Rekindling the Intellectual, Spiritual, Creative legacy of Christians in Culture


images-11.jpegIt's been twenty-five years since I left behind my Eastern, mystical world-view " hatched in the 1960's and practiced for fifteen years into the early 80's. This sojourn included a time in India and twelve years of being a disciple of the Indian spiritual leader Meher Baba, as well as many other aspects of religious and philosophical searching. My former perspective on life and the world was formed in the 60's atmosphere " which included a strong sense of things ending: the world on the eve of destruction; the heroes falling (or being felled); the sense that our generation was unique and called to a unique sense of prophetic rebellion against the established, corrupted order of things political and things religious.

Since then much ink has been spilt to show that our ideals and our yearning for a better way were mired in narcissistic fantasy and lacking the test of suffering our parents endured in the Depression and WWII. We were one of the most affluent and privileged generations in American -- in world history, and yet we were dissatisfied. In many ways we were living proof of Jesus' baleful statement that it's harder for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of God than for a camel to squeeze through eye of a needle. Kids of privilege accusing their parents of corruption and bad faith (all the while happily cashing in on the privileges).

Can there be an uglier image of smug, self-righteous, ungrateful dishonor to one's parents? From my current perspective of one painfully aware of the log in my own eye, I am finding it harder and harder to accuse anyone " especially my parents. There is a corollary, I think, between this accusing stance and one that indicates that we, the right sort of Christians, have the means of transforming the culture around us. Clearly if you have the audacity to declare the culture in need of transforming, you must have a better way.

But what is it in the culture that needs transforming, and are we, indeed, the ones to do it?

As evangelical Christians we are often cast as culture-critics " as those who feel and assert that they have the answers and the only way  to salvation. And our neighbors often react predictably with disgust. After all, who wants to eat dinner with someone who wants to steer every conversation back to his favorite topic? Who wants to be friends with someone who is always evaluating the weight of your thoughts or critiquing your expressions of self, of your passions, your dreams, etc by some invisible standard they believe they possess? The result of prominent evangelicals pronouncing public disdain for Hollywood or criticism of all our cultural neighbors and their products is that we live in self-imposed exile within the broader secular  culture. It all reminds me, painfully, of the stance the 60's generation has often been associated with " the criticism which assumes a moral higher ground of superior knowledge, superior wisdom " in a word, having the answers.

But do we evangelicals really have the answers?

For the last twenty-five years I've been involved in the evangelical movement " in CIVA, IAM, Gordon College and the CCCU, and in various venues of culture work among my fellow Christians " and I have felt that we are often a shoddy knock-off of the surrounding culture. Examples abound " the Band Aid  concert that raised funds through Christian rock bands for famine relief (two years after Bob Geldof's Live Aid " which was by all accounts infinitely better than our knock-off); the slew of books, records, art, talk-shows, movies, etc that all have a lackluster feel when compared with the genuine article " the secular model. Our sub-culture is also plagued with a celebrity worship of our own, miserable marriage statistics of our own, and political intrigues of our own.

Are we really in a position to call the shots for cultural renewal, for a renaissance  in highly-visible public manner?

My answer to this question is, sadly, in the negative. I feel that in real terms we are more needing to sit and listen " to acknowledge the creativity and power of the so-called secular culture workers and their products " than we are to dictate the needed improvements. We have been emulating the secular creative community for almost half a century, and that is testimony enough of our own cultural weakness and neediness. Why not admit all this and begin from a different posture? Would it hurt that much to trim-back our rhetoric and our claims? To sit and listen and look and receive from our neighbors?

Actually, the real secret of hospitality is that the host welcomes the guest and receives more than the visitor. Perhaps a new cultural hospitality practiced by Christians would look more like this, rather than our pontificating from the soap-box. Imagine if evangelicals were stereotyped as weak but hospitable " instead of strong and censorious?

Lastly, what if we became known for extravagant giving instead of cultural power and judgmental attitudes? When Jesus spoke about the needle's eye, he may have been simply stating the facts: when you cling to money and power and influence you cannot even see much less enter this new, counter-intuitive kingdom of God. And this kingdom is not only invisible, it's upside-down. In this new kingdom the rich serve the poor, the powerful and influential do culture work without receiving acknowledgment or fame and name. In a word, the higher serves the lower, and the Lord of all is the lowest of the low.

What implications does this have for us " evangelical Christians in a time of cultural change? In a short letter I don't have time to suss this out very completely, but I will suggest that we need at the very least to cease from posturing and putting ourselves in the drivers seat culturally-speaking. We need to be doers of our work and not posing in heroic roles like great culture redeemers. A future generation may look back and call us that, but we are not in a position to arrogate to ourselves that name. Let someone else name us, and let us shrink to a small stature " one small enough to allow us to fit through that small window of opportunity " the eye of the needle. Maybe then we will catch a glimpse of the kingdom that the rich and powerful cannot see because they are looking in the wrong direction. Perhaps then we can indeed help a little, offer a modest alternative, invite our neighbors to dinner and listen.

Bruce Herman