Imagine landing in flyover country. Perusing the clothing options at Shepler’s left my friend Barry only too happy his luggage arrived safely. He noted on his blog, "Took a walk to acquaint myself with the area and found nothing but
hotels and Shipleys [Shepler’s] Western Wear, the "world’s largest cowboy retailers"–surprisingly, I found nothing in the place I would wear." Images of landing in another country churned through my mind as I read of the experience of my transplanted British friend come to Oklahoma for a couple of days at Southern Nazarene University.
We shared a drink at Starbuck’s in the afternoon and I made part of his presentation last evening (Tuesday). (For some of my interlocutors who consider a link or a mention to illustrate total agreement, know this, Barry and I are friends yet there are some places he is willing to travel in the theological universe to which I do not have transportation.)
One of the peculiar things must have been the discussion between college students in class at a Nazarene university in Oklahoma and a sound engineer for a heavy metal band turned Jesus follower, theologian, adjunct professor, instructor in advertising and art. Questions of worldliness and holiness will forever follow Barry. Some will abide his nuances while others will dismiss both them and he.
Barry responded to a few questions about worldliness and holiness in the evening session that set me to thinking. Our traditional understanding of holiness follows on socially accepted behavioral contracts negotiated from idiomatic phrases like, "In the world but not of the world." Our explanation of what this looks like tends toward the superficial. Ever hear the one, "Do you know the only place [fill in your denominational home] don’t recognize one another? In the [fill in those places considered taboo]."
