Thursday, November 8, 2007

Counterculture, Story, and the Vocabulary of Faith

The kingdom of God is a counterculture; therefore, because the Church exists to proclaim and practice the presence of the kingdom, the people in churches should be thinking and living counterculturally.

As in all cultures, this counterculture has its own stories and vocabularies with which to tell these stories. The trick of course is articulating these stories with these vocabularies in ways that are translatable to those outside the culture but that still maintain the integrity of the stories and vocabularies.

Some examples of words and concepts that are good, that we should protect because they belong to the kingdom counterculture:
-- grace
-- atonement
-- redemption
-- Gospel

Those are words and concepts that are fuzzy outside their home culture. The mistake we make is when we abandon these words and concepts as "not useful" or "no longer meaningful" rather than to put them to good use and lend them meaning by both teaching them and living them.

William Willimon has a thought provoking post (sort of) on this subject this week. He writes:
Sometimes in leaning over to speak to the modern world, I fear that we may have fallen in! When, in our sermons, we sought to use our sermons to build a bridge from the old world of the Bible to the new modern world, the traffic was only moving in one direction on that interpretive bridge. It was always the modern world rummaging about in Scripture, saying things like "This relates to me," or, "I'm sorry, this is really impractical," or, "I really can't make sense out of that." It was always the modern world telling the Bible what's what.

I don't believe that the Bible wants to "speak to the modern world." Rather, I think the Bible wants to change, convert the modern world.

The modern world is not only the realm of the telephone, the telegraph, and allegedly "critical thinking," this world is also the habitat of Auschwitz, two of the bloodiest wars of history, and assorted totalitarian schemes which have consumed the lives of millions. Why would our preaching want to be comprehensible to that world?

Let's stop right there for a second. I reckon the idea that kingdom proclamation can and perhaps should be unintelligible to (some) people will strike many as objectionable. I remember a friend who was urging me to ponder a different teaching style bringing up the tried and true example of "Jesus using parables to illustrate and explain his teachings." He was somewhat surprised when I responded that "Yes, Jesus used parables to illustrate his teachings, but it wasn't so everyone would understand them." In fact, Jesus suggests he uses parables so some people wouldn't understand. Parables are like little "smart bombs" of truth that explode and overcome those whose hearts aren't calloused and whose eyes aren't blind. But those with God-eyes and God-hearts are instantly illuminated to the counterculural truth illustrated in the parables.

In addition, the very ethic of the kingdom proclaimed in the Sermon on the Mount is a code of behavior that only those with the hearts bent toward embodying it can ever come close to making sense of. Loving your enemies is not something someone outside the kingdom can ever understand. There is no ethical vocabulary for it, because a Jesus-honoring character can only be approximately understood as a religious theoretical virtue, not as a supernatural reality.

Willimon continues:
Rather than reaching out to speak to our culture, I think our time as preachers is better spent inculturating Twenty First Century Americans into that culture which is called church. There is no way that I can crank the gospel down to the level where any American can walk in off the street and know what it is all about within fifteen minutes. One can't even do that with baseball! You have to learn the vocabulary, the rules, and the culture in order to understand it. Being in church is something at least as different as baseball.

Forming the church through our speech, laying on contemporary Christians the stories, images, and practices which make us disciples is our most challenging task as preachers.

The point is not to speak to the culture. The point is to change it. God's appointed means of producing change is called church. God's typical way of producing church is called preaching.

I am not fully on board with every bit Willimon says, so far as he really means it and is not writing clumsily. I do think one valuable duty of kingdom counterculture is to speak to the culture, that one key aspect of kingdom proclamation is speaking to the culture. But I would agree that, even as we seek to speak articulately and clearly, we should maintain the counterculture's distinction by maintaining the counterculture's Story and vocabulary.

In this vein, the best and most powerful way the counterculture can speak to the culture is to practice what we preach in such a way that we are living parables illustrating the teaching we have hidden in our hearts.

1 comment:

Travis said...

I think I agree with everything you just said here.

Well, aside from your use of "counterculture," of course. ;)