Notes from New York on Christ and Culture:
"Transformed Nonconformity"

For Sunday August 21, 2011

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Exodus 1:8–2:10 or Isaiah 51:1–6

Psalm 124 or Psalm 138

Romans 12:1–8

Matthew 16:13–20

           Two weeks ago my wife and I traveled to New York for my nephew's wedding. After the wedding, we spent a week in that great city hiking, biking, and going to shows. In some ways our first day was the best day, when we saw the Harlem Gospel Choir at the B.B. King Blues Club right off Times Square. Yes, we were at ground zero in Gotham, but the choir's music was ministry and not just entertainment. These believers were living very much in the world but were proclaiming an other worldly message — just like Paul commends in this week's epistle.

The Harlem Gospel Choir.
The Harlem Gospel Choir.

           That was Sunday. Monday we walked ten miles down Broadway and across the Brooklyn Bridge, which took us past more believers bearing witness in the secular city — Trinity Episcopal Church at the intersection of Broadway and Wall Street, St. Patrick's Catholic Cathedral on East 51st Street, and Fifth Avenue Presbyterian where friends of ours attended. Biking around the 32-mile greenway took us near the interdenominational Riverside Church and Abyssinian Baptist Church up in Harlem — founded in 1808 as the first black church in the city.

           Monday night we saw Rock of Ages, a musical based upon rock hits from the 1980s. We loved the magic of live music, dancing, singing, lighting, costume design, technical effects, etc., but the raunchy humor made us uneasy. After the show I joked to my wife, "Now I know why the believers in Rome debated whether to attend the blood games in the amphitheater."

           In the epistle for this week Paul calls the believers in Rome to be transformed by God rather than conformed to the world. That's not easy because of the tension between two truths that we should never relinquish. On the one hand, God created the world as "very good" (Genesis 1:31). We experience creation goodness every day, whether in a Broadway musical, the beauty of a sunset, or the pleasure of a meal with friends. God loves this good world (John 3:16), and so should we. We rightly embrace the world and should never abandon it.

           But the world is not only loved but lost. After the original goodness came original sin, alienation, and a "fall." We experience this every day, too, in the world at large like the famine in Somalia, and in our own hearts with what Augustine described in his Confessions as the "bewildering variety of desires tugging at the will." Believers are thus wary of the ways of the world, whether in raunchy humor on Broadway, greed on Wall Street, or power-mongering in Washington.

           One of my favorite sermons captures this ambivalence. It's by Martin Luther King from the book Strength to Love. The sermon is based on the epistle for this week, Romans 12:1–2: “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind” (NIV). With typical eloquence and brilliance, King captures the essence of this text in just two words that I have always loved: transformed nonconformity.

The Rock of Ages musical.
The Rock of Ages musical.

           King observes how the pressures for cultural conformity, to “condition our minds and feet to move to the rhythmic drumbeat of the status quo,” are immense. Nevertheless, followers of Jesus have a higher loyalty than conformity to respectability. Living in time and for eternity, Christians need to discover ways to live very much in the world but not of the world. We should never abandon the world, nor should we assimilate to it. We must make history, says King, and not be shaped by history.

           Some times we forget that the world is fallen, and that God calls us to be “strangers and aliens” in this world (1 Peter 1:1, 17; 2:11). When we forget this reality, we conform and assimilate to culture. At other times we forget that the world is ultimately "very good" (Genesis 1:31), and so we separate from and condemn the world as irredeemably evil. We should steer a middle course between these two extremes; we should love and engage the world without separating ourselves from it or allowing ourselves to be uncritically integrated into it.

           Most people, says King, “are thermometers that record or register the temperature of majority opinion, not thermostats that transform and regulate the temperature of society.” Social scientists tell us, for example, that believers divorce at the same rate as the general population, we watch the same films and television shows, we read the same books, we give the same percentage of our income to charity as others, our teenagers have pre-marital sex at the same rate as other kids, and so forth. The church, King reminds us, has defended slavery and racial discrimination, wars and economic exploitation. We participated in the Holocaust.

