Every Thursday in Citizenship Confusion, Alan Noble discusses how we confuse our heavenly citizenship with citizenship to the state, culture, and the world.
It only hits me when I wake up in the morning. Sometimes I feel like killing myself. I wouldn’t tell anybody that. But I get this sick feeling, like there’s no point to any of it. I need something more to get me up in the morning. —Anonymous friend a long time ago, paraphrased.
There is a natural momentum to life that keeps us moving to the Next Thing. Rarely are we inclined to resist the momentum and pause to hear the hum of being and notice where we are going and question why. Our schedules, obligations, jobs, school, family, hobbies, chores, errands, and physical needs lift us onward, always onward toward the next task, the next duty.
Night comes and we hardly have a chance to reflect on the day before we are asleep. Then it’s morning and it begins again. If we are lucky, we’re forced to stop for a moment and reflect–but probably not.
This momentum comes with a narrative. We tell stories to ourselves and others about the significance of our actions, their weightiness, their value, how these actions measure us in relation to the Good Life. We conceive of these stories based on the stories we’ve heard elsewhere: from our communities, the media, advertisements.
We come to feel (but perhaps not consciously believe) that a clean house or a job promotion or a sexual exploit which mirrors one seen or heard or watched or read about or picked up from our community will justify our existence, or at least fill us with a sense of meaningfulness. And, thanks to the momentum of life, we rarely will find ourselves questioning the basis of this feeling of justification. We are too soon on to the next thing.
This has always been the human condition. We are born into a world that moves without us and before us and after us, and we quickly learn how to swim with the current.
But for the 21st century person in an affluent country, the momentum of life which so often discourages us from reckoning and taking our bearing is magnified dramatically by the constant hum of portable electric entertainment, personalized for our interests and desires and delivered over high speed wireless internet.
It’s not just that this technology allows us to stay “plugged in” all the time, it’s that it gives us the sense that we are tapped into something greater. The narratives of meaning that have always filled our lives with justification and wonder are multiplied endlessly and immediately for us in song, TV show, online communities, games, and the news.
I’d like to suggest that if Christians in our culture fail to understand the basic postmodern condition, which is what I have rather pretentiously attempted to describe above, they will fail to effectively reach their neighbors. I can hardly begin to expand on what I mean by this here, but I’d like to try. If it matters and if people care, maybe I’ll make it a series. If they think it’s pretentious ramblings, I can hardly blame them–it’s been a long day.
First, this means that the apologetic line of thinking from popular thinkers like Francis Schaeffer (presuppositionalists) and Josh McDowell (evidentialists) which has advocated direct intellectual dialogue and debate in defense of the Faith and as evangelism is, in some ways, outdated. It reflects a society in which people actively and earnestly sought answers to life’s difficult questions–a time when at least some people acknowledged the absurdity of life and desired some way to reconcile it with life’s wonder and beauty.
My sense is that by-in-large the self-reflection required to recognize and engage these questions has been edged out by the lure of constant entertainment and trivial social engagement.
Second, if we fail to acknowledge the way we tend to promiscuously use a multitude of narratives to define our self-worth, then we risk making Christianity just one more narrative. The evidence of this is all around us.
Third, this means that perhaps the primary task of Christians who desire to share the Gospel is to unsettle our neighbors–to practice and promote ways of living that disconnect us from our cultural narratives, which call into question those narratives in deep and provocative ways, that peel back the constructed ideologies and values of our time, that reveal the absurdity and wonder of being, and that encourage contemplation.
If we can become a people who cultivate spaces of silence to foster reflection and honesty, moments much like the early morning hours for my friend who struggled with a fleeting sense of dread, we must do so founded upon the radical grace of God, not a search for “sincerity” or our “real” self. Evangelism in the 21st century America involves penetrating the electronic buzz of narrative idolatry to reveal the stark giveness of creation, our profound need for redemption, and the beauty of grace. It means not grounding our identity upon a purified or “real” self, but a recognition of our great need and the greater wonder of the Grace of God.