A double helix

We’ll get to some unpacking on the parable of the prodigal son in just a minute. First—because it will support our unpacking process—let’s take an opportunity to helpfully expand our familiarity a bit more with Graves’ theory and the Spiral Dynamics model.


double helix
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Graves’ conceptualization…

Based on his research, Clare Graves developed a theory of human development that had commonalities with other theorists, but also a very unique quality as well.  Other theorists (Erikson, Maslow, Kohlberg, Gilligan, Kegan, et al.) have created theoretical frames that are meant to independently apply their conception/structure (on an equal basis) to any given population under consideration. Ideally, of course, cross-cultural theory must be able to work everywhere. Graves saw that this way of seeing universality still wasn’t enough. Graves saw things differently on two counts: he alone argued for a relationship factor, e.g., a double helix (life conditions and values); and for a never-ending emergence of new values systems (with Teilhard, I diverge a bit in nuance on this, cf. here). Graves’ two-letter designations for the stages practically reflected his unique approach. The ABCDEF (GH) designations—first letter in the two-letter designations—indicate the ‘life conditions’ present to any person/organization. The NOPQRS (TU) represent the values systems that emerge in response to the life conditions that are at work: AN, BO, CP, and so forth.

ANBOCP … wait, what?

Rather than a static stage-template that plots onto a population, Graves’ model is relational and dynamic.  In Graves’ terms, ‘life conditions’ represents all our present internal and external circumstances and potentialities.  I include Graves’ two-letter designation along with the SD color code as a constant reminder of the relational dynamic between the given values constellation and the life conditions from which those values emerge. The dynamic, double helix nature of this model is able to account for both ascension and regression of vMEME’s—a ‘vMEME’ is a constellation of values representing a particular stage or level of values development—in the practical expression of personal and/or organizational life. Beige [AN] ‘survival’ values is a vMEME. The Stockholm Syndrome describes a life-conditions-driven downshift to Beige [AN] ‘survival‘ values.

Christopher C. Cowan and Donald Edward Beck added the color coding to the designation in their application of Graves’ theory in their book: Spiral Dynamics: mastering values, leadership, and change(1996, Blackwell Business Publishing, Malden, Massachusetts).




In an earlier post I mentioned one key factor in the move to color code the model. In sixty-five trips to South Africa, Don Beck used the SD tools to help diffuse the racial tensions after the end of apartheid. SD language helped leaders on all sides to ease tensions and set the stage for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. No longer a black and white problem, with SD, it’s, rather, a Purple, Red, Blue, Orange problem. It was this project that lead Beck and Cowan to see the wisdom of being able to identify powerful forces with non-charged language—in other words, to project the evil of racism (and other evils) onto the SD model where evil forces and attending emotions may be more easily managed without the existing charged language.

Jesus’ parable: case study…


prodigal son meme sized
Luke 15.17-19

Prodigal son…

The parable is only found in The Gospel According to Luke [read Luke 15.11-32]. This parable is an especially good example of the multivalent nature of Jesus’ story telling. Mark Allan Powell is the Robert and Phyllis Leatherman Professor of New Testament for Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus, Ohio. His work allowed him to collaborate with three cohorts of seminary students (U.S.A.; Russia; Tanzania) allowing him an informed group to research with built-in cross-cultural perspectives.

A simple method…

Professor Powell used a very simple methodology. He asked the participating seminary students to carefully read Luke 15.11-32 and then recount the story in the fullest terms possible. His study produced some very fascinating results from top to bottom, but we will focus on the area of verses 11-19. These verses recount the younger son’s circular pilgrimage and the back story for the conditions that made his journey possible [necessary?].

The students from the U.S.A. gave what read to me as a rather familiar accounting on this prodigal story. I’d heard many sermons over the years that essentially agreed with the interpretation offered up by the Western students. Right away one thing stood out to Powell. The first run-through of this exercise came serendipitously and was done with 12 pairs of students. The instructions were for one student to read the text silently then recount the story fully for their partner. Not one student of the twelve mentioned the famine to their partner—verse 14: “When he had spent everything, a severe famine took place throughout that country, and he began to be in need.” This peeked Powell’s interest and lead him to the more extensive research he writes up in his book, What Do They Hear?

He did the study again with 100 seminary students working on their degrees in Ohio.  The students were all Americans of diverse backgrounds and Powell could not find any factors of these students social locations (gender, race, age, economic status, and religious affiliation) that created any significant influence over their readings. Of that group, six mentioned famine, six percent. The next step was to survey non-American readers.


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Life conditions…

Powell was doing part of a sabbatical in Eastern Europe which gave him an opportunity to do a non-American study of the text. The cohort was a group of seminary students in St. Petersburg, Russia. He notes he polled diverse respondents but could only get fifty students in the city of St. Petersburg fitting his criteria, or half the sample size of the Ohio cohort. Still, forty-two, or eighty-four percent of the students mentioned the famine when they recounted the story. Six vs eighty-four percent!

Remember our definition of ‘life conditions?’ — “…represents all our present internal and external circumstances and potentialities.” Memory is a crucial dimension of our internal circumstances and potentialities.

Powell writes:

One probably does not need to look very far for a social or psychological explanation for this data. In 1941, the German army laid siege to the city of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad) and subjected its inhabitants to what was in effect a 900-day famine. During that time, 670,000 people died of starvation and exposure—about one fourth of the total population. Some of the current inhabitants of the city are survivors of that horror; more are descendants of survivors. Other residents represent a new generation of immigrants, but even for these a collective memory remains strong in the cultural milieu. In modern St. Petersburg, typical social issues (abortion, care of the elderly, imprisonment of lawbreakers, socialized medicine, etc.) are often considered through the lens of an important question: but what if there is not enough food? And no one thinks it odd for university students to write papers on ‘The Ethics of Cannibalism.’

No wonder…

No wonder why the Russian students took the famine detail in the text quite seriously. No wonder why the Americans who have never in their lives been truly hungry—because we are rich, e.g., we are able to eat anytime we fancy—failed to mention what seems to be an extraneous detail like famine.

I wish we had space to hear the Russian and Tanzanian students explain their readings. Another time, perhaps.

Your thoughts?

I never know what I’ve said till I hear the response. What did you hear me say?

Note: I know it’s ambitious trying to introduce a big picture idea in a blog format, so I’m using a serial approach. Introductory post (here). First in series (here).


SD Worldview Color Key



3 thoughts on “A double helix

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