On Counterculture

On Counterculture August 31, 2011

From the movie Arranged (2007).

“Culture” is a fraught concept just about everywhere. In the academy, people debate what it is and whether it’s a useful term at all. In some Christian circles, culture is that thing you fight against in order to follow God. Evangelical Christianity in America is counter-cultural.

There’s a problem with counterculture: it’s wholly dependent on culture. To be countercultural, you define “culture” as them. Those people we don’t want to be like. And then everything that they do becomes what we do not do.

They wear swimsuits. They listen to rock music. They send their daughters to college. They date before marriage. They use birth control. Therefore, we wear dresses. We listen to hymns. We prepare our daughters for life in the home. We court before marriage. We think birth control is evil.

This is often done subconsciously. Evangelical Christianity teaches you to be sensitive to the Holy Spirit and open to “conviction.” But there is an unspoken assumption lying beneath this spirit-searching: the assumption is that what is harder, what is less enjoyable, and what is stricter is always what God wants. Thus the sensitivity of evangelical Christians is often attuned far more closely to criticism of liberality and adoption of new rules than to the breakdown of existing rules and the adoption of liberty. This kind of thinking elevates conservatism above all: the more conservative, the better. It makes conservatism itself a god.

In a previous post, I wrote about how, in Matthew 5, Jesus does not command women to dress in a way that prevents men from lusting after then. One of the commenters brought up the question, “What should women wear?” Among the worst possible answers for evangelical Christianity is “whatever they want.” That seems to invite total anarchy, debauchery and wanton sin. But it seems to me that for “wearing whatever you want” to be a problem, first you have to mistrust what you want. You have to be fundamentally afraid of yourself, of what you might do if not constrained by rules. But if that’s true among Christians, what exactly is the Holy Spirit for? What does it mean to be “led by the Spirit” if your route is already mapped out and paved by other Christians?

Here’s another problem: being a counterculture Christian creates a culture. Those things that people “in the world” do without thinking? Now we avoid them without thinking. The end result is a subculture: “the world” defines what we don’t do, but we don’t actually give any more thought to why we don’t do them than “worldly” people give to why they do. We take peer pressure to be “conviction” by the Holy Spirit.

Coupling the idea of conviction with the assumption that stricter = better results in cultural pressure to do things that appear more godly. It means that women who never worried about wearing earrings are suddenly “convicted” by the Holy Spirit when they join a church where earrings are frowned upon. I am wary of such “convictions,” because they are only guilt disguised. Feeling more “loose” than other Christians is a terrible experience: you feel guilty, you doubt your own relationship with God (“was I really listening to the Spirit before?”), and you lose all perspective on the issue at hand. When you’re constantly waiting to feel the guidance of the Holy Spirit and the “prick” of your conscience, the guilt induced by appearing more lax than other believers looks a lot like God telling you you’re wrong. It’s just peer pressure, but it looks like something supernatural. And you don’t fight back, because you don’t want to be “that backslider” or “lukewarm” Christian who isn’t “on fire” to be “right with God.” All of those cliches bombard you until wearing earrings seems about as bad as setting fire to a church during Sunday school with the doors locked.

There is a blog that parodies evangelical Christian culture here:
Stuff Christian Culture Likes

Message of the Hour folks take this countercultural activity a step farther. What “culture” does, evangelical Christians don’t do. What evangelical Christians do, Message believers don’t do. There are even churches within the Message that don’t do what most Message believers do! The list of “Don’t”s can be sky-high.

When we structure our lives around being different from worldly people rather than from seeking the truth for ourselves, we rely on comparison with others to determine what we do. We allow ourselves to be swayed by subculture, just like the “others” we perceive are swayed by culture.

Here’s another danger: what if Christian culture gains strength? There are a lot of fundamentalist Christian political candidates emerging lately. What if they influence mainstream American culture so that it looks more and more like evangelical Christian subculture? What happens when the chosen few become the many? In my experience, it means tightened rules, harsher judgments and more fearful segregation. It means Message believers won’t associate with people in Christian denominations. It means people from one Message church avoid people from a more “liberal” one. It means worshiping authoritarianism as a god.

But what if “be ye separate” and “set apart” meant working on the heart? What if it meant that things that Jesus spent the most time talking about: love, forgiveness, compassion and generosity? Wasn’t it “by their fruits ye shall know them,” not “by their leaves”?

Fruits aren’t the most noticeable part of a tree. Leaves are. Leaves are the thing you see from miles away and think, “That’s a tree.” They can be compared to the long denim skirts and uncut hair of Holiness groups like the Message. You can spot them out of a crowd like a clown on a unicycle. But fruits are hidden things. Fruits are the things you reach under the leaves to find. Fruits are the things you taste when you’re in close contact with the tree. Fruits are how the tree nourishes you. How do you nourish people?

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