DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

The Great Mandala

Written by: on February 28, 2014



This might age me, but I have always loved the music of Peter, Paul, and Mary.  Peter Yarrow, Paul Stookey, and Mary Travers began performing together in Grenache Village in the early 1960’s.  Their music was traditional American Folk, and they popularized such songs as Lemon Tree, 500 Miles, and Puff the Magic Dragon.  They got involved in the American Civil Rights Movement in 1963 and were well known for their renditions of If I Had a Hammer and Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ in the Wind and The Times They are a-Changin.  I would listen to their harmonies and lyrics for hours, not realizing at the time that some of these tunes were extremely radical for their day.  This was counter-cultural music at its finest.  I loved it deeply; it shaped my life.  Peter, Paul, and Mary broke up in the 1970’s but reunited in 1981 (the year I was married).  Their music continued to have a culture-questioning attitude, but also included many “neutral” songs as well.  They were a musical team that became famous, but for the most part, they stuck to their counter-cultural values.  I admired them for that for I, too, questioned popular culture; I still do much of the time.

One of the Peter, Paul, and Mary songs came back to my mind as I read our text for this week.  The name of the song is The Great Mandala (The Circle of Life).

So I told him that he’d better shut his mouth
So I told him that he’d better shut his mouth
And do his job like a man.
And he answered “Listen, Father,
I will never kill another.”
He thinks he’s better
than his brother that died
What the hell does he think he’s doing
To his father who brought him up right?


Take your place on The Great Mandala
As it moves through your brief moment of time.
Win or lose now you must choose now
And if you lose you’re only losing your life.

Tell the jailer not to bother
With his meal of bread and water today.
He is fasting ‘til the killing’s over
He’s a martyr, he thinks he’s a prophet.
But he’s a coward, he’s just playing a game
He can’t do it, he can’t change it
It’s been going on for ten thousand years

Tell the people they are safe now
Hunger stopped him, he lies still in his cell.
Death has gagged his accusations

We are free now, we can kill now,
We can hate now, now we can end the world
We’re not guilty, he was crazy
And it’s been going on for ten thousand years!

Take your place on The Great Mandala
As it moves through your brief moment of time.
Win or lose now you must choose now
And if you lose you’ve only wasted your life.

This song speaks to the idea that we all take our individual places in life, like a wheel, that revolves again and again.  The Great Mandala is a wheel in Buddhist tradition.  It represents life as a cycle.  What happens today usually returns tomorrow…in time.  But what do we do with our lives, with our “brief moment of time”?  What kinds of impact will each of make on the societies and cultures to which we belong as our lives unfold?  Will we be dissenters, standing up for what is right, or social deviants, who destroy society for the sake of creating radical change to the existing “system.”

In their interesting book, Nation of Rebels[1], Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter argue that counter-cultural movements often join the consumer culture and actually contribute to the very system against which they are rebelling.  Using a variety of examples from History and popular culture (particularly films), the authors paint a picture that does not embrace the “myth” that counter-cultural movements are successful in their attempts to influence mainstream culture as they intend.  Heath and Potter state, “The countercultural critique…is so vast and all-encompassing that it is difficult to imagine what could possible count as ‘fixing things.’  What limits our freedom, according to this view, is not some specific set of institutions, but rather, the institutions in general.”[2]  As a result of this mindset, many movements have attacked mainstream culture and politics.  So what would a society look like without law, without social norms?  Obviously, reason the authors, there would be chaos and cacophony.  According to the authors, “Everyone can benefit from having some rules, even those who are doing their utmost to break the rules of society.”[3]  Heath and Potter continue, making a valuable point about the difference between dissent and deviance:

Some kind of social control is required in order to maintain the system that generates the mutual benefits [to society] – hence the punishments for disobedience.  Yet this does not mean that all social norms are tyrannical or coercive, and it does not mean that those who obey are simply conformists or cowards.  They are known as “good citizens.”

