(Note: this is part of a series of posts based on some of the things I’m currently reading and reflecting on. Click here for part one.)
For most of our nation’s history, a Judeo-Christian worldview could simply be assumed. You could simply assume that your neighbors all held basically the same views: the existence of God, the lordship of Jesus, the importance of church, respect for authority, allegiance to God and country. Many of the Christians I know grew up in this kind of world. But something happened along the way and the prevalent worldview has shifted. We live in a time when our world is changing quite rapidly.
This shift has been described as the shift from modernity to post-modernity. For many Christians, the term “post-modernity” conjures up plenty of confusion and troublesome thoughts. Most of us don’t know much about post-modernity. But context clues tell us that it’s a buzzword for all that’s wrong with our world. Technically, post-modernity is value neutral; it’s neither “good” nor “bad”, but rather simply a description of the seismic shift away from the modern worldview. Actually “post modern” is less of a description of reality than simply an articulation of what is not — our times are decidedly not “modern” any more, at least not in the way the term has been used to describe the last 500 years of human history.
There are plenty of others more well versed in the nuances of these terms. I’m certainly no expert here. But I only use this as a way of explaining what we already intrinsically know to be true. The times they are a-changin’. And as the structures of this old order continue to crumble, my interest is primarily in the fallout for the church and the followers of Jesus.
There was a time when authority figures were respected in our culture simply by virtue of their existence. Parents, police officers, elected officials, religious leaders…these were unquestionably respected because of the offices they represented. Many of my older friends wistfully recall growing up in this world. But over the past 30-40 years, much has happened that has caused these authority structures to lose some of their luster. Watergate, Vietnam, the war on terrorism, Michael Brown, Jimmy Swaggert, Jim Bakker, child abuse scandals in the priesthood, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, Rodney King…the list goes on and on. Our youngest generations have seen how authority figures have been “found out” as “false” or “unworthy” of respect. None of this necessarily excuses a widespread lack of respect of authority figures, but it surely helps us understand how we ended up here.
Perhaps this is a good way of describing the impact of post-modernity in our time. The post-modern worldview is suspicious of all over-arching meta-narratives, the “big stories” that hold our lives together. These larger stories are increasingly called into question because there is seemingly always a counter narrative to the absolute statements.
And that leads us to the Christian worldview.
As you’re no doubt aware, the Christian worldview has not been spared in the post-modern assault on meta-narrative. Darwinism and the Scopes trial brought the categories of “fundamentalist” and “modernist” into our national discourse nearly a century ago. These categories are evidenced in the ongoing conversations surrounding the Big Bang theory, creationism, and, most recently, same sex marriage. For quite some time, Christian rhetoric has been concerned with “culture wars”, combating the erosion of the Judeo-Christian worldview by trying to “win back” what we have lost. But the tide seems too great. If there is a war for our culture, clearly we seem to be on the losing side. As people of faith, what are we to do?
In his new book Onward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel, Russell D. Moore notes that the Christian worldview is increasingly understood as offensive, particularly in light of our sexual ethic. One might see the acceptance of same-sex marriage in our nation as the most recent movement that contrasts the fundamentalist Christian worldview with secular culture. But then again, it has always been this way. A generation ago, it was the issue of abortion. Before that, it was the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s. The further back you go, the more you see that this is an age-old conflict. As Moore notes, “Walking away from our own lordship — or from the tyranny of our desires — has always been a narrow way,” (p4).
But that’s who we are as followers of Christ: we are people of the narrow way. That might be one of the better descriptions of Christianity for our day.
Moore uses another phrase that arrests my attention: engaged alienation. Moore sees the current cultural landscape of North America as an opportunity for the church to reclaim a prophetic proclamation of the gospel, even if we now operate from the margins of society rather than from the epicenter. The biblical narrative of Israel in exile reminds us that the people of God have long operated outside the halls of secular power and our current moral drift, while lamentable, provides an opportunity for a fresh declaration of the power of the gospel. If you believe the book of Revelation, it seems that the church does her best work outside the corrupting and tyrannical influence of empire.
And so, back to the notion of a culture war. Moore contends that Christianity lived apart from cultural friction is a Christianity that inevitably dies on the vine. We should remember that we have always been a people of the narrow way. Our tendency is toward a version of the faith that “absorbs the ambient culture until it is indistinguishable from it, until, eventually, a culture asks what the point is of the whole thing,” (p7). Many of us can relate to this. Faced with the prospect of fighting a losing battle, we might choose to simply acquiesce to our culture, adopting a “when in Rome” ethic. Still others will choose to retreat from culture, forming a Christian sub-culture, a ghetto of Christian music, Christian movies, and Christian coffee shops, contentedly biding our time on this God-forsaken rock until the Lord swoops down to take us all home. Many of us can relate to this impulse as well, despite the fact that it severely negates the very call of Christ to be salt and light witnesses in our particular context.
Neither of these options are viable, not if we are to be the fullness of Christian community in our day.
And again, Moore issues a much needed reminder:
The gospel we have received is a missionary gospel, one that must connect to those on the outside in order to have life. Our call is to an engaged alienation, a Christianity that preserves the distinctiveness of our gospel while not retreating from our callings as neighbors, and friends, and citizens. (p7)
This is where the culture war crusades of previous generations missed the point. As followers of Jesus, the end goal is never about “winning” — at least not in the way our culture understands the term. Much like our spiritual forebears, we have a hard time understanding a crucified Messiah as anything other than “foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:17-18). But here is the power of God, focused not on winning the culture war but on reconciling the world to himself in Christ (2 Cor. 5:19).
In our attempts to wage war against our culture, I’m afraid we’ve lost an essential component of the gospel. The writer of Hebrews refers to the OT people of faith as strangers and exiles on the earth (Heb. 11:13). Simon Peter applies this same idea to the followers of Jesus, referring to the early church as those who are elect exiles of the dispersion (1 Pet. 1:1). Peter goes on to say:
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people; once you had not received mercy, but now you have received mercy. Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. — 1 Peter 2:9-12
In each of these texts, the biblical writers use the same word to locate the people of God. Throughout history, God’s people have been identified as exiles, as people of an alien existence. The idea is not simply of passing through, despite the lyrics of one of our revered hymns (“This world is not my home / I’m just a-passin’ thru…“). The Bible declares just the opposite; this world is, in fact, our home. God has uniquely positioned us in this place and time for His purposes, for the good works He has prepared for us in advance (Eph. 2:10). Our call is more than simply a transient existence of “passing through.” For if we are content to simply pass through, our eyes will never be open to the very real problems of pain and sin and death all around us in the present. The people of God live as foreigners, yes, but more pointedly as resident aliens, strangers who have settled here, however briefly, among the natives. We cannot retreat. And we cannot acquiesce. This is not who we are.
As exiles, we are people of engaged alienation.
Exiles are people of the narrow way.
Exiles are people of an alien existence.
Exiles live missionally in their community.
Exiles don’t wage culture wars.
Exiles don’t retreat into ghettoized sub-cultures.
Exiles live strangely and expectedly.
If need be, exiles endure persecution and revilement.
Above all, Christian exiles live in love, declaring the excellencies of him who called us out of darkness.
This is as true today as it has ever been: in the end, it must be love.
For love comes first.