Living in a pluralistic culture in a fallen world means that our neighbors, co-workers, and friends do not necessarily share our deepest convictions and values. Our situation is similar to the time that the Old Testament people of God found themselves in exile in Babylon. In Jerusalem God’s word was the final authority, while in Babylon a wide variety of world views and religions competed for acceptance. This is why we find ourselves—at least occasionally and perhaps far more often than we’d like—in uncomfortable situations which require choices. Choices about which we feel uncertain, unsure, and unprepared. And because we are uncomfortable, we tend to simply react. We don’t exactly plan on things unfolding this way, of course. Reactions, after all, tend to just happen. Like what might transpire when we’re giving a coworker a drive home after work and they insist on being dropped off at a porn theater instead.
In his book Chameleon Christianity, Dick Keyes points out that Christians tend to react in two distinct ways. We tend to either accommodate or withdraw; to either compromise with our post-Christian culture or isolate ourselves from it; to either blend in or pull back. And though these are the ways we tend to react as individuals, they can also be identified corporately in the church at large. Among God’s people are pockets of both groups, each certain their reaction to the world is correct. So certain, in fact, that they look at the other tendency with deep suspicion, if not open hostility.
This two-fold pattern is not unique to Christians, but can be observed in any minority group that senses itself at odds with the wider culture. “Sociologists tell us,” Keyes writes, “that dissonant groups within a larger society react to reduce the potential for friction in two predictable ways. One is to compromise their distinctive beliefs and way of life and so reduce their conflict with society. The other is to keep their dissonance and tribalize, retreating within their own group and thus losing contact with society.” Some ethnic groups, for example, have quickly sought to disappear into the melting pot which is America, while others have formed little enclaves in an effort to maintain their cultural distinctiveness. Regardless of how natural this two-fold pattern seems to be, however, we must ask whether either accommodation or tribalism demonstrates Christian faithfulness in a pluralistic world.
Accommodation: The Chameleon Reaction
The first reaction is to tend to accommodate as much as possible, to go with the flow, to blend in so as not to make unnecessary waves. Christians who accommodate, Keyes says, act like chameleons in our post-Christian culture. They seek safety by blending in so as not to attract notice, by never doing anything that would cause them to stand out from the crowd. They want to be left alone by a hostile world, to live and to raise their family (if they have one) in relative peace and security.
So, for example, since intolerance is not tolerated in our pluralistic society, it’s easy for us to react to the pressure by quietly downplaying the radical claims of Christ. So we say Jesus is “my Savior,” and “my Lord,” but seldom if ever “Lord of all.” And it works; we find that not only do non-Christians not object to this limited claim, they may even be happy for us. “Glad Jesus works for you,” one man said enthusiastically when he learned I was a Christian. “What does it for me is being a Druid.”
Like all reactions, the process of accommodation is not very difficult once we begin down that path. Since divine judgment and hell are also not tolerated, they too can go unmentioned. Sin is on the taboo list also, of course, along with any mention of God’s law or absolute truth, since both are closely related to judgment. So we talk of love, God’s love, and what our faith brings us, of personal peace, or fulfillment, or the comforting sense that we aren’t alone in this lonely and fragmented world, and we let it go at that. People aren’t turned off, and since many churches are accommodating as well, no one need be offended.
What we’re actually doing, of course, though we may not realize it, is reducing the gospel to what the culture finds comfortable and acceptable. We’re accommodating to the world, even though our motivation may have seemed pure: a desire to gain a hearing, or to guard ourselves and our families from needless hostility. “Saltless salt pictures the Christian blending in with the surrounding society,” Keyes says, “just as a chameleon changes its color to blend in protectively with its surroundings. This is the Christian individual or group that adapts, accommodates, compromises, and is diluted. Like salt that has lost its taste, the Christian is useless to carry out Jesus’ purposes because dissonance with the world has been reduced to resonance or sameness. A distinctive Christian identity is lost, and there is nothing to offer the world that the world does not already have.”
Tribalism: The Musk Ox Reaction
The second reaction Christians tend to make is to withdraw from the culture, to pull back into the safety of home and church, and thus protect ourselves and those we love from a hostile world. We act like musk oxen, Keyes says, which rally around in a tight defensive circle when the herd is threatened by wolves. Our pluralistic culture is not only post-Christian, it is offensive and dangerous, so we pull back our lives into the circle of family and church where God’s word is still honored. Where we feel safe, confident, and at home, sheltered from both the temptations of the world and the onslaught of a decadent and immoral culture that has turned its back on God. Within the circle we maintain our distinctiveness with great vigor, but we maintain security by erecting a barrier between us and the society outside.
