“Johnny’s in the basement mixing up the medicine, I’m on the pavement thinking about the government. The man in the trench coat badge out, laid off says he’s got a bad cough wants to get paid off. Look out kid it’s something you did, God knows when but you’re doing it again. You better duck down the alley way lookin’ for a new friend. The man in the coonskin cap by the big pen wants eleven dollar bills you only got ten . . .” ~Bob Dylan~
In The World Dylan’s Subterranean Homesick Blues is all about alienation, isolation, and paranoia, which in my observations is an ever-present tension in the church. As believers in Jesus Christ we are supposed to be instruments of peace and redemption, which means being engaged in the world around us. Far too often the reality is entirely different.
We alienate ourselves from nonbelievers or isolate ourselves from the larger culture—we become paranoid about art and motives. Living out our faith is so much easier and safer when we are surrounded by other Christians so we’ve created this subculture where we attach the word Christian as a prefix to everything. We have Christian TV, Christian Radio, Christian Books, Christian Music, Christian cruises, Christian This, and Christian That.
Let me be clear: The world doesn’t need any more Christian writers, Christian musicians, Christian artists, or Christian movie makers. We are, however, desperate for writers, musicians, artists, and movie makers who are Christian. The difference is subtle, but radically real. I’m a Christian, but that doesn’t make me a Christian writer. I’m a writer who approaches the craft from a Biblical perspective and worldview.
The idea that attaching a Christian prefix to books, movies, music, or art somehow elevates it to a pure and righteous level is a fallacy that distorts and skews our thinking. It only serves to alienate and isolate us from nonbelievers, and causes us to become paranoid.
Jesus said that those who follow him are the salt of the earth—when he used that metaphor those first disciples comprehended the meaning completely. They were familiar with the practice of rubbing salt into fresh meat and fish to preserve it.
Scripture is fundamentally clear—God never intended his people to hide within a subculture. With discernment and discretion believers in Jesus Christ are to fully participate in society and make disciples as we go. This cannot occur when we put ourselves upon a Christian pedestal that separates us from others. We are to be on level and common ground so we can involve nonbelievers in serious dialog—this happens when we make friends and build meaningful relationships. There’s a fascinating story in Acts where we can learn much from the example set by Paul of Tarsus.
Acts 17:16-34 – NIV While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was greatly distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the God-fearing Greeks, as well as in the marketplace day by day with those who happened to be there. A group of Epicurean and Stoic philosophers began to dispute with him.
Some of them asked, “What is this babbler trying to say?” Others remarked, “He seems to be advocating foreign gods.” They said this because Paul was preaching the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.
Then they took him and brought him to a meeting of the Areopagus, where they said to him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.” (All the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there spent their time doing nothing but talking about and listening to the latest ideas.)
Paul then stood up in the meeting of the Areopagus and said: “Men of Athens! I see that in every way you are very religious. For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. Now what you worship as something unknown I am going to proclaim to you.
“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else. From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’
“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising him from the dead.”
When they heard about the resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered, but others said, “We want to hear you again on this subject.” At that, Paul left the Council. A few men became followers of Paul and believed. Among them was Dionysius, a member of the Areopagus, also a woman named Damaris, and a number of others.
Paul’s Example Take note that Paul didn’t alienate himself from nonbelievers, isolate himself from the culture, or become paranoid about the mores or values of Athens. Instead, he used their poets as an entrance point and platform to present truth.
Paul knew what he believed and why he believed it—he had worked through the dynamics of a God-centric worldview. We are to do likewise, which is extremely difficult to accomplish if we remain sequestered within a Christian bubble that allows us to put our brains on automatic pilot. To sort through these issues can be messy and problematic. It isn’t easy to connect with a culture that is rarely faith-friendly and often hostile to Christianity, but exactly where is it written that it’s supposed to be easy? We should never be threatened by people who challenge our faith. While interacting with others if there is a consistent error believers make it is this: We somehow think we have to defend God. Too many times we function on the defensive. We’ve got this deeply rooted idea that when someone says they don’t believe in God, it means that God is diminished or that our faith experience has been negated.
We seem to think that God—the Creator of the universe—needs us to validate him. Consider that concept for a moment, and one soon realizes the truly ludicrous nature of the idea. At Athens Paul demonstrated the practical application of what it means to embrace our mission as ambassadors.
Later in his life, in a letter to a cluster of believers at Corinth, Paul wrote: “We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ’s behalf: Be reconciled to God. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”
As though God were making his appeal through us. Make no mistake about it: God does not alienate or isolate himself from creation, and he is certainly not paranoid about the motives or machinations of those who refuse him. From everlasting to everlasting God pours out his mercy and grace—God is always in the business of restoration and redemption.
Gospel In Action “Give as ’twas given to you in your need. Love as the Master loved you; be to the helpless a helper indeed, unto your mission be true.” ~Ira B. Wilson~
Unfortunately the church aligns itself with politics, which can be a volatile and harmful mix. We attempt to bring about transformational change through a siege mentality with boycotts and legislation, but there is a much more relevant course to take. Rather than fostering a view of Christianity as just one more special interest group clamoring for a power base within our politics, we should attempt to show the gospel in action in every aspect of our lives.
We ought to strive to engage the culture in constructive ways through building friendships with nonbelievers and using our skills and talents to contribute positively to the culture. We need to question our assumptions about nonbelievers, and take the time to genuinely get to know people. That requires that we listen with interest and respect rather than trying to give them prepackaged answers to every issue in life. In my experiences real-world theology never comes wrapped up in a nice neat box.
People are not to be regarded as projects. We should see everyone as no different than us—individuals whom God loves. With that reality clear we ought to be intentional about building relationships with people that allow them to see Jesus at work in our lives.
One mistake that is often made is that we develop this division between the secular and the sacred. This compartmentalization is exacerbated by the Christian subculture, and is impossible to maintain—it’s detrimental to our witness because life is saturated with ambiguity and hardness.
We must understand that the sacred and profane mix in daily life. No one is all bad—no one is all good. We are all sinners who need to be redeemed. We all need Jesus.
Ambassadors Alienation, isolation, and paranoia are wedges that create dissension and roadblocks. Good ambassadors keep communication lines open and fully operational, which means working to eliminate points of contention and dismantling barriers.
Believers in Jesus Christ must be honest and vulnerable. Others need to see us working out our faith in the context of being human—others need to know that we fully understand that we’re not perfect, but that we trust in God’s grace to help us in all the ups and downs of life. It is essential to grasp that God desires to fulfill his purposes in our lives. A crucial part of that is living out our faith in front of a watching world that God is calling and beckoning to himself.