I’ve always been fascinated with how buzz words take hold among a group of people; particularly among evangelicals. Lately it appears that the buzz word “missional,” so popular a decade ago, seems to be fading behind our new buzz word “counter-cultural.” As with all such things you quickly find that there is no standard definition of exactly what it means to be counter-cultural but the common theme calls for us to stand against “the world.”
The roots of the current counter-cultural movement do go back to the New Testament where the majority of references to “the world” were negative. Romans 12:2 is sort the cornerstone verse for the counter-cultural crowd – “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.
In truth there are very few passages in the NT that speak even passably well of the world. John 3:16 is the best example. But somehow the mandate to not be conformed has morphed into stand against the culture, to be against everything about the world that we don’t like. People who call for us to stand against the culture (in the ways we want them to stand) are our new heroes.
We’ve taken to defining culture as “everything we don’t like” as David Platt did in his new book “Counter Culture: A Compassionate Call to Counter Culture in a World of Poverty, Same-Sex Marriage, Racism, Sex Slavery, Immigration, Abortion, Persecution, Orphans and Pornography.” The book description starts with “Welcome to the front line” and goes on to use extensive war terminology. (Note: In the book Platt, to his credit, is far less warlike than the title and promo implies.)
Others are far more hostile in their comments. D.A. Carson says “When a whole culture is running in a certain direction, if we remain silent about [issues of gender roles] we are finally, however unwittingly, acquiescing and that is why it really is important for [us] to stand up to directions that are just so dangerous and so painfully unbiblical at so many levels.” Calls to “stand up to” “painfully unbiblical” ideas are hardly good launch points for a constructive discussion.
Calls to stand up to the culture are easy for those who don’t actually know anyone from that culture. Increasingly counter-cultural voices, with a defeatist mindset, are calling for walls to be built, not bridges. Rod Dreher says “There are no safe places to raise Christian kids in America other than the counter-cultural places we make for ourselves, together” This defines counter-cultural as separated and disengaged, or at the very least, defines engagement in military terms – sort of like “engaging” the enemy.
While there are a few voices that see being counter-cultural in more “missional” (ha!) terms, most voices are warlike and confrontational. But I am beginning to see that I have three problems with the counter-cultural movement.
- It defines counter-cultural in intellectual terms. “We” believe in traditional marriage, are pro-life and host of other largely political points we are trying to make. “They” are for marriage equality, are pro-choice and have their own political agendas we need to defeat. Yet the essence of culture is not a belief, it is how we live, which leads to my second point.
- In lifestyle we are very similar to the culture we say stand against. If there is a dominant cultural distinctive in 21st century America it is consumerism and the quest for comfort. In this trait evangelicals on average live in a manner that is indistinguishable from the culture we claim we are against. We absorb more of the culture than we admit to and then wonder why they think we are hypocrites. Finally…
- It is hard to be counter-cultural when you are the dominant culture. Here is the Bible-belt south on issues like same sex marriage and abortion we are in the majority. When you stand with the majority against the views and lives of the minority you are not counter-cultural, you are a bully.
So, do we want to be truly counter-cultural? Then we need to do more than stand to the side with our arms folded across our chests and a scowl on our faces as we tell people how wrong they are. We need to get right into the world around us and love them, trusting that the renewing of our minds will be something God will do within us as we “go into the world.”