Theology should be done with the Bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other – Karl Barth
My “coffee with God” times are taking me through the book of Daniel these days, and I’ve been refreshed by finding a model for what it actually means to live right in the thick of culture without allowing oneself to be taken captive by culture. Daniel had some food limitations that were presumably related to his Jewish faith, and held to those convictions as a captive in the midst of Babylon. Taken alone, this anecdote could lead to a sort of “we hate everything with the name Babylon on it” perspective. That kind of mindset would lead to isolation and separation. The faithful would end up reading only their own authors, listening only to their own musicians, and enjoying only their own artists. Given the freedom and technology, they’d publish magazines, start schools and radio stations, hold concerts, and make every effort to avoid the prevailing evil culture.
This, though, wasn’t Daniel, because we’re also told that he and his friends where given knowledge and intelligence in every branch of literature and wisdom, and that Daniel spoke answers to questions posed by people of power with ten times the wisdom as comparable Babylonian youth. He was, in other words, culturally relevant. In today’s world he’d probably read the most widely read newspaper, and have some familiarity with contemporary thinking in lots of disciplines. He’d know who Lady Gaga is, and why she matters in our culture. He’d understand some things about the global financial crisis, and the Egyptian spring.
Like separation from culture, identification with culture also has it’s problems and can be taken to unhealthy extremes. When our desire to be relevant outstrips our desire to be faithful, our attachments will soon become idolatry. In our cultural context there are plenty of Christians who offer a wry smile to the notion of going to a Christian concert, because they’re so thoroughly in the culture that all forms of separation are suspect. “Legalists” is their limbic brain assessment of everyone who’d rather listen to Hillsong than Mumford and Sons.
“Be careful relevant people – very careful.” I say this because it’s the relevant people, often, who are so thick into the culture that they become products of it’s forces, instead of light in the midst of it’s darkness. When, in our desire to be culturally relevant, we adopt the financial, consumer, sexual ethics of that culture, we’re worshipping at the footstool of the culture’s idols. As evangelicals, our rates of divorce, promiscuity, addictive behavior, and bankruptcy, are evidence that we’re so relevant that we’re meaningless.
Daniel shows us a different way. He’ll live fully in the culture, literate of it’s ways, icons, values, literature, and arts. He won’t, however, bow down to the king, even if the king kills him. We can’t either, whether the king be shopping, sexuality, nationalism, military might, body image, upward mobility, pleasure, or any other thing. Jesus is Lord, means just that – there’s one king only. We’ll spend the rest of our lives learning what that means, but that learning begins with a mindset that is committed to being shaped in every area of our lives by Christ.
I can see Daniel talking history and literature with Babylonians and living in the thick of it all. I can also see him being, in every way, distinct, being carried by the winds of the Jehovah through each of his days, rather than being subject to the whimsy of Babylonian brands and trends. No matter where you are on the relevant/separate spectrum, all of us could stand to learn a bit from our friend Daniel. The people who challenge me the most don’t live in caves – they’re in the thick of the arena, but somehow, by their own faith and the mercy of God, manage to keep from being bit by the lions that are hungry, and everywhere.
What’s your story? Too relevant? Too separate? How can we help each other live fully in, but fully not ‘of”?