Let’s have a little fun today and touch on a sensitive issue. We’ll file this one under what my wife would call “my old man rants. . .” The 4th of July is around the corner, and once again we’ll binge on patriotism and celebrate this fine country we all live in. And there is much to celebrate: at the same time, there is also much to lament. But I’m not lamenting Miley Cyrus’s twerking or Kim Kardashian’s most recent wedding. I’m lamenting instead that everyone who is reading this knew exactly what I was talking about when I mentioned those two examples.
A social experiment: which of the following is true? Lady Gaga recently performed while being vomited on saying it is “art”? Or Kesha says she had sex with a ghost? Trick question, they are both true.
The fourth of July may be as good a time as any to take a cultural inventory. Yes I know I’m a puritanical prude, but somewhere in our culture, there must exist a line between what is tolerated, and what is celebrated. It seems we have now collectively moved into a celebration of the most obscene types of “self expression” and self proclaimed “art.” We truly have lost the concept of the sacred. Nothing is sacred, and therefore nothing is surprising anymore.
The problem does not lie in the fact that sensational and scandalous characters are out there; we could tolerate that. The problem is that by and large, we reward the most salacious, the most scandalous and crude in our culture; we celebrate it. Beauty is now defined by earning potential and the quality of art is determined by attendance. It is just as Oscar Wilde said, “Nowadays people know the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
So once again, as Christians, the question we are faced with is this: “How do I act Christianly?” In a culture like this, what is a Christian supposed to actually do?
As I see it, there are two common responses from Christians when faced with this question, both of which are wrong: isolationalism and escapism.
One of the most hilarious Seinfeld episodes is The Bubble Boy. It’s the story of a boy who due to his condition literally has to live in a plastic bubble. The boy turns into an unsympathetic and selfish kid that everyone hates; he can’t seem to get along with anyone, and he doesn’t seem to want to.
Whenever I see this episode, I can’t help but think of how many Christians I’ve met who choose to live their lives like this; cut off from the rest of the world and souring in their own bitterness. We’ve heard people say, “don’t get too close to non-Christians, they’ll corrupt you” or “don’t spend too much time with someone who’s not a Christian, they’ll drag you down”. This kind of teaching has to stop.
Real outreach happens on street-corners and in shopping centers, outside the 4 walls of the church, and most effectively in the context of relationship. Jesus didn’t seclude himself inside the local synagogue. He went out, wherever the hurting, broken and messed up people were. He found drunks, prostitutes and cheats; inviting them to his new way of life. If we can’t do the same, by leaving our comfy pew and being in relationship with real people, we are behaving un-Christ-like.
In the first few hundred years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, one of the biggest threats to the church was a heresy called Gnosticism. This belief was sweeping through the church and many of the most brilliant early Christian texts we have (including portions of Scripture) are direct rebuttals to it. Gnosticism taught that anything physical, including the universe and our bodies, is evil and corrupt. Gnostics believed that this world should be shunned and the spiritual world embraced. By acquiring knowledge (the Greek translation for gnosis) we would be able to escape this physical world and enter God’s spiritual world.
Much of the New Testament is devoted to combating this kind of teaching. The sad thing is that in much of the Christian church today, there is implicit (and sometimes explicit) Gnostic teaching. Whether we are aware of it or not, many of us await the day when we will “go to heaven” or “escape this fleshly body”. This is not a Christian way of thinking.
Paul in particular is clear about this. The Christian hope is that we will be resurrected, not to go away and sit on a cloud in “heaven” but rather to embody a new physicality and live in a restored creation; literally, heaven on earth. Until the resurrection, we are to partner with Christ in his restorative work, affirming God’s good creation, tending it and being good stewards of it; not trying to escape it for a purely spiritual existence.
God created us to be embodied and physical creatures, when we seek to escape our “flesh” we deny God’s wisdom and design. In C.S. Lewis’ words, “humans are amphibians . . . half spirit and half animal.” To be one without the other, is to be something other than human.
So if we’re not isolationists, and we’re not escapists, what are we? As simple as it sounds, the answer really is, Christian. Christians are different, called out, not defined by culture, nationality or ethnicity: we are the “salt of the earth” and “a city on a hill.”
But we are not only Christian in name; we are also Christian in vocation. And this is where we find the answer to the question with which we started.
Christians are those who, within any particular culture, have a holy vocation: a calling, a duty, an impulse to follow Christ in doing God’s work. As Christians, our work is the work of Christ. And Christ’s work is the renewal and redemption of culture and creation as a whole.
We don’t shun or try to escape culture, but we fully participate by celebrating the beautiful wherever we find it. By believing in the sacred and acting like we do. By behaving with love wherever we find ourselves and by enacting the kingdom, just as Christ did.
And if we’re really trying to figure out Christian engagement with society, our model must of course be Christ. Christ after all wasn’t born in a vacuum; he lived under the rule of the Roman Empire, a famously debauched civilization. And what do we see him doing? Not hiding, not longing for escape, but rather fully investing himself in kingdom work.
Christians are not the morality police, expecting non-Christians to act Christianly. But we are those who show people a better way. We are those who by example invite people to a sacred and beautiful way of life, instilled with value, purpose and meaning.
So my old man rant has come to an end, and as usual I’ve said much more than I set out to. No you are not imagining it; this blog did begin by complaining about Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga. Could it have been a true old man rant if it didn’t?
And though we’ve discussed so much more, my original intention was to consider our culture as the Fourth of July approaches and to think about ways to act Christianly within it. So as you’re watching the fireworks this year, take some time also to watch for ways to fulfill you’re vocation; ways to bring Christ and his message a little closer. That must be the best way to spend the Fourth.