategic in refining our intuition to be more inline with God’s truth. “Understanding and applying truth depends upon your body-life connections. In the “iron sharpening iron” process and the steps lived out in relationship, we must traverse the paths of life and work together.”[11]

As for my initial ‘elephant’ reaction to my return home, it was indeed through community that I settled into seeing God’s hand in the move. And while my children had to process emotions I would have rather protected them from, my hope is that their intuition—that their sensitivity to the Holy Spirit working in them—will continue to be open to doing hard things in order to be faithful to the God who sees them and loves them.


1. Inside Out, by Pete Docter, perf. Mindy Kaling, Amy Poehler, Phyllis Smith, Bill Hader, and Lewis Black (USA: Disney-Pixar, 2015), film.
2. Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (London: Penguin Books, 2013), Google Play, 20.
3. Ibid., 294.
4. Ibid., 71.
5. Ibid., 292.
6. John Pattison and Christopher C. Smith, Slow Church (Downers Grove, Illinois: Intervarsity Press, 2016), Bluefire Reader, 29.
7. Robert Zajonc as quoted Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion (London: Penguin Books, 2013), Google Play, 80.
8. Haidt 81.
9. Ibid., 73.
10. Ibid., 92.
11. Paul R. Ford, Moving from I to We: Recovering the Biblical Vision for Stewarding the Church (CO Springs, CO: NavPress, 2013), Bluefire, 83.

About the Author

Jenn Burnett

Jenn is lead pastor at The Well church in Kelowna. She longs to see the body of Christ empowered by the Holy Spirit and contending for unity across difference. She also loves rugby, the outdoors, the colour orange and the chaos that goes with raising 4 kids.

7 responses to “How to Train Your Elephant”

  1. Rev Jacob Bolton says:

    Thrilled that the move home ended well – especially with and through the support of community. Thanks Jenn!

  2. Karen Rouggly says:

    This is good – and well put. I appreciated your weaving of Haidt and how it relates to your church context. I think it’s interesting to think about the Church as the elephant. I wonder about the influences of on the Church – as you mentioned. Where does history fit in? It’s easy to look at cultural influences, but how does the historical piece of the Church relate?

  3. Sean Dean says:

    I love the idea of community as elephant trainers, my only question is what happens when you are part of two communities that at some point have opposing views. What happens to the training of your elephant? I suspect Haidt would say that our elephant would choose one for us, but I wonder if our elephant would rather develop dissociative identity disorder and function a particular way in one community and a different way in the other. This is perhaps the limit of the elephant metaphor, but I think it’s an interesting question to engage nonetheless.

  4. Andrea Lathrop says:

    Jenn! I cried during Inside/Out as well and so did all of us in my family I think. We must have moved during the same timeframe because we had just left Texas around the time the movie came out. It actually gave me handles for what we were experiencing – and that happy and sad can coexist. Sometimes I still call it when I see it in our transition – happy sad.

  5. Nancy VanderRoest says:

    Hi Jenn. Great blog! I, too, could relate “Inside Out” to some of Haidt’s philosophy. “Inside Out” was actually a very deep animated movie and, as a counselor, I found it had valid merit. I also appreciated how Haidt used different types of characters and visuals (i.e. animals) to illustrate his points. But just as you noted, Jenn, the Holy Spirit will guide and direct us on our journey if we allow His presence into our lives. Nice post!

  6. Harry Fritzenschaft says:

    The illustration of the elephant and the trainer as all illustrations are helpful and yet also limited in trying to over utilize them (like all of Jesus’ parables). My sense from Haidt, is the elephant is the much larger, wilder visceral reaction to a given event or experience. Much like your move back home, your “initial” elephant felt and believed your move had somehow damaged and hurt your children. However over time, the Holy Spirit used the community of the church to calm and perhaps reduce your initial elephant’s perspective, and in fact to show you that He is using his church to redeem the move for the good of your children. While the elephant and the driver were apparently a useful construct to Haidt, perhaps we should hold them loosely. Perhaps with the repeating experience of the Holy Spirit and his community (the Church) we can reduce our elephant to something less wild and reckless. I wonder?

  7. Digby Wilkinson says:

    OK, I didn’t cry watching Inside Out – I am a tragic excuse for an emotional being. As Hermione once said of Ron Weasley, “you have the emotional depth of a teaspoon”. However, we did shift our kids a lot and they have often claimed we emotionally damaged them. However, they’ve turned out just fine and after giving us a significant amount of personal grief about our poor parenting, now they think their ‘varying’ childhood was great! Little manipulators.
    OK, given that Mr Haidt is a social psychologist and you understand him as claiming, Christian morality is not an individual faith, but a communal faith which celebrates the tension of individual roles within a communal identity under the Lordship of the eternal God to whom we are accountable, what would you do with James Fowler’s assertion that communal morality and discernment is merely adolescent? Fowler’s research claims that individuation from the herd is the key to growth personally, socially and spiritually. Beyond individuation, people then return to the herd, but do so as ‘sovereign individuals’ – it’s only at that point that they (we) are able to truly sacrifice (or hear and see) ourselves for sake of others. Just a thought. Very good reflection on the book by the way. 🙂

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