Once I went to a Christian event with a friend and realized: “We are weird and not in a good way.” Our problem was not holiness, but a “look” that fit a culture unrelated to the mainstream. We stuck out for nothing, but our cussed cluelessness. It was comforting to think: “It would be worse to be a hipster and care what the world thinks about style, speech patterns, or quality.” Then we realized we were wrong: we were conforming to a “world” standard that the Church had set.
We were not known for our holiness, but our diction when we spoke. (Try it: turn on Christian television and see if a random person can tell it is Christian before seeing the screen. They will know.)
We were not known for our good works, but our clothing that conformed to our sub-culture. This might have been good if our subculture was creating beauty, but mostly our sub-culture was against some clothing and twenty years out of date.
We were not known for our distinctive and excellent art, but for the truth: the quality of “Christian” stuff was wretched, but we consumed it anyway. Christian conferences, especially quasi-academic ones, did not force “secular” scholarship to reject us because our quality was generally wretched. We pulled back inside “Christian” organizations and ran (often at a profit . . . the one area we were “better” than regular academic conferences) pseudo-events.
In short, we were conformed to a temporal spirit (the “World”) just American, white bread, inside-the-church spirit. Religious worldly culture isn’t good just because it has good theology.
The only way this escaped our notice for so long was that the alternatives were obviously worse. Who doesn’t know a Christian who notices this and becomes more secular than thou. He believes Jesus came so he can be hipper, cooler, or whatever the cool word for being hip is. The quality of his scholarship might increase or his art might improve, but the Christianity that should pour out of him disappears. He confirms to a different worldly standard: a more obviously devilish one.
Then there existed a few brave, though lunatic, souls that said: “A pox on both houses!” They rejected mainstream Evangelical “worldly” culture, finding Dobson too secular with his psychology degree, and mainstream Western culture. If they had become Amish, this might have worked because the Amish have roots and rules that were not invented yesterday. Instead, they became inbred, ingrown, and usually dominated by a charismatic guru who made a mess of things. Inevitably such groups end up in a compound or doing something super evil that even secular neighbors would know was wrong.
Given a choice between hipster Jesus or compound Jesus, we thought our little subculture a good middle way. It was not: our witness was compromised, our faith weak, and we were still reacting to the mainstream instead of creating culture as souls made in the Image of God. If we chose the least bad culture, it was still bad. God had called us to be in the world, but not of it. We were bad at being “in” and were still “of” . . . just in a lame way.
Being “in” but not “of” the world is difficult. Safe to say nobody is too holy. We must give up anything that pulls us from Christ. If I want to sit and watch crudity or evil for “fun,” there is something wrong with my spiritual life and it is going to get worse. So I began to follow my Mom and Dad’s advice and pay attention to the best of human inventions, art, and culture. All souls were in God’s image and I could learn from anyone. We are called to be unafraid, joyful, creative, and redemptive.
Every good thing is ours. Five big ideas have stuck with me from my family’s attempt (often faulty) to love the cosmos God created, redeem all the good we could without falling into compromise or coltishness.
Failure to know what is happening in your neighbor’s head, makes it hard to talk to you neighbor.
If your view of an atheist comes from pseudo-apologetic films like God is not Dead, you are a bad neighbor. Read all of Patheos. Read the pagans, the atheists, and the “other” Christians. Do NOT react. Find all the good you can. Use skepticism on their views and your own views. Think.
Ask Jesus to help you. After you love your neighbor and “get” why someone would believe what they believe, then react. Be tough. Push back. Listen. Say what you think. Don’t ignore differences, but do not stereotype and do not go away. Keep talking. I want the truth, even if the truth pushes me to new, hard ideas.
I must be willing to give up Christianity in every encounter if it turns out that I was deceived or wrong, to genuinely understand the other point of view. I must NOT pre-determine the outcome and be patient with “wrong” answers. And yet, I must also boldly express what I think is true, good, and beautiful: the traditional Christian faith.
This is evangelism . . .
Setting up Christian groups that do not interact much or at all with secular counterparts risks being hijacked by weird agendas or a religious conman.
Here is an inevitable rule: if the problem is difficult and you have not studied it in depth and you easily understand the “Christian” take on the problem, it is a con. If social problems could be solved by the right prayer, sermon, or attitude, then we would have no social problems. Instead, the way of the Cross is difficult. The harder the problem, the more research, expertise, and spiritual maturity will be required. Specialists will have to be called.
One way to know a reactive group is if they engage in the cherry picking of “secular” data that agrees with the agenda of the group (often a good agenda), but ignore or dismiss contrary scholarship. Another way is if they use scary stats to get immediate reactions but suppress better data. Many social problems (divorce, abortion) have shown some improvement lately, but “weird” groups will trumpet doom.
Weird sects need immediate action to solve emergencies.
Getting too cut off from the mainstream can make you stupid.
Failure to interact with our best secular peers is foolish. We become intellectually inbred too easily and standards slip. If we cannot make our movies (the stories we wish to tell) in Hollywood, let’s still interact with Hollywood, so that we can learn the craft from the best. There is nothing wrong with breaking free of stifling systems. Schools overrun with political correctness often do not allow dissent, but there is more freedom than people think.
I am helping form a Christian school and college that wants to ally with anyone who will be for us as often as possible. We will not compromise virtue, wisdom, or integrity, but we know that all those qualities are found in many places. God help us to be criticized for holiness, good works, and our Christianity, not our sloppy scholarship, money hunger, or cheesy, inauthentic sub-culture.
Conformity is not the goal, but genuine interaction.
The more counter-cultural a group tries to be the more idiotic the execution. I discovered a home school group that banned pagan literature but that read Melville. Evidently, being a pagan hundreds of years before Christ was more blameworthy than rejecting Christ hundreds of years after Christ. Of course, the problem was that in cutting themselves off from mainstream education in a group too small to develop a self-critical spirit (that did not simply lead to schism), the group lacked the intellectual resources to know that Moby Dick was more subversive to Christianity than Iliad. If you are in a fundamentalist Christian group that reads Little Women, your intellectual and spiritual sensors are off. I like Little Women, but then I do not think reading a woman who was the product of an abusive cult will devastate the soul . . . if we know what is up in the book. If you think any book from “bad people” is bad to read, and then read New England Transcendentalist stuff, I don’t get your consistency and worry about your intelligence.
It is hard to redeem a culture that you hate and if all you do is hate a culture, then you will find it hard to love the members of the culture.
Love the truth, even if a non-Christian says the truth. Love beauty, even if a non-Christian creates it. Love goodness, even when a non-Christian does it. Love all humanity, even our enemies. None of that says: love lies, ugliness, or sin. We should hate those things where we find them.
There is no great culture, that has lasted any length of time, that does not contain vast stores of wisdom, virtue, and joy. We can learn and gain so much!
Of course the fact that all things are lawful does not mean all things are beneficial to me.
Pop culture is redeemable, but we don’t have the time or resources to bother. The Muppets on ABC could be discussed, thought about, and helped . . . but I have yet to digest all of Joss Whedon. If called to interact with secular culture, don’t waste time with the worst, pick the best. I also have to “know myself” and be accountable to a community. Some people I cannot help because I am harmed by them. They trigger ugliness, sorrow, or pain in me.
I must do what I can . . . not what someone else can do.
I know this: God wants us to be ourselves, unique, but God also made us for community. There will be no perfect (other world) community before Jesus returns to make everything perfect at last. Until then, the broader our exposure, the less we are inbred, and the more we stick to the truth God has revealed without adding cultural accretions to it, the better off we will be.