Monday, October 23, 2023

Engaging the World

Over the long weekend, my niece and I were talking about a television show that she said she really likes. I confessed that I had never seen it and asked what it was about, and she responded with a kind of timid, "You wouldn't like it...." When I asked why she thought I wouldn't like it, she said, "Because you are, uhm, very Christian." 

After a quick second to gather myself, I simply said, "I don't think that means what you think it means." 

My niece has grown up in, and still inhabits, what Christians would generally refer to as "the world." That is, she hasn't really been exposed to church or to Christianity. She hasn't had a lot of close contact with the faith. So what she believes about Christianity is largely shaped by stereotypes, many of which are still being portrayed in popular media. And, of course, probably TikTok. Or whatever. (I'm not really all connected in that way.) 

But it grieved me to hear her say that her understanding of Christianity is shaped by what Christians oppose. The things they can't engage with. The things they won't engage with. The things they sit back and judge and condemn. 

Are we really still living in a world that has this understanding of us?

For me, the faith has never been about the untouchable things. It's never been about judging or condemning the things the world is into. Rebuking them sometimes, sure. Proving them wrong when necessary, absolutely. But not just outright condemning things and refusing to engage. 

I can't think of a single time that Jesus ever said, "That's too sinful. I'm out." Although we do see Him not succumbing to the lowest common denominator Himself. 

That is, He engaged, but He didn't entertain. 

And then, even through the example of Peter, God showed us that nothing in this world is unclean. At least, not in the terms that we should say, "I'm not going there." 

As I reflected on this, which on the surface seemed so simple to me, I realized it was not actually so simple at all. 

On the one hand, I want to live a faith that shows my niece - and the rest of the world - that there's nothing I'm afraid to engage. There's nothing I'm afraid to get my hands dirty with. There's nothing I'm afraid to touch. There's nothing in this world that is "off-limits" in terms of where I can go to meet human beings who bear the image of God in them. 

This is the kind of Christianity that isn't afraid to be seen in a bar, though it wouldn't be drinking to excess. It's the kind of Christianity that walks boldly into a brothel, not to buy a woman, but to free her. It's the kind of Christianity that is somehow there when the addict ODs, but won't ever put a needle in its own arm. This is an important part of what it means to be a Christian, for me - it's being in the dirty, broken, discarded places when a fellow image-bearer needs a brother or sister. 

So let's watch this television show you're really into, kiddo. The one you think I won't be able to tolerate because I'm "very Christian." 

But in the very second that I was thinking this thought, I realized that it's not so easy. 

Because at the same time that I want to show that Christianity doesn't need to shelter itself from the world, I realize that if I look too much like the world that she knows, she will never understand the value of the Christian faith. She will never understand what it really means to be a Christian. She will go from an understanding of Christianity that looks so dramatically different from the world (on purpose) to an understanding of Christianity that looks completely the same as the world. 

And if the faith looks the same as the life without faith, what does that tell the world about Christ? 

It's a tough line to engage. A really tough one. How do you live a set-apart, holy life while engaging a secular world? How do you make that meaningful - both for the world and for the faith? 

We'll dive into this over the next few days and see if we can tease some things out. Because actually, it's more tangled even than this.... 

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