Saturday, December 16, 2017

Our individualistic context

I'm very tempted to park on this theme of community at some length. Why? Simply put, this is an area in which our culture stands in direct opposition to the Bible.

It's hard for the average westerner (meaning, western Europe and North America) to understand just how different we are from people in the Bible. Not just the heroes of the Bible (if there is any such thing -- they're all a pretty sinful lot) but everyone in the Bible had radically different understandings of themselves than we're used to. One huge difference -- perhaps the main difference -- is our assumption of individualism.

When you meet a person, you do just that. You meet a person. When you introduce yourself, you introduce yourself as a person. That's so obvious that it hardly needs saying, right? To us, yes. We see ourselves as individuals first, and only second as part of a larger family, community, society, culture. We have a hard time imagining that a person could see themselves as anything other than just an individual.

That is EXACTLY why this is so important -- we just assume our view is true. But the Bible has a very different frame of reference, and we can't even see it.

What would it look like to see yourself first as part of a community, and only later, less importantly, as a particular individual? Think about some of the most basic structures of our lives. Remember report cards? A report card is a measure of the individual's knowledge, skill, or achievement. It doesn't measure relationships or the achievement of the whole class or the entire school. It reflects on the individual. We assume that's the way it should be. Or think about sports -- you try out for the basketball team or the gymnastics team or the volleyball team or the track team. Team sports, right? But even in team sports, individual athletes are measured individually to see if they're an asset to the team or not. And we track individual statistics. (By the way, the whole "fantasy football" thing takes this to a huge extreme -- we divorce an athlete from their team context and use their individual statistics to create a pretend "team" made up of pure individual achievement. It's a peculiarly western practice.)

The Bible sees people as part of a community. Abraham is a significant individual precisely because God used him as an individual to give birth to a new nation. But even Abraham was firmly rooted in his community -- both the one he came from and the one God was creating through him --, as you clearly see if you read Genesis. David was an outstanding individual, but read 1 Samuel 23 and see how dependent he was on the community of warriors that surrounded him. And that's just one aspect of the wider community that made David famous. Paul was as close to a true "individual" as we find in the Bible, but even Paul didn't travel alone -- he constantly took companions. He planted communities and considered himself a part of them. Read the last few verses of any of his letters to see how completely intertwined his life was with many, many others. And when he defines himself, he does so by talking about the communities that shaped him and gave him identity (see Philippians 3:5, for example). When was the last time you introduced yourself to someone you just met by describing three or four groups you belong to that shape your identity? No, you probably gave them your name and your job.

The problem with this individualistic approach is that we assume faith happens on the individual level. We assume that "believing in Jesus" is an individual decision or practice. We assume that having a healthy spiritual life is about my individual spiritual disciplines. None of these ideas are biblically supported. In the Bible, faith is a community thing. The individual is baptized into community, comes to faith as part of a family and church, receives communion under the command to "discern the body" of Christ -- a clear reference to the wider church, not a magical understanding of the bread and wine used in the meal (see 1 Corinthians 11).

Precisely because our assumptions about reality are so far from the Bible in this area -- we think, live, eat, shop, work and play as individuals -- we need to go above and beyond to learn what the Bible says about the stewardship of the community and what the church needs to do in this context. We need to learn to read -- and live -- with new understandings.

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