“Hidden light,” Keyes says, is the metaphor Jesus used for “Christian tribalism—the protective containment of Christian distinctiveness within a Christian ghetto or subculture. It entails Christian tribal dialects, tribal education, tribal music, tribal television, and even the Christian tribal yellow pages—all mystifying to those uninitiated into the tribe. Much time is spent reassuring the membership of the superiority of their beliefs and traditions over the terrible evils lying outside the fortress walls. The psychology of tribal life demands proscribed answers for most of life’s questions. The New Testament, however, does not give us enough of these rules to hold a tribe together; it allows far too much freedom. So when a church or Christian group becomes tribal, part of the process includes adding many rules and prohibitions to the ethics of the New Testament.” Rules about how children are to be educated, perhaps, or what movies are allowed, what music can be enjoyed, or any number of other issues in which faithfulness is reduced to legalism.
Since the tribe isolates itself, engaging non-Christians and the wider culture with the gospel becomes increasingly difficult. “Typically,” Keyes notes, tribalized Christians “will not know others socially who are not already Christians. Evangelism then becomes artificial and contrived, if not insensitive and belligerent.” One time, for example, after speaking at a weekend church conference, a woman told me she had been shocked at some of what I had said in my messages. My goal had been to identify and clarify some of the challenges we face as Christians in our pluralistic culture. To show from Scripture how we can be discerning, developing skill in thinking, speaking, and living so that we communicate the truth of the gospel in a way that can be understood. “I was shocked at what you said about what non-Christians believe and do,” she told me. “I couldn’t figure out why I was shocked, until I was listening to your sermon this morning. Then it dawned on me. I don’t know any non-Christians. We’re so busy home-schooling our children, plus all the activities at church—I simply don’t have time for non-Christians.”
Reacting to Reacting
Being reactionary in a fallen world—whether we accommodate like chameleons or withdraw in a protective circle as musk oxen—may seem so natural, so unplanned, and so utterly commonsensical at the time as to be hardly worth much consideration. The truth is, however, being reactionary reflects poorly on us as Christians, on our faith, and ultimately on our Lord.
For one thing, being reactionary makes us appear defensive and fearful. Both musk oxen and chameleons are reacting to a threat. We may have tasted hostility towards our faith, or a sense of shame at not having sufficient reasons for our convictions, or we may feel so deeply uncertain about what to say or do as a Christian that we react either by trying to disappear from view or by lashing out as a sort of cultural warrior for Christ.
Consider, by way of example, the following email that swept through Christian communities, warning them about the Harry Potter novels by J. K. Rowling (also detailed in Critique #8 – 2000, pp. 4-5):[quote]>>This is the most evil thing I have laid my eyes on in 10 years, and no one seems to understand its threat. The Harry Potter books are THE NUMBER ONE selling children’s books in the nation today. Just look in any bookstore window.
>>Harry Potter is the creation of a former UK English teacher who promotes witchcraft and Satanism. Harry is a 13 year old “wizard.” Her creation openly blasphemes Jesus and God and promotes sorcery, seeking revenge upon anyone who upsets them by giving you examples (even the sources with authors and titles) of spells, rituals, and demonic powers.
>>I think the problem is that parents have not reviewed the material. Let me give you a few quotes from some of the influenced readers themselves:
>>“The Harry Potter books are cool, ‘cause they teach you all about magic and how you can use it to control people and get revenge on your enemies,” said Hartland, WI, 10 year old Craig Nowell, a recent convert to the New Satanic Order Of The Black Circle.
>>And here is dear Ashley, a 9 year old, the typical average age reader: “I used to believe in what they taught us at Sunday School,” said Ashley, conjuring up an ancient spell to summon Cerebus, the three-headed hound of hell. “But the Harry Potter books showed me that magic is real, and that the Bible is nothing but boring lies.”
>>DOES THIS GET YOUR ATTENTION!! If not, how about a quote from the author herself, J. K. Rowling: “I think it’s absolute rubbish to protest children’s books on the grounds that they are luring children to Satan,” Rowling told a London Times reporter in a July 17 interview. “People should be praising them for that! These books guide children to an understanding that the weak, idiotic Son of God is a living hoax who will be humiliated when the rain of fire comes.”
