I was asked to attend a conference this Fall to give a presentation entitled, “Excuse me, your ideology is showing: Slavoj Zizek & the megalomania of Christian sub-culture.” I had to turn it down for a number of reasons, which is okay, because between me and you, the title was the best part of the presentation. Besides, what can follow a badass title like that?
But since I won’t be presenting it there, I figure I would present a simpler version here.
My point was simply this: The Christian message in America has largely tied itself to the very modern notion of progress and megalomania. And if we aren’t careful, as the culture becomes cynical toward and rejects that narrative, they will reject the gospel as well.
The most concrete example of how we have tied ourselves to modern notions of progress & megalomania is the phenomenon of The Purpose Drive Life and its hundreds of copy-cats. Perhaps that was okay. After all, maybe we were just being good missionaries, tying the message of the Gospel to a cultural relevant medium: achievement/purpose/doing great things. After all, who wouldn’t want to buy a story that told them they were destined for “great things,” typically being vague about what that means exactly. And, let’s be honest, this message has absolutely driven the Christian economy for about a decade now (yes, economy, you know, like Christian bookstores, speaking circuits, celebrity pastors preaching messages of megalomania for the hurting masses – there is a lot of money in the Christian economy).
But what is dangerous is when we actually believe that the narrative of megalomania “really is” the narrative of the gospel. That is, when we do not recognize that the language we use to talk about what the Gospel is, is simply cultural ideology or, to put it more simply, our interpretation/translation of the Gospel, we run the risk of being very bad missionaries. This is especially true when we have married the gospel to the current cultural narrative and that narrative begins to fall out of favor with the culture.
What happens, for instance, when we move from a culture of modernity, where we all agree that progress is a good and where we still believe that we are all destined for greatness to a culture of postmodernity, where we all agree that progress is illusory at best, a narrative of oppression from the powerful at worst, and where many are well on their way toward rejecting the systems, institutions, and technologies that have deceived them about their potential for “greatness.”
If we have marriedthe gospel to the modern narrative of progress and “doing great things” then as people reject that narrative and feel deceived by that narrative, they will reject the gospel and feel deceived by that gospel. After all, wasn’t the “good news” of Jesus the same as the “good news” of the American institutions, politicians, and systems?
What Can We Do About It? I have a lot more thinking to do about how this is already being done (which it is, more and more every day) and new ways we can approach it. But here are a few . . .
Admit that Your Gospel is Limited: One of the best things I ever did was become friends with Christians from other countries, both Europe, Africa & South America. Most of them couldn’t care less about doing great things for God. They want to be faithful, not great. Once we begin to see the shape of global Christianity then we can see how the shape of our Christianity is not the only shape. That doesn’t mean our translation of the Gospel is wrong or right. It most likely means that some of it is right and some of it is wrong. But until we are exposed to the Global Christ we aren’t able to imagine something other.
Humbly Listen to Younger Christians: This is the thorn in the flesh of every generational shift. The youngsters are idealistic and rebellious. When they are older they will be just like us. The old-timers are jaded and stuck. They were just like us at one time. But if we are going to be good missionaries in an ever-evolving culture, at some point we must trust the translation of the Gospel of a new generation. But to do that we must admit that our gospels are limited (see above) and that perhaps Christianity can look much different than what we have practiced and still be centered on Christ.
Stay Centered on Christ: There is no way around it. We will always be influenced by our culture. But if we would learn to keep Christ at the center then we would be less likely to create false narratives that are rejected by our culture.
Let our Bibles Read Us: Of course, we often read our Bible through cultural lenses. That’ how we started marrying culture to the Bible in the first place. But there are some important minority voices in our Bible that critique our current megalomania. In fact, I preached through Ecclesiastes once in a series call The Purposeless Life. The prophets, Ecclesiastes, the Exodus narrative, and Job all have very important critiques of our current narrative. Let them do their job.
What are other ways?