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Quiet: The Power of Introverts

John R. Muether

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, by Susan Cain. New York: Crown, 2012, 333 pages, $26.00.

A recent internet post by a popular evangelical blogger came in the proverbial form of good news and bad news. On the plus side, “Seven Tips for Introverted Pastors” offered the assurance that it is possible to minister the gospel effectively as an introvert. On the other hand, this will happen only when the anti-social pastor is willing to face up openly and honestly with his, well, handicap. Introverts run the risk of presenting themselves as “unfriendly and uncaring.” They tend to avoid small talk, and so are disinclined to mingle with people. But if you come out of the closet, and especially if you can establish some accountability with an extrovert, your flock may be forgiving of your “more annoying habits.” All this advice comes from one who describes himself as an introvert who has managed to overcome his condition.

A more helpful resource for the introverted pastor is Susan Cain’s book, Quiet. Ms. Cain is not a Christian author; she is a lawyer who writes from a Jewish background. She notes that there is a great deal of debate in the psychology literature about how to understand introversion and extroversion. The former is drawn to the inner world of thought and feeling; the latter to the outer life of people and activities; the one is renewed by being alone and reducing social stimulation, the other finds that socializing “recharges the batteries.”

What is particularly striking in Cain’s research is the changing public perception of these traits. Over the course of the previous century, introversion, once considered a positive character trait, has devolved into a personality disorder. A “quiet” personality is now often associated with an inferiority complex. The introverted youngster is a “problem child,” and fear of public speaking now qualifies as a disease, “social anxiety disorder.” In contrast, the talkers become leaders. Cain notes that the triumph of personality over character as a cultural ideal weighs heavily in this transition. Early twentieth-century self-help guides, she explains, urged young people to cultivate character traits such as duty, work, honor, reputation, morals, manners, and integrity. Newer advice promotes the development of qualities with these modifiers: magnetic, fascinating, stunning, attractive, and energetic.

When Cain ventures occasionally into the Bible, she tends to over-psychologize the text. So she describes patriarchal sibling rivalry in Genesis as pitting the cerebral Jacob against the swash-buckling Esau, whereas in Exodus the retiring and stuttering Moses is perfectly complemented by the extroverted Aaron when presenting his appeal before Pharaoh. Yet episodes of eisegesis are vastly outnumbered by the common sense wisdom of her book, as in this insight: “love is essential; gregariousness is optional” (264).

What is at once most insightful and frustrating in Quiet is Cain’s treatment of contemporary evangelicalism, which, in her words, takes “the Extrovert Ideal to its logical extreme” (69). She interviews a mainline Presbyterian minister, Adam McHugh, who describes his struggles as an introverted pastor: “The evangelical culture ties together faithfulness with extroversion,” because “every person you fail to meet and proselytize is another soul you might have saved.” Thus, for conservative Protestants in America, the healthy Christian life demands “participating in more and more programs and events, on meeting more and more people” (66).

What is frustrating about this insight is Cain’s failure to develop it as far as she could, so let me suggest ways of extending her argument. There is no coincidence, it seems, between the rise of the evangelical “extrovert ideal” and the collapse of classical Christian disciplines and practices, such as patience, waiting in silence, and even Sabbath-keeping. A former colleague of mine once argued that if Christians took seriously the biblical requirement to engage in acts of mercy on the Lord’s Day, it would become the busiest day of our week! This is a far cry from the Large Emden Catechism of 1551, which warned against the violation of the Sabbath when we “intentionally disquiet the day” (Q/A 45).

To be sure, the Bible does not commend idleness in the Christian life. And we are not saved by the contemplative life any more than by our works of activism. But our attachment to the extrovert ideal may tempt us to forget that in our service to God we are told, “aspire to live quietly.” Pauline emphasis on quiet may challenge the prevailing assumptions in the “missional” movement that often stresses the church’s calling to cultural activism. In contrast to that activistic impulse, one might argue that the apostle Paul expressed his preferential option for something quite different when he directed the Christian to “lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way” (1 Tim 2:2). A recent call to cultural transformation from a prominent evangelical theologian accounted for Paul’s commands by explaining that the apostle intended to remind us that “there should be a place in the church for believers who are less energetic.” Introverts, take comfort: you will be tolerated!

In the end, quiet is important in the Christian life, not because it exalts Christian passivism, but because it underscores that our hope lies in God’s activism, not ours. He is mighty to save. He rescues us from our afflictions because he is no longer silent. He neither slumbers nor sleeps, and he is not content until he has conquered all his and our enemies. Perhaps a fitting way for us to register our confidence in the God who performs mighty acts for his people is for the church to quiet down a little bit.

John R. Muether, a ruling elder at Reformation Orthodox Presbyterian Church, Oviedo, Florida, is library director at Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando, Florida, and historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. Ordained Servant Online, November 2013.

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