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Sunday, April 25, 2010

Cultural Christianity

Slavoj Zizek, the international director of the Birkbeck Institute for the Humanities wrote an article about culture. He stated that “’Culture’ has commonly become the name for all those things we practice without really taking seriously. And this is why we dismiss fundamentalist believers as ‘barbarians’ with a ‘medieval mindset’: they dare to take their beliefs seriously.” This viewpoint has heavily influenced American thought and life for the past half century. The meaning of the term “fundamentalist” has acquired a derogatory sense. When we hear the term, our first thoughts are not about the fundamental beliefs that define a particular viewpoint. Instead our first thoughts are more likely to be about quaint, narrow, bigoted beliefs held by such individuals. Zizek is correct in assessing how we tend to view fundamentalism.

Unfortunately, we have so closely identified ourselves with this view of culture that it has also affected our religious lives as well. This results in faith becoming something we practice without really taking it seriously. We easily go through the motions – go to church, read the Bible, and pray – without really thinking about them that much. Once they are over for the day we forget them and move on. Dallas Willard, in The Spirit of the DisciplinesThe Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives notes that many Christians believe that being a Christian has nothing to do with actually following Jesus or being like him as long as we believe the proper things about Jesus. With this worldview, the major difference between good Christians and good non-Christians is that one attends church on Sunday and the other doesn’t. It explains why many of the problems, such as divorce rates, among Christians and non-Christians are virtually identical. We can actually find ourselves uncomfortable if we are around people who really do take their faith seriously. I personally ran into this in high school when my liberal pastor was upset with me because I was quietly reading my New Testament on the hour long school bus ride to school. He also threatened to kick my mother out of the church because she was involved in child evangelism. According to him it was OK to be Christian, only don’t let it affect your life too much. It was fine to be a cultural Christian, just not a committed one.

When we look at the men and women highlighted in the Bible, we see a much different picture. As a cultural Christian, Daniel would have eaten the king’s food and prayed behind closed doors. Instead he refused the king’s diet and prayed in front of the open window, knowing that it would likely get him in trouble. As cultural Christians his three friends would have bowed down, saying to themselves that they weren’t really worshipping the king. Instead they resolutely refused. Queen Esther went before the king, even though it might mean her death. Peter and John, when commanded to cease preaching about Jesus, replied that the Jewish leaders would have to judge whether it was better to obey them or God. Each one refused to go along with the culture. Each one took their faith very seriously.

We can’t escape our culture. Living in culture is part of being human. But we can intentionally decide that we will refuse to let it control our lives. We can model our lives after Jesus and live incarnational lives. We can pattern our lives after Jesus, living out his commands. As you examine your life, do you find yourself a cultural Christian or someone who is totally sold out to Jesus Christ?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

God's Paparazzi

I once saw an internet headline that read “Paris Hilton's Dogs Alive, Well and Very Pampered “. My immediate reaction was “who cares? Who would click on that headline to read an article about Paris Hilton’s dogs?” But then I thought of all the similar type headlines over the past few years detailing Britney Spear’s escapades. Obviously, since these headlines keep cropping up, someone must be reading them. If there was no interest, they would stop printing those types of articles. In the sports world, kids will often emulate the moves of those they idolize. Our society seems to have a fixation on celebrities, whether in the area of sports, entertainment or politics. Why is it that we have more attraction to and fascination with Tom Brady or Britney Spears or American Idol than we do with St Paul, St Augustine, Mother Teresa or Jesus? I wonder what this says about the society in which we live? Does it suggest that our priorities are out of whack? Sadly, I think it does. Celebrities have obtained an almost cult-like status. They are practically worshipped by their adoring fans. The frenzied attempts by the paparazzi to follow and report on their every movement points to this worshipful fixation our society has upon its celebrities. The paparazzi seek to discover every possible thing they can about the celebrity they want to know – what they eat, who they associate with, what they wear, what they say and think, etc. They go to great lengths to obtain this information, at times even risking their own lives or the lives of those they follow.

