I grew up with a few basic beliefs about the culture in which I lived. I believed it was normal for a kid to have both a mom and a dad. Dads were hard working and moms were nurturers. The vast majorities of families lived by basic Christian moral values, even if they were not Christians themselves. So things like excessive consumption of alcohol or use of illegal drugs were, in my understanding, universally frowned upon. Sexual promiscuity (once I got old enough to understand the concept) was also a Bad Thing. Everyone shared a basic understanding that you take care of your own business and you help people who are in need, whether that means they're stranded at the side of the road or needing help getting a crop off the field. Private property was to be respected but not hoarded. Guns were something nearly everybody had and they were a tool, not a weapon.
There were some deeper truths as well that we didn't talk about, but we all lived. Nobody liked the government much, but we all had a sense of loyalty to the USA. Government was a necessary evil, and the people who ran it were fallible humans who needed to be both trusted and kept within strict limits. Political parties were different tools to work toward political goals that we all shared -- basic safety for citizens, freedom enough to allow opportunity, and an economy that provides adequate return for a good day's work. We all lived with the simple idea that if you broke the law, you would be punished, but within the boundaries of not hurting others or damaging their property, a little rebellion could be a lot of fun.
I know there was a lot of idealism in my upbringing, and in many ways I was incredibly sheltered. But I can't escape the sense today that the culture and I have been on divergent pathways since I was born. I have been drifting one direction, and the culture in which I live has been spiraling in another. Normally I'm fairly comfortable with this divergence, but every now and then it gets stuck in my throat.
Somewhere along the way -- it was October of 1983 for those who are keeping track -- my whole life got caught up in an idea that Jesus called "the kingdom of God." At this point my more-or-less comfortable Christianity took a subtle turn. Instead of being a Christian, I became a Jesus-follower. Instead of living to find my place in a culturally shared dream of peace and freedom with Christian moral principles, I would give my life for Jesus Christ and his kingdom regardless of what the surrounding culture did.
I was living in Seattle at the time, and the culture in the Pacific Northwest was quite different from the rural Minnesota agri-culture where I grew up. Seattle was secular through and through; Christians were a small minority. It was much easier in that context to understand that following Jesus might mean opposition from (or to) the surrounding culture. All in all I spent nine years in the Pacific Northwest and those years deeply shaped my understanding of Jesus-following as a minority way of life. During those years many things Jesus said in the New Testament began to make a stark kind of sense, for example: "In this world you will have trouble, but take heart; I have overcome the world." Seeing Jesus not in partnership with the surrounding culture but in tension with it became a way of life.
When my family moved back to Minnesota in 1995, I saw my original context with new eyes. The cultural drift that was so obvious in the Northwest was just a little more subtle in the Midwest. Minneapolis was on the same cultural path as Seattle, just ten or fifteen years behind. Cable TV was the great unifier. As we all watched MTV and VH-1 everyone began to think the same, look the same, act the same. Even tiny pockets of countercultural expression like punk and grunge and body piercing had to be expressed within very narrowly prescribed boundaries, though the people expressing themselves thought they were all rebellious and free. This unification of thought and expression only intensified as the internet swept us all up in a grand tsunami of information overload during the late 1990's and into the 21st century.
Now in 2012 I have become accustomed to reading the news from the perspective of a cultural minority. Today I am convinced that people are inherently sinful, that we are willfully broken and rebellious, in tension with a culture that tries to find the good at the core of every individual. I believe that humans are called to interdependent corporate existence, and that unfettered individual expression is both the root of most human misery and the delight of hell. I believe that in material terms, getting everything I want is the worst thing that can happen to me. (Do a little research on what happens to those unfortunate individuals who win the lottery.) I believe that without suffering, life rapidly grows self-indulgent, tasteless and futile. I believe that public opinion polls are meaningless and cultural icons are the pinnacle of foolishness (think Lady Gaga, and then apply the same revulsion backward to Michael Jackson and the Beatles).
It's not that I'm against all these things, but I am dedicated to following Jesus, and I stand where he stands. So when I see things in the culture that tend to keep people away from him -- American Idol, for example, or rampant debt, or youth athletic leagues -- I turn away from those things. More importantly, I try to turn toward Jesus, to follow him. I take what he says seriously.
So I still believe that too much alcohol is a bad thing, but so is too much moralism. I believe that in God's intention, a man is designed to commit himself to one woman for life come hell or high water (regardless of what his momentary emotions might tell him, regardless of whether the relationship is making him happy this week), and that in losing his identity, his sanity, and his selfishness in that relationship he will find life. That's why marriage is a covenant. I also believe that standing back and evaluating the conduct of others to decide if what they're doing is okay is a dangerous path that will end with me condemning myself. I believe that I'm responsible for my neighbor's well-being, without being codependent.
In the end, the way I view my role in this culture has changed. I no longer see myself as one among many who share basically the same beliefs. Instead, I see that Jesus-followers are called to live in this culture in tiny pockets of salt, pockets of yeast. We are to live in loving tension with our neighbors and their plasma screens and payment plans and hockey schedules. We are not to give in to their ways of life; we are not to think as they think about the nature of reality, about what constitutes the Good Life, the appropriateness of a couple moving in together, starting a family, and then thinking about getting married. We are not called to agree with the culture about the truth of the belief that "you should act on your feelings" or about the relative value of Obamacare or Rush Limbaugh's latest rant.
We are a people called out of the culture (in Greek the church is ek klesia, the ones called out), called to follow Jesus, and then sent back into the world as citizens of another kingdom, of what Jesus called "the kingdom of God". Our loyalty is not to this system. We live here as foreigners, as exiles, yearning for a day when the king will come and set things right in this place. In whatever ways we can, we are called to begin now to prepare the way for that day, for his coming. We create pockets of his kingdom, his rule, here and now. We should not be surprised when the majority culture misunderstands us or mocks us. We should not fear what they fear. We should not expect sympathy or support. This is one reason we need to be banded together in pockets of Jesus-followers, for the same reason mountain climbers rope themselves together on tricky slopes. We live in danger of falling, of losing our focus on Jesus and returning to the world's ways.
In a culture drifting to whatever new fascination, whatever new polestar of relative truth comes across Facebook this week, we are called to "fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith." It can be an uncomfortable life that constantly calls us to live in tension with so much that we see and hear. Amid the cacophony of strident voices calling us to follow this or that cause, this or that agenda, this or that truth, we strive to focus, strive to see, strive to hear the voice of Jesus, who said, The thief comes to steal, and kill, and destroy; I came that they might have life, and have it abundantly. My sheep know my voice, and they follow me, and no one can snatch them out of my hands.