>>Please FWD to every pastor, teacher, and parent you know. This author has now published FOUR BOOKS in less than 2 years of this “encyclopedia of Satanism” and is surely going to write more. Pray for this lost woman’s soul. Pray also for the Holy Spirit to work in the young minds of those who are reading this garbage that they may be delivered from its harm. [end quote]
Set aside for a moment the errors of fact in this email. Set aside also the foolish claim that “sources” for sorcery are included in the stories, since the books of magic used by Potter consist of such titles as One Thousand Magical Herbs and Fungi by Phyllida Spore, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Newt Scamander, and A Beginners Guide to Transfiguration by Emeric Switch. Set aside the fact that the quote by Rowling is not from an interview in The London Times, but from The Onion, a national satirical newspaper that publishes fictional spoofs on topics appearing in the news. Set all that aside for the moment, and consider instead merely the tone or flavor of this emailed warning. Reflect on the impression such a reaction might leave on a thoughtful non-Christian. Or on a child who overhears the warnings being passed around in Christian circles. Would the impression be one of quiet confidence that Christ is risen from the dead, and is therefore triumphant over death and Satan? An assurance that the gospel is the power of God who is bringing all things to their appointed end in Christ? An eagerness to discuss the world view of neo-paganism in light of the claims of the gospel? Or is there something of fearfulness here, a bit of defensiveness?
We need to train our children to respond to the claims of neo-paganism, but surely we should begin that training by demonstrating a quiet confidence in the claims of Christ. We would be wiser to applaud the interest in spirituality which is sweeping the culture, and invite a closer examination of the book which reveals Jesus in all his glory. Though the author of this email means well, the hysteria surrounding the Harry Potter books is simply another instance of Christian tribalism. As a reaction to a set of children’s books it makes us appear both fearful and defensive, when we have no reason to be either. In this regard, we should be willing to learn from the mistakes of previous generations. The tendency of early Fundamentalists to withdraw from the culture and the life of the mind similarly cast Christian faith in negative terms. “Withdrawal encouraged fanaticism and paranoia in them,” Jewish scholar Alan Wolfe says, “and confirmed to others a sense that if this was religion, they were better off without it.”
The chameleon reaction also makes Christians appear afraid and defensive. Shying away from certain topics, or talking about only parts of the faith, or deflecting questions that make us uncomfortable all give the impression of fearfulness. The impression is given that perhaps what we believe won’t stand up to close scrutiny after all, or that there aren’t good and sufficient reasons to believe in Christ. That’s not what we intend, of course, but that doesn’t change how those around us view our evasiveness.
The second problem with reacting, at least in the accommodating or chameleon variety, is that it weakens the very faith it sets out to protect. Blending in so that the gospel has nothing new to say to a lost and dying world is not faithfulness but cowardice. Diluting the gospel until a post-Christian culture is comfortable with it is to dilute it until it becomes something less than the gospel. No thoughtful unbeliever will take our message seriously if we have nothing radical or worthwhile to offer. With nothing distinctive to say, we have no reason to be heard.
The third problem with reacting, particularly in the tribal variety, is that it makes us seem negative and judgmental as Christians. It’s in the nature of reacting to zero in on areas of disagreement rather than agreement. After all, if we didn’t disagree there would be no need to react in the first place. When my wife and I host discussion groups and seminars, for example, in order to help people develop skill in discernment, we always insist that before we identify where we disagree with the film or article (or whatever), we first identify where we agree as Christians. Not only does this lend balance to the discussion, it transforms the tone of the interaction and changes the atmosphere in the room. Many believers are so used to reacting negatively to things that agreeing before saying anything else comes as something of a shock. Repeatedly we’ve been told that this simple discernment exercise has revolutionized how they see and respond to things. It’s not that we shouldn’t disagree when necessary, but that there is a profound difference between disagreeing and merely being disagreeable.
Instead of Reacting, be Discerning
Faithfulness for the Christian involves more than simply reacting to things, which only makes us look defensive and fearful, weak and negative. Because God has revealed himself in the living Word who is Jesus, and in the written word, the Scriptures, our minds and hearts and imaginations can be renewed so that we are discerning, able to see things increasingly from God’s point of view. An ability to think and talk about the issues and questions that arise about what we believe, and why. An ability to respond winsomely to those who see things differently than we do, instead of merely reacting to the ideas, values, and behavior of the non-Christians around us. An ability to think and live biblically even when we’re confronted with situations that are not specifically mentioned in the Bible.
Unlike reacting, which merely happens, discernment is a skill that must be learned and practiced until it becomes a habit of the heart. It changes not only our posture in a fallen world, but the impression we leave as well. We are called to be neither chameleons nor musk oxen, but the people of God. We need not accommodate to the world nor withdraw from it for the simple reason that someone far greater than the world has promised to never leave nor forsake us.