Thursday, July 29, 2010

counter culture

Within the last 2 days, I have been reading The Tangible Kingdom by Hugh Halter and Matt Smay, the book of Luke, and The Life of Evelyn Underhill by Margaret Cropper. The one thing that stuck out to me in all three of these books was how counter cultural Jesus was.

For the most part, our tendency is to want to be in the majority, to have our Christian values pervade society. We like Christian universities, Christian politicians, Christian musicians and actors, and Christian mentions in the media. We like it when our values and beliefs are respected and we are able to exert influence on what happens around us. We don't want immorality and excessive violence on TV. We don't want other religions or atheism invading society and influencing our laws. We want the freedom to do what we do and to have society applaud and imitate us.

What we sometimes forget is that Jesus was counter cultural. He was in the minority. Politically, he was seen as a dangerous revolutionary. Religiously, despite a real genius for ancient texts, he refused to climb the rabbinical corporate ladder and instead, aligned himself with the poor, the sick, the weak, the law-benders, the socially despised, and the relationally challenged. Pretty much a career-ender.

And I think that we do ourselves a disservice by not training to live as a minority in this world. It is a very useful skill to have, but it requires a humbling process to acquire it. I have often said that everyone should live as a minority at some point in their life. If you follow Jesus, you already are, even if you don't realise it.

Being in the minority means that we have to learn their language and customs instead of expecting them to understand ours. It usually means getting ridiculed, perhaps being refused access, and sometimes having the courts rule against you. It means having to find creative ways to do simple things like pray, gather together, worship God with authenticity, talk about Jesus, study the Bible, and help others develop spiritually. Society can never be expected to embrace these things or to give us much help with them. In fact, it will probably give us a hard time, and that's a good thing, I think.

One short foray into the history of the persecuted church, or any research on the underground church in countries that are hostile to Jesus in this present day will testify to the weak nature of our faith in contrast to those who "get" the counter cultural factor. Following Jesus is not proudly taking over our city, one city councillor at a time. Following Jesus is something that begins and ends at the heart level, not on the societal level. And it is probably the hardest thing we will ever do.

It is being light when all around you is dark. It is turning the other cheek when everyone else is ready for a fight. It is standing up to honor the name of Jesus when everyone around you is bowing down to the god of the day (read Daniel if you want to see how that turns out). It is keeping your eyes on Jesus while sensual, tempting images swirl all around you. It is solidarity with the outcasts instead of name-dropping and getting your foot in the door. It is tending to the needs of a stranger instead of your own entertainment, even at the expense of your reputation.

God is more than capable of upending our society any time he wants. But for some reason, he has chosen the humble, foolish, and ordinary to confound the smart, upwardly mobile, and popular. And I am with him on that. Humble and foolish, here we come.

But God chose what the world considers nonsense to put wise people to shame. God chose what the world considers weak to put what is strong to shame. God chose what the world considers ordinary and what it despises—what it considers to be nothing—in order to destroy what it considers to be something. As a result, no one can brag in God’s presence. You are partners with Christ Jesus because of God. Jesus has become our wisdom sent from God, our righteousness, our holiness, and our ransom from sin. As Scripture says, “Whoever brags must brag about what the Lord has done.” - 1 Corinthians 1:27-31 (God's Word Translation)

This is a picture of two cherries on my table outside. They were consumed immediately after this picture was taken.


Anonymous said...

Interesting, but not necessarily accurate. Christianity also has its own "cultures" or various norms, values, and language - and in some of these Christian cultures, to be of another Christian culture is to invite criticism or even rejection. So the very thing you're talking about applies to Christian communities as they relate to one another (Catholic vs. Protestant, etc.) or to "the world" (Televangelist vs. news reporter, scientist, politician). To ignore these dynamics, yet point to Christianity as so-called counter-cultural in a positive way, is ignoring half of the reality, as well as being somewhat dangerous.

Matte Downey said...

While I will not argue with the observation that certain parts of Christianity have indeed developed a culture of their own with numerous factions that have had their disagreements, I would not say that I am ignoring this dynamic as much as directing my energy where it is better spent.

I may be wrong, but it strikes me that this might primarily be a Western or even North American perspective. With most of the people I am currently in dialogue with, these schisms have faded into the background as we wrestle with much larger issues than old family squabbles. To me, loving Jesus and my neighbour with integrity and humility are much more important than any denominational stamp.

And perhaps this attitude of embracing similarities instead of splitting over differences is itself counter cultural in the Christian scene. I don't know. Jesus speaks of the Church as one body, so I am only trying to adopt his attitude and language.

The point I am trying to make is not that we ought to take a stance AGAINST culture, but that a radical, deeply rooted, life-changing commitment to follow Jesus will engender some opposition from the status quo.

Terry T. Jackson said...


I very much appreciate what you've written here. It's been an encouragement to me.

Anonymous said...

An invitation to living a "counter-cultural" lifestyle is still a step towards setting up an exclusionary community, or at least a community that adheres to (or is regimented) by that particular vision of counter-culture. It seems like it might be more healthy to allow counter-culture to impact one at the personal or individual level, than to suggest its a side-effect of being part of Christianity (even in areas apart from North America).

Matte Downey said...

My emphasis here is not on inviting someone to a counter-cultural lifestyle, as in setting up a commune or putting up walls to keep the world out. It seems that the words "counter culture" carry a certain baggage with them that I am not trying to invoke.

Following Jesus transcends culture, but lives inside it as well. What I am saying here is pretty much the opposite of exclusivity: that we cannot expect Christianity to make us the morally elite of society. Jesus was about accessibility, becoming one of us, living with us, suffering like we do. We should be identifiable primarily by our love, not by any cultural or social differences.

This is what I mean by counter cultural: that we learn solidarity with the broken, not seek it with the powerful.

Shelley said...

true Matte.

there are a lot of sides to this 'culture' coin...

i get annoyed when christians use the 'counter-culture' point as a a reason they are ignoring the cultural reality we live in - and just going on blindly, expecting people to jump that chasm on their own.
and I don't like it when christians think they are not influenced by our culture, like somehow that can and do transcend all that. who are you kidding? we are all totally influenced by our culture.

the trick is to be willing to acknowledge that and to be willing to have our own perspective challenged on a reg. basis.

I think you are right Matte - another thing I don't like is when christians take this on with a martyr attitude, or when they own the rejection of our culture personally - like 'I am rejected for Jesus' and so I am not going to deal with my negative self-esteem complex.

perhaps that doesn't make any sense...sorry

Matte Downey said...

thanks for the added thoughts, Shelley. Makes sense to me.