Sometimes we do the same in the church. We can become fixed on a particular pastor, TV evangelist or popular Christian musician. They can almost become an object of worship. In its extreme form such fixation becomes almost cult-like. Yet we often don’t have the same focus on God. The singleness of purpose which we have in other areas of life is never transferred to our relationship with God.

Why is it that we don’t have the same fixation on God? He is certainly more important than the celebrities. Yet he is often ignored or thought about only on Sundays. Why aren’t we Christians looked upon as the paparazzi who follow after God, seeking to know his every thought, word and deed? What does the existence of only a sparse number of Christian paparazzi say about our relationship with Him? Do we identify with them or do we find them uncomfortable? Are we willing to put forward as much risk in our pursuit of God as the paparazzi sometimes do in following the celebrities?

God desires that we be part of his paparazzi, sold out to knowing everything we can about him. He wants us to diligently study each of his attributes so that we can live like him. He seeks for us to live holy lives because he himself is holy. He calls us to have an intimate relationship with him. He wants us to live incarnationally, living Christ-like lives. But this requires that we have an in-depth acquaintance with him. We must have a paparazzi-like attitude, sold out to discovering who Jesus is and identifying with him. Unless we do this, we will not be able to live incarnationally.

What is your attitude? Is your attitude towards God similar to that of the paparazzi who follow after the celebrities? Are you sold out to God? Are you as excited about God as they are towards the celebrities they follow? Are you one of God’s paparazzi?

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Crushed Violets

In his fanciful play Ivan & Adolf: The Last Man in Hell Stephen Vicchio portrays Ivan Karamazov and Adolf Hitler as the last two denizens of Hell. The play follows the dialogue between them and their maid Sophie. Sophie makes the daily journey from Heaven to Hell over the course of several millennia to wait on them. The play deals with Ivan’s anger against Hitler for his atrocities. It also deals with his hatred of God which prevents him from being able to forgive. It also looks at Hitler’s being so wrapped up in himself that he has no feeling for those whose lives he destroyed, or for anyone else. Through their interchanges, Sophie attempts to help each man deal with love, forgiveness and compassion. At one point she tells Ivan about experiencing a sweet smell all day, later to discover that it was the smell of a violet which she had stepped on that stuck to her shoe. With each step its fragrance was released. She tells him “Forgiveness happens when the violet lends sweet fragrance to the heel that crushed it.” She also tells Adolf that “Revenge is the natural, automatic reaction to being deeply hurt. Forgiveness is an entirely creative art. It comes out of nowhere. It is completely unpredictable. For most humans it is incomprehensible.” Throughout the course of the play, Ivan learns to forgive and Adolf to show compassion towards Ivan. At the end, when Adolf is to be released from Hell, he declines, deciding to wait in Hell with Ivan until he is released.

While we might not overtly seek revenge for something done against us, we might still inwardly smile with satisfaction if a person who harmed us receives retribution from another’s hand. It can be difficult for us to love and forgive when we are affected personally. And yet such forgiveness and love, in God’s eyes, are not only possible, but are expected. As Jesus hung dying on the cross, looking out at the mass of humanity in front of him, he said “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” The sweet smell of forgiveness that exuded from the cross that day still has the same effect today. Stephen demonstrated this when he asked that the sin of those stoning him wouldn’t be held against them. Many of those martyred for their faith have said the same during their martyrdom. In more recent times we have seen the process that Sophie talks about at work in the forgiveness shown by the Amish towards the family of the man who murdered their children in their Amish school. For many people, the compassion they showered upon this family seemed incomprehensible. How could they do such a thing? Their forgiveness was created out of their love of God, for as Sophie tells Ivan “For you to love God, Ivan, you need God to have a human face.” Jesus saw the face of God in those who surrounded him as he hung on the cross and he loved them. Stephen saw God’s face in those throwing stones at him. And the Amish saw God’s face in the suffering of the wife and children of the man who murdered their own children and welcomed them in love. They opened the sweet smell of forgiveness to the heel that had crushed them. As we look out at the faces around us, can we say the same? In whose face do we see God? Are we willing to be bruised violets, lending God’s fragrance to the world?