Friday, July 22, 2005

Southern Discomfort

One thing many Christians have a problem doing is differentiating Christianity from their culture. I was born and raised in the church, so I'm quite familiar with this phenomenon. In fact, I still struggle with it. It's really hard to evaluate all the assumptions you had about the societal norms that you grew up with. Which were biblically based, which are just cultural, and then how do you deal with all the sticky ones in between. Here's an example from my background…

My circle of friends who were all Christians in the same church thought that people who drank alcohol were hell-bound for sure. Same with smokers. Sure, we recognized that people who snorted coke were worse, but really, who cares… they're all going to the same place. So imagine my shock and horror when I met someone who seemed to be a grounded, rational Christian who drank an occasional beer. It made no sense to me. I think that was the first time I realized there was a difference between Assembly of God culture and what God intends for Christians to be like.

I don't know if this is the way it is in other countries, but the problem here is America is greatly exacerbated by the evangelical subculture we have created for ourselves. We have rightly observed that the culture at large is a cesspool of corrosive ideas, no morals, and godlessness. But then we wrongly retract into a hard shell of our own reactionary restrictions. We raise our children in this cultural carapace, and they don't even know how to relate to those outside of it. After all, why interact with the sinners who might corrupt us? We have our own music, TV, radio, books, and anything else that could possibly have the taint of secular culture upon it.

I think there are numerous problems that come from creating and living in our little Christian ghetto. First of all, like I pointed out from my own experience, it tends to create a very judgmental attitude towards those who are not in that ghetto. Notice I didn't say a judgmental attitude towards the culture at large. Being discerning about what is good, right, beautiful, etc. is a very important element in every Christians walk. But writing people off because they don't conform to your standards is the antithesis of a Christ-like spirit. So should we hang out with evil people? I wouldn't want my kids playing at friends house if their dad had pornography laying all over. Of course you still have to have standards. But excluding normal, law abiding people from your circle of friends and acquaintances isn't good for anyone.

Besides creating a judgmental spirit, our Christian quarantine does not prepare our kids for the day they leave the nest and start making their own decisions in life. It is a very common scenario that a kid will be a great Christian up until they leave home for collage, fall in with non-Christian friends, realize there are all sorts of other viewpoints out there, and fall away from the faith. Why? Is it because the new ideas, philosophies and lifestyles are superior then what they were raised with? I don't think so. It's because they never had to learn to defend their beliefs before. It's like sending someone with no training into a cage-match with a hundred ninjas! If they have been taught, (seldom explicitly) that outsiders are wrong, bad, and foolish, then the first time they meet a smart, kind person with a different philosophy they have no way to counteract their arguments. And I'm told there is nothing collage professors love more than trouncing the fragile worldview of Christian freshmen.

So why do we do this? Why do we hide our light? Why can't we recognize that too much safety isn't a good thing? It's like putting our kids in a bubble all their lives. As soon as they get out of it they are going to get every sickness around because they never had a chance to build immunity to them.

Of course any subculture that regularly get attacked and marginalized with withdraw. But I think this tendency in the evangelical community to hide from the world stems from a much deeper problem. I don't think the real reason is because we want to stay pure. I think it's because we are insecure in our beliefs. Parents don't have answers or rebuttals to the current attacks on our faith. Society at large has painted us as ignorant, anti-science, bigots, and we apparently don't have a good argument against that image. Is it because these answers and arguments don't exist? No. I've read many very good responses to every critique of Christianity I have ever heard. But because evangelicals are content to stay marginalized, they don't seem to be interested in learning these answers.

Back when I gave up on my dream of working in the videogame industry, we moved to Oklahoma where my then-wife's extended family lived. Though I have lived all over the place since I grew up in the Air Force, my default culture is northwestern through and through. I was too young to recognize the cultural difference when I lived in Texas. But this time, in Oklahoma, I really realized there is a big difference between south and north. Her family is all very entrenched in the southern evangelical subculture, so I got a really good dose of it for the three months we lived there. I was amazed at how judgmental they were about everything and everyone. Not discerning-judgmental, condescending-judgmental. I got to be on the receiving end of it on many occasions. You see, the fact that I wore black almost-combat boots was far out for these people. The music I like is clearly of the devil. I play fantasy video games, and we all know where fantasy comes from, don't we? That's right. Satan. I was advised not to show anyone my sketchbooks, as they are full of weird things that could only be inspired by the forces of evil.

I don't want to pick on southerners specifically. That's just where I experienced the phenomenon I'm speaking about the most. And I don't think there is anything wrong with cultural mores, but as Christians we need to recognize them for what they are. And most importantly, we need to make sure we don't attach the weight of divine scripture to what amounts to passing cultural customs and attitudes. Let's not put a "Thou shalt not" before our cultural restrictions when the Bible says nothing about them. Thou shalt not play cards. Thou shalt not dance. Thou shalt not read fantasy novels. Thou shalt vote republican. Thou shalt not listen to heavy metal. When we do this we are doing two things. First, we become legalists, substituting tradition for grace. And second, we make Christianity look really ridiculous to outsiders.

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