It is becoming clearer every day that the most urgent problem besetting our Church is this: How can we live the Christian life in the modern world? (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship)Yesterday I was having lunch with a Christian friend. During the course of our conversation, my friend talked about the challenge of communicating the gospel message in the language of today's world. He is always encouraging me to think of new ways to preach the old message of the gospel, ways that might surprise and intrigue the listener but still communicate the ancient heart of the gospel story. I think my friend has a good point, and I am excited that his church is exploring ways to do this. It is a daunting and admirable task. Preaching the gospel in culturally intelligible ways without changing the essential message of the gospel is an incredibly difficult calling. However, his comments caused me to remember the above quote by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Preaching the gospel in the modern world is hard. Living the gospel in the modern world is even harder.
Sometimes I think that the modern world makes it almost impossible to live the Christian life. This is the subtle form of "persecution" (cultural accommodation) that goes unnoticed by the vast majority of believers. Most of the Christians I meet don't see any disconnect between the American way of life and the Christian way of life. For them, the two are entirely compatible. I'm not so sure anymore.
Let me give a particular example of what I am talking about, maybe one that others will find perplexing or strange but something that has occurred to me recently. The other week I was listening to an episode of On Being with Jean Vanier. Vanier, a Christian philosopher, founded a network of religious communities called L'Arche (French for "the Ark"). These communities consist of two types of people: people with disabilities and people without disabilities. L'Arche homes are meant to be spiritual communities of mutuality. They are not charities. The able-bodied don't do for the disabled. Both able-bodied and disabled work alongside each other. In this way, L'Arche communities give disabled persons a full sense of dignity and worth, something typically denied them by the wider culture.
In the interview Jean Vanier talked about how physical human touch is so important and prevalent in a L'Arche community. The host of the show, Krista Tippett, visited a L'Arche community once and remarked that she had never been touched so much in her life. In the wider culture, human touch, especially between adults, is often uncomfortable and avoided. Persons living in a L'Arche community, however, don't have these culturally-engrained reservations. They touch freely and frequently. Jean Vanier explained that he believes that our fear of physical touch is symptomatic of our cultural sexualization of touch. In short, our modern world makes simple physical touch a sexual act. A pat on the back, a hug, a gentle caress of the hand, all legitimate expressions of love and affection, become, more or less for us, uncomfortable expressions of foreplay. The sexualization of touch, therefore, becomes a barrier that prevents us both from giving and receiving physical touch.
And then you have a Bible verse like,
Greet all the brethren with a holy kiss (I Thess. 5:26).I've pointed out this verse in Bible studies before. I think people mostly roll their eyes at me and think I am being silly. This verse, which is about as clear and direct as Bible verses get, is largely ignored by Christians today. When I bring this up, I often get a similar response: "A kiss would be culturally unacceptable today." People typically propose the idea of the "holy handshake" as a culturally acceptable alternative. That's all well and good, but there is just one problem with that kind of logic. It makes the culture lord over the Bible. The culture determines whether or not we can follow the Bible or how we follow the Bible. But I would ask, why are we so afraid of kissing one another in this culture? Why are we so quick to contextualize away this passage? Why not just start kissing one another? On a very base level, I think we over-sexualize the kiss. Just turn on your TV if you want to see the sexualization of the kiss. Our cultural over-sexualization of the kiss (and also human touch) therefore prevents us from obeying the Bible. Specifically, it prevents me from obeying the Bible because I am afraid of being the first person to go out on a limb and start kissing everyone who comes over for Bible study (plus that might keep some folks from coming anymore!).
I can imagine that some of my readers might be thinking that I have chosen a bizarre and trivial example of my point. But that's the point. I am trying to show how this problem, being a Christian in the modern world, pervades even trivial aspects of life. Forget bigger issues related to work, money, time, values, or the like. The modern world makes it difficult to touch as Christians, let alone work as Christians or spend money as Christians. This is why I find Bonhoeffer's question to be both challenging and prophetic. I think Bonhoeffer's question can be answered, but it is a more difficult question than surface appearances indicate. Modern culture pervades all aspects of life. Our values, mindsets, priorities, world views, ideologies, and philosophies about life are all deeply affected by the culture of our modern world. Christ, however, comes to us offering an entirely new way, a way that transcends our cultural limitations and calls us out of the world. To follow, though, means total abandonment. A life of isolation and alienation, being cut off from all we know and who we know. To follow means taking the way of Abraham, abandoning the flourishing civilizations of Ur and Haran for the mysterious wilderness of Canaan. Bonhoeffer's question echoes in mind. Who will go? Who can go? Is it possible? Can we live the Christian life in the modern world? By God's grace I believe we can, but it certainly won't be easy, and it definitely won't happen just by accident. This reminds me that living the Christian life requires daily prayer, meditation on the Scriptures, and Spirit-guided critical reflection on the way we live.