The concept of being counter culture has been on my mind a lot this past week. I’d have to say there’s always a thread of it weaving through everything I work on, but sometimes the thread becomes something greater and larger. The creek floods to a torrent, and it preoccupies me.
It started on Monday morning when I took my mother-in-law to the airport. The night before, she lead a discussion at the Gathering, the creative church community we belong to, from a video series we’re going through. Being counter-cultural stood at the center of the discussion, and given that she’d had time to process, she had come to a conclusion concerning what makes the Gathering counter cultural.
“We’re counter-cultural as it relates to the church,” she told me. “But we’re not really counter culture to the world around us.”
I’m not sure I’ve ever heard her speak a truth so clear. The reality of that statement became galvanized in an instant, all the little suspicions and ponderings that I do about the group of people at the Gathering, wondering what sort of Christianity we’re producing there. The statement rang so true I contemplated it all the way home from the airport. And I’ve been contemplating it ever since.
Last night Jenica and I watched a little known film called “The Reckoning”, which dealt with both the concept of being simply counter-church-culture and being genuinely counter-culture in a broader sense.
The story of the Reckoning is set in medieval England, and concerns a priest running from his past played by Paul Bettany, who joins a troupe of actors lead by Martin, played by Willem Dafoe. When the actors cannot travel to their appointed destination due to a washed out bridge, they are forced to detour, and sojourn at a small outpost in the English countryside. There, they witness the trial of a woman wrongly accused of murder.
Martin uses the opportunity of being stuck at the outpost as a means to finally put on a play that isn’t Biblical in origin. He wants to make a play about the same issues the medieval miracle plays were concerned with, but using everyday events to convey these truths. He believes that one day all plays will be done in this fashion. Some of the actors are dubious about this approach, stating that the pope has not sanctioned the use of such plays.
When the group performs the play, it brings out the dark truth beneath the false accusation which has condemned a woman to death. The sheriff of the outpost orders the actors out by sunrise or their lives are forfeit. The actors leave, but the priest remains. Along the road, the rest of the troupe are faced with the question the Gathering and many ‘culturally relevant’ Christians like myself need to ask; are you just counter-cultural to the church, or are you counter cultural where it actually matters?
To put on a play that breaks the tradition of the medieval miracle plays is simply counter to the prevalent church culture of the day. Many Emergent church movements excel in this area. They’re made up of people who blend in well with the culture around them, which offends the sensibilities of the Evangelical sub-culture. In my own case, I blend in so well people are surprised to find out I’m a Christian. They’re expecting something more clean-cut and less crass.
At the Gathering we pride ourselves in not being like other churches. We’re like postmodern reformers looking for our Wittenberg door. We revel in the freedom of the apostles, and the radical grace of Christ.
But I ask myself…now that we’ve separated ourselves from what we didn’t like about Church, when are we going to get around to being as diligently antagonistic about the things that ought to offend us in the world around us? We’re not involved in any social justice activity, and none of us are advocates for much besides our favorite music, movie or brand of beer.
This isn’t to say I want us to turn into sign-waving fanatics. I don’t think that helps much. But in watching the film last night, I wondered, what’s the truth the Gathering is ready to die for? You see, when the counter-church-culture play prompts genuine counter cultural action, a sacrifice becomes necessary. A sacrifice of life, or money, or reputation. We can spit in the face of the church and be pleased when what we deem as Christian poster children are offended by us, but we seem to pander to the rest of the world, not wanting to offend any of them.
All we seem to be good at taking a stand for is the use of pop culture in sermons, loud music in worship, and drinking in social gatherings. I’m wondering if I really take a stand for anything important anymore. How am I transforming the society around me?
I know that I’ve been able to redeem a lot of popular culture by incorporating it into the liturgical elements of what I do both at the Gathering and when I’m speaking on the road. But what about being transformative in my relationships, or transformational in changing the world, piece by piece by getting involved with some kind of social justice action?
Don’t get me wrong; I think it’s valuable to question what we’re doing in church, and reassess. I’m not advocating for people giving up on Emergent models. But in the case of the Gathering, we need to go beyond being counter-church-culture, and find out what it means for the Emergent church in Canada to be counter-Canadian-culture.
I’m pretty sure it has a lot to do with consumerism, and how we treat the environment. And I think for all Christians, it has to do with how we treat fellow students, or co-workers, or the lady counting pennies in the lineup in front of us at the grocery store. For me, the question plaguing me is, “how is a Christian to be set apart from the world while still living in it and being part of it?”
I don’t want to reduce this to some pat formulaic set of rules, but I have set out to grab hold of counter-cultural endeavors in the spirit of Christ, one item at a time. I’ve noticed that there’s nothing counter-cultural about the way I spend my money, and so I’ll be thinking through how I can go about changing that.
What’s your counter-culture move?