           We swallow cultural propaganda hook, line, and sinker. We believe that sexual pleasure should be unlimited, that politics is the most important news, that poverty (not wealth) is the worst thing that could ever happen to a person, that a risky investment provides so-called security, that physical health is my right, and that whatever is technologically possible is scientifically imperative (even though it might be morally ambiguous).

           Non-conformity by itself is nothing special. Here in California where I live, non-conformists are everywhere. They ride funny bikes, experiment with alternative energy, eat organic foods, dress down instead of up, and flaunt what they think is an independent spirit, but which often is merely a different type of social conformity. Sometimes, says King, non-conformity is little more than exhibitionism. In contrast, the non-conformity that Paul describes in Romans 12 has a specific direction, which is Christ-likeness through a “renewed mind.”

           The French sociologist Jacques Ellul (1912–1994) encouraged believers to move from being "negatively maladjusted" to the world to being "positively maladjusted." King says something similar: “There are some things in our world to which men [sic] of goodwill must be maladjusted. I confess that I never intend to become adjusted to the evils of segregation and the crippling effects of discrimination, to the moral degeneracy of religious bigotry and the corroding effects of narrow sectarianism, to economic conditions that deprive men [sic] of work and food, and to the insanities of militarism and the self-defeating effects of physical violence.” Christian non-conformity, in other words, has a specific direction.

Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.
Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem.

           Hope for our world rests in creatively and positively maladjusted believers, says King. This week’s text from Exodus 1:8–2:10 provides an example of nonconformity in relation to the powers of this world, in contrast to conformity to God’s redemptive purposes. The Israelites were in Egyptian bondage, increasing in number and power, when Pharaoh gave the order for infanticide — to terminate all the male Hebrew births. But the midwives defied the state authorities because, the text says, “they feared God” rather than Pharaoh (Exodus 1:17). Later, when asked what had happened, they covered up their civil disobedience by lying (v. 19).

           Non-conformity isn't easy. King, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, paid the ultimate price when James Earl Ray assassinated him as he stood on the balcony of a Memphis hotel. When I suggested King’s sermon to a church small group fifteen years ago, one couple took a cursory look at what King had to say, judged that they had no interest in his message, then quit the group. But Paul is clear about the general direction of the journey with Jesus: transformed non-conformity.

For further reflection

           Writing at the end of the second century, Tertullian boasted that believers had permeated every level of Roman society: "We are only of yesterday and have filled everything you have: cities, apartment blocks, forts, towns, marketplaces, even the military camps, tribes, town councils, the palace, the senate, the forum. We have left you only the temples." In his next chapter, Tertullian gives a different impression: "We Christians shrink from all burning desires for renown and position… there is nothing more foreign to us than affairs of state" (Apol. 37.4; 38.3).

           Were there believers in the Roman senate?! Or would a conscientious believer back then have shunned such a worldly place? You can read Tertullian either way. Two centuries later came a remarkable historical paradox: the greatest persecutor of the church (the Roman state) became its biggest supporter (Constantine) and the center of its ecclesiastical power (the Roman papacy).

           Then there's the pagan critic Caecilius in the Octavius by Felix Minucius, writing about the same time as Tertullian. Caecilius complains about the Christians: "They despise our temples as being no more than sepulchers, they spit after our gods, they sneer at our rites, and, fantastic though it is, our priests they pity — pitiable themselves; they scorn the purple robes of public office, though they go about in rags themselves" (8.3-4). He continues: "You do not go to our shows, you take no part in our processions, you are not present at our public banquets, you shrink in horror from our sacred games, from food ritually dedicated by our priests, from drink hallowed by libation poured upon our altars. Such is your dread of the very gods you deny. You do not bind your head with flowers, you do not honor your body with perfumes; ointments you reserve for funerals, but even to your tombs you deny garlands; you anemic, neurotic creatures, you indeed deserve to be pitied — but by our gods. The result is, you pitiable fools, that you have no enjoyment of life while you wait for the new life which you will never have… If you have not been privileged to understand the concerns of a citizen, you most surely have been denied discussion of the affairs of heaven" (12:5-7).

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