Thus it is important to draw a distinction between acts of rebellion that challenge senseless or outdated conventions and those that violate legitimate social norms.  We must distinguish, in other words, between dissent and deviance.  Dissent is like civil disobedience.  It occurs when people are willing in principle to play by the rules but have genuine, good-faith objections to the specific content of the prevailing set of rules.  They disobey despite the consequences that these actions may incur.  Deviance, on the other hand, occurs when people disobey the rules for self-interested reasons.  The two can be very difficult to tell apart, partly because people will often try to justify deviant conduct as a form of dissent, but also because of the powers of self-delusion.  Many people who are engaged in deviant conduct genuinely believe that what they are doing is a form of dissent.[4]

Our text makes clear distinctions between behaviors that are self-centered and behaviors that are other-centered.  The authors have a simple and thoughtful test for discovering the difference between deviance and dissent.  This test comes in the form of a question: “What if everyone did that—would it make the world a better place to live?”[5]  This is a great question.  Here is another great question:  “What is normal?”  How do we measure “normal” from one culture to another, from one society to another, from one generation to another?  What are the cultural norms?  Are they good or bad, right or wrong?  Is a person a fool who breaks his or her cultural norms?  Heath and Potter point out that “being normal” reduces cultural strain.  Anything outside the normal rules or responses causes a person to be culturally stressed.

I lived in Egypt for two years in the early 1990’s where I taught English to 74 fifth-grade Egyptian students in “Upper Egypt.”  At first everything was exotic and fun: donkeys braying in the streets, the Muslim call to prayer, the Arabic language, the music, and especially the people.  But then the realities of living in a different culture set in.  What I had appreciated early on now annoyed me: the noise, the heat, the crowded streets, the lack of understanding of language, the lack of social cue awareness, and all the inconveniences.  In my journal I wrote such entries as, “Egyptians are stupid; they are all stupid!”  “I can’t stand the Arabic language; I will never get this culture.”  On went 400 pages of frustration, cursing, and self-pity.  It was pathetic.  I wanted to come home where everything was familiar, where they spoke English, and where I was “normal.”  I studied this in grad school for goodness sake!  I was a missionary!  I should have known what to do, but I was slowly consumed by culture stress.  Heath and Potter nail it when they say, “Life without culture, in other words, would be a state of permanent culture shock.”[6]  They are spot on when it comes to needing one’s own culture – which we always take for granted.  By the way, I finally did adjust to the Egyptian culture, but it took well over a year.  In fact, I cried the day we left and I still miss being there.

If one does not like the culture, does one need to reject it?  According to our text, when someone decides to start a counter-cultural movement, that movement, or at least the symbols that represent the movement, are often swallowed up and incorporated into “the system” anyway.  Think about the hippie and punk rock sub-cultures.  As radical as these movements seemed in their infancies, so much of what they valued has now been assimilated into mainstream culture.  Heath and Potter give a long list of things that were at one time considered subversive but that now are a part of popular culture.  Here are a few examples from their list: long hair for men, short hair for women, beards, miniskirts, jazz music, punk music, rap music, tattoos, surfing, piercings, homosexuality, torn clothing, marijuana, afros (which I had in the 70’s), plaid pants (which I might have in the next decade), organic vegetables, army boots.  I can add a lot of other items to this list; we all could.  This brings us back to our big question:  What if everyone did that—would it make the world a better place to live?  This is an important question that we all need to consider.  What do I do in life that influences others?  Am I making the world a better place to live, or am I simply contributing to a list of items that has merely become a part of our consumeristic culture?  What if everyone did what I do?  What would the world look like then?

About 20 years ago I accomplished one of my life goals.  I saw in the paper that Peter, Paul, and Mary were coming to town, so I immediately purchased tickets.  I was surrounded by hundreds of other graying middle-aged men and women in downtown Portland who also loved the music of the 60’s.  It was a rousing three hours.  I didn’t want it to stop.  And what was their last song?  You guessed it…

Take your place on The Great Mandala
As it moves through your brief moment of time.
Win or lose now you must choose now
And if you lose you’ve only wasted your life.

[1] Joseph Heath and Andrew Potter, Nation of Rebels: Why Counterculture Became Consumer Culture (Canada: HarperBusiness, 2004)

[2] Ibid., 56.

[3] Ibid., 77.

[4] Ibid., 79-80.

[5] Ibid., 81.

[6] Ibid., 93.

About the Author


Bill Dobrenen

I am a husband, father, and educator. I love my wife, my two amazing children, and my students. My dissertation research is on the importance of Traditional Native-American Tribal Leadership Practices. Being in the LGP program is a gift from God for me during this season of my life. I look forward to another great year with my LGP4 cohort.

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