"It is...Our will that Catholics should abstain from certain appellations which have recently been brought into use to distinguish one group of Catholics from another. They are to be avoided not only as 'profane novelties of words,' out of harmony with both truth and justice, but also because they give rise to great trouble and confusion among Catholics. Such is the nature of Catholicism that it does not admit of more or less, but must be held as a whole or as a whole rejected: 'This is the Catholic faith, which unless a man believe faithfully and firmly; he cannot be saved' (Athanasian Creed). There is no need of adding any qualifying terms to the profession of Catholicism: it is quite enough for each one to proclaim 'Christian is my name and Catholic my surname,' only let him endeavour to be in reality what he calls himself." -- Pope Benedict XV, Ad Beatissimi Apostolorum 24 (1914)

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Extraordinary Challenge of Being Counter-Cultural

It is often said that it is counter-cultural to be a follower of Christ. No believer who hears that statement disagrees with it, but few of us take it completely to heart. And that is a deceptively dangerous thing.

Before I explain, let’s first clarify what it means to say that to be a Christian is to be counter-cultural. I think it means that the teachings of Christ, His truth and His way, are concepts that are largely foreign and nonsensical in today’s world. In fact, they are as counter-cultural today as they were in the days of the early Church. Really.

Though few of us are being physically persecuted or threatened with death for being a follower of Jesus, we are no less discouraged from doing so by the modern, secular world. And while that discouragement happens in more subtle ways than it did in ancient Rome, I’ve come to believe that those ways may actually be more dangerous and insidious because we are less prepared to protect ourselves.

You see, the earliest Christians knew without a doubt that their way of life was counter-cultural. Given the overt persecution they faced, how could they not? And so they took measures to live with other followers of Christ, to spend most of their hours encouraging one another to reject the cultural influences that corrupted their bodies and souls. Though they certainly lived “in” the world and ministered to it as Christ called them to do, they knew the dangers of living “of” the world, and sought fellowship and unity to keep themselves sound.

Today, we continue to recite that exhortation – “live in the world but not of it” – but few successfully do so. We certainly don’t live our daily lives exclusively with and among other followers of Christ. I’m willing to guess that would be considered unacceptable, even among most believers. There is an unspoken attitude that to focus most of one’s social life around other Christians would be exclusive, elitist or intolerant.

In fact, we are even made to feel that progressive Christians should be indifferent to the beliefs and faiths of their friends and neighbors, exposing themselves and their families to others regularly and indiscriminately (except, perhaps, in matters of physical safety). This is considered a sign of open-mindedness and maturity. Well, as politically incorrect as this may sound, and as hard as it is for me to admit this and risk sounding intolerant or exclusive, I’ve come to believe that it is a recipe for spiritual disaster.

The modern world, the secular culture in which we live, will quickly erode the faith of an unsuspecting Christian. Though we may well avoid the more obvious perils of drugs, alcohol abuse, pornography and adultery, we can so easily become saturated with the subtleties of sin by being around others who don’t like to think about sin at all, or who define it in very different ways. As a result, we slowly dull ourselves to the realities of sin in our world, and we lose our way. I know because it happens to me all the time.

After spending long or regular periods of time with friends or family members who don’t believe in and feel comfortable acknowledging Christ, I begin to lose my sense of His presence. And while I don’t go off on a drinking or sex binge, I cannot deny that I see the early warning signs as I begin losing peace, joy and good judgment. That is certainly the first step down a long and dark road.
For those who think that I am starting to sound like a close-minded or self-righteous or moralistic prude, consider that this is exactly what the world wants you to think. It wants us to feel bad for yearning for regular refuge among fellow believers who will remind us that even the relatively tame influences – movies, television shows, video games, fanaticism about sports – are subtly poisonous. It wants us to believe that we are strong enough and smart enough to intermingle freely with secular culture and sort it all out scene by scene, frame by frame, moment by moment. Of course, even the holiest person will become exhausted and beaten down by such a challenge. The saints certainly never tried to live in such a way.

But what about the call to live in the world? First, I’m certainly not advocating that we turn our backs on the world and run from it. We are called to shine Christ’s light for all to see. But as I like to say, if you’re an alcoholic, don’t live above a bar. And if you have a predilection toward lust, don’t buy a house next door to the Playboy mansion. Learn to cope with those things when you must, but certainly don’t put yourself in a position where that is your primary social context.

And so, for those of us who truly want to follow Christ, perhaps we shouldn’t be so flip about putting ourselves in positions of regular, unfiltered exposure to the secular world. Perhaps we should build a life that seeks more regular fellowship and social reinforcement from other true believers, the ones who will alert us to the subtle dangers that others will feel uncomfortable pointing out to us. Because those are the dangers that are likely to trap us.

Which brings me to a powerful truth that I easily and often forget: Every sin is a sin. None of it is good, and all of it, in every form, can corrupt us. I love the saying “whether a bird is tethered by a chain or a piece of twine, it still can’t fly.” We must face the fact that the secular world – the one that is the theater of the prince of darkness – will be happy to see us tied down by twine. It/he hopes that we will be falsely comforted by the idea that “it is only twine.”

Only those who are willing to be counter-cultural will be able to see and avoid that twine. And only then, when we see the world for what it is, can we go out and live in that world and minister to it, without letting it corrupt us.

A final analogy might be helpful here. To be a follower of Christ in the modern world is like being a fish trying to swim upstream. Why is it a good thing for those of us swimming against the current to do so in groups with others who are headed in the same direction? Because when you’re working so hard to fight that current, it’s helpful to look around and see others doing the same. If nothing else, it reminds us that the work is hard for us all and that to relax and stop fighting is to float with the current. This leads us to have a false sense of security believing that at least we’re going slower in the wrong direction than the fish that are swimming downstream. Of course, if we’re going in the wrong direction, it doesn’t matter how fast we’re moving.

May God help us be the fish that swim hard against the current or the birds who avoid being tethered by a twine, or better yet, men and women who are comfortable being criticized or ridiculed for having the courage to stand together and be counter-cultural.

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