Subverting Excellence: The Balaam’s Donkey Argument

The June 2008 issue of The Atlantic contains an article entitled “In the Basement of the Ivory Tower,” a biting piece by an anonymous “professor X” who toils as an adjunct instructor at what he calls “a college of last resort.” The students he teaches, he claims, chose his particular college “not on the U.S. News & World Report rankings but on Mapquest” (p. 69). As an instructor obliged to grade student work, he feels squashed in the collision between two societal forces: the expectation that pretty well everyone should go to college, and the reality that only some have the capacity to meet university-level expectations. Especially in schools big on marketing, and ambitious to grow, the pressure on professors to validate sub-standard work is almost overwhelming. I am grateful to be employed by a seminary that has valued high holistic standards, but all of higher education is feeling the pressure to dumb things down these days.

Every church and academic institution I know is officially committed to excellence. But for many the pursuit of excellence is just a cliché. There is no substantive commitment or achievement behind the marketing and branding rhetoric. “Good enough” more accurately describes their true disposition. That’s because achieving excellence at anything—rising above the mediocre and commonplace—is agonizingly difficult at the best of times. But the drive toward excellence is even more seriously sabotaged when people buy the Balaam’s donkey argument.

There’s a story in the Old Testament set in the days of the judges. It’s found in the Book of Numbers chapter 23, and the central character is the prophet Balaam. He’s been bribed by an enemy of Israel to put a curse on God’s chosen people, and is riding his donkey en route to fulfilling his part of the bargain. To slow him down, God uses the donkey to communicate with the prophet. God supernaturally equips the donkey with human language skills, so that it starts talking to Balaam and warning him about his catastrophic course of action.

This is one of those stories that leave you scratching your head. But I have heard this story cited countless times through the years as proof that God doesn’t need particularly skilled, gifted or self-disciplined people to accomplish his purposes. He can use the contemporary equivalent of Balaam’s donkey (described even more colorfully in the King James Version as Balaam’s ass) to accomplish his purposes in the world. A cognate analogy is the story of Moses encountering the burning bush. The spiritual lesson drawn from that is basically the same: in this instance, the lesson is that any old bush will do.

The donkey argument is often carried even further. Enthusiasts for this way of thinking suggest that God actually prefers to work through incompetent folks rather than those who have honed their thinking and abilities to the level of real excellence. The Apostle Paul’s remark that “God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise” (1 Cor. 1:27) is taken to mean that God loves foolishness and fools, and prefers to push their names to the top of his application file folder for Christian service. The alleged clincher comes from the prophecy of Zechariah, who declared: “‘Not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit,’ says the Lord Almighty” (4:6). The power of God’s Spirit is contrasted to the inferior abilities of human beings.

Make no mistake. There is no glory in incompetence or ignorance. God chooses donkeys only when able prophets refuse to pay attention. He chooses the foolish things to shame the wise when “the wise” are wise guys—worldly, proud and godlessly wise in their own eyes. Arrogant human might and autonomous human power are no substitute for the vital role of the Spirit of God, but where people’s hearts are right with God he uses their abilities and their excellence to achieve great things. That’s how we best participate in the purposes of God in the world.

The essential link between human excellence and God’s glory lies in how fitting one is to the other. We have all seen skits where the organist from the local hockey arena is hired to play at someone’s funeral. The stuff he or she plays may work well during a hockey game, but at the funeral service it is embarrassing and totally inappropriate. It doesn’t fit. Stand-up comedians shouldn’t deliver State of the Union addresses. It just wouldn’t fit.

Historically, the church’s spiritual instincts led them to give their very best in service to the magnificent God of the universe, the eternal creator and redeemer who sits enthroned on high. This instinct has led Christians to design the ornate ancient Book of Kells; to build Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris and Hagia Sophia in Istanbul; and to found the universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard. It prompted John Milton and John Donne to write, Isaac Newton to explore, Bach and Handel to compose, Julian of Norwich to rhapsodize, and World Vision to be the most generous, well-managed and pro-active relief organization in the world today. In a world of “whatever,” we should strive for excellence, not merely because it dignifies our humanity (which it does), but because God is worthy of it. The vision of Scripture calls us to do and be much more than Balaam’s donkey.


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