Somewhere Dr. Seuss (Theodore Geisel) wrote that “Your job is not to fit in but to standout.” One could debate the veracity and usefulness (or not) of that statement all day. I’d say it’s wrong and unhelpful insofar as it is taken as a motto for extreme individualism. However, if it means a person should not regard herself as merely part of the “crowd” but seek to excel it’s true. So much depends on how it’s interpreted. I don’t know how Seuss meant it.
But I am sure it is right as an expression of the Christian’s, and Christian churches’, duty in relation to secular (and increasingly pagan) culture.
“Do not be conformed to this world…” and “be in the world but not of it….” Two extremely important New Testament commands many American Christians have forgotten.
Many Christians will say they agree but then turn around and 1) look for and attend a church that titillates their felt need for entertainment (including treating the sanctuary as an “auditorium,” the platform as the “stage,” and the worship folder/bulletin as “the program”), 2) write and sing “Christian” songs that imitate secular/pagan music and rush to attend concerts where the “Christian” performers (!) imitate secular/pagan rock (or country) concerts, and 3) think nothing of divorce and remarriage except as perhaps unfortunate (not sin or tragedy).
To a very large extent American “Christianity” simply fits in with our overwhelmingly secular and increasingly pagan culture that is driven by money, entertainment, celebrity obsession, sex, personal autonomy (“above all be true to yourself”), and “freedom” (lack of accountability).
One aspect of this I’d especially like to point to is–anti-intellectualism. American society is saturated with antipathy toward the life of the mind. We love “experts” but disdain “scholars.” How often is someone identified on a television news or talk program as a “scholar?” Almost never. I recognize some as scholars but see that they are routinely introduced as “experts.” What’s the difference? A scholar is a researcher who knows all knowledge is ambiguous and continually growing. A scholar is someone who only reluctantly, if ever, will offer a media talking head’s required “sound byte.” And “expert,” on the other hand, is someone who is knowledgeable about a particular subject, usually a skill, has statistics at her fingertips, and is willing to package information without ambiguity or complication. One person can be both, of course. Americans despise scholars but love experts.
That’s because we are a completely pragmatic culture–a society of what John Dewey called “instrumentalists”–problem solvers but not thinkers.
Americans are mainly interested in experts who can fix things. Scholars tend to enjoy the life of the mind in reflection and know that life’s really important questions have no simple answers that fit into sound bytes. Schools at all levels of education have been forced into evaluating students based on “acquired skills” that are measurable as to their outcomes. The question is what can the students DO as a result of a course, not how they can think. Critical thinking, reflection, mental acumen and acuity–all are devalued by contemporary society.
This anti-intellectualism has swept into American Christianity. It’s only one symptom of how we “fit in” rather than “stand out.” Go to any American Christian “bookstore.” What do you see? No section titled “theology.” Whatever theology books they sell you might find under “Christian living,” but you’ll have to search hard for them. When you go to church, do the sermons ever challenge your mind to think more deeply about God? Or are the sermons mostly aimed at “practical living?” Do the songs sung provoke thought and make you want to reflect on theological meanings of Scripture? Or can you put your mind on hold as you sing and sing unconsciously? Are only “talented” people permitted to lead in worship or is there space for spiritual people who have a word of exhortation or comfort to speak or sing?
Some years ago there was a television commercial for black colleges with the motto “A Mind Is A Terrible Thing to Waste.” If we were honest about it, the motto of many American Christians would be “A Mind Is A Terrible Thing To Use”–especially in relation to faith.
Many contemporary American churches do not even care whether their pastoral staff members have any formal education. The big question is whether they are talented, attractive, charismatic, articulate and personable. The result is the pastor I heard preach at a mega-church a few months ago. His “sermon” was nonsense–literally. It made no sense. He claimed the Bible says things it absolutely does not say. But he was handsome, youthful, animated, well-dressed, wore the right glasses, passionate and engaging. And funny. If he ever went to seminary he has left whatever he learned there behind. He had the approximately one thousand people in that one service eating out of his hand.
So what’s the solution? Well, reverse the trends described above and refuse to participate in them! If you are a leader of a small group, for example, absolutely insist that every other book the group reads together is intellectually challenging and focus at least some of the discussion on issues of doctrine (broadly defined). Ask the local Christian “bookstore” to carry somewhat serious theological books and not feature books about celebrities only. Insist that your pastor study for his or her sermons and preach “meaty” sermons that challenge the mind as well as the heart. Ask the music minister to choose hymns with real messages such as those by Charles Wesley and Townend and Getty.
A great irony is that supposedly “conservative” churches are often the most eager to imitate secular/pagan culture in terms of style and substance–even as they point accusing fingers at “liberal churches” for accommodating to modern or postmodern thought forms.