Since the establishment of stock markets in capitalist economies, analysts have been studying market trends with the aim of predicting which stocks are about to go up or down (in order to buy low and sell high, as the saying goes). One approach to market analysis is “contrarian theory.” This theory, put very simplistically, says that an investor should find out what the crowd is thinking, and then do the opposite. New York Stock Exchange pioneer Charles H. Dow wrote, “When it’s obvious to the public, it’s obviously wrong.” Garfield A. Drew, a later advocate of contrarian analysis, claimed that “Only 5 percent of the population think for themselves, 10 percent copy the 5 percent, and 85 percent believe what they read and hear and do what they are told.”
This insight was made in the context of the stock market, but it can be extended to many other areas of human activity. How many of our opinions are truly ours, and how many are pushed upon us by our peers, or the mass media? The fields of marketing, public relations, and yes, even religion, are concerned with influencing people’s opinions and behaviour.
‘Herd mentality’ has been around as long as we humans have. An evil herd mentality dominated the earth in Noah’s time to such an extent that God observed that “all flesh had corrupted their way on the earth” (Genesis 6:12). Noah and his family were the only ones who walked with God and were spared from the ensuing Flood. In both Noah’s case and that of Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), those who had the courage to think for themselves and stand up to the evil around them were very few – far less than 5 percent in fact!
Jesus may have had these ancient outpourings of divine wrath in mind when he gave this principle: “13 Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. 14 For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few” (Matthew 7:13-14).
The road to destruction is pictured as a well paved highway with lots of travelers on it. The travelers assume that, because most people are choosing this route, it must be the best. How could so many people be wrong? But Jesus reminded us, “If the blind lead the blind, both will fall into a pit” (Matthew 15:14). He predicted that the last days before his Second Coming would be like the times of Noah and Sodom: people were following others’ false ideas, carrying on their daily lives and oblivious to anything beyond food, drink, sex and business (Luke 17:23-30). He called on those who would be saved to be contrarian thinkers: “Don’t follow or run after them” (Luke 17:23 HCSB).
Instead, Jesus has called us to be contrarian thinkers – to take the road less travelled. This does not mean to be different for the sake of being different, or to take a “Question everything” approach to life. It simply means we should follow our own convictions rather than taking our cues from social norms. It also means we should have courage to be in the minority when the majority are wrong. This principle was written into the Law of Moses: “Do not follow the majority when they do wrong” (Exodus 23:2).
The danger with contrarian thinking is that it can lead to elitism. If we believe our religious group is the chosen few, it becomes too easy to isolate ourselves and look down on everybody else. If this is our mindset, we could do with a reminder that the family of God is not hereditary: we all must be radically born again regardless of our religious pedigree (John 3:1-10). We have a mandate to bring Christ’s good news to all creation (Matthew 28:19), and this cannot be achieved unless we humble ourselves like he did (Philippians 2:3-8).
We are not to be conformed to the world around us; we are to be transformed by God (Romans 12:2). Both these verbs are passive in the original Greek, so either way we are following someone else. We do not achieve perfection through will-power or self-help, but by looking to the right source of leadership. It is only by God’s grace and power that we can resist the mob mentality; not by our own strength. God wants us to be like sheep, which require a lot of care and close supervision, and not like goats, which are more self-reliant (Matthew 25:32-33; John 10:27).
To live by faith is to follow an invisible God, even if doing so is contrary to what we see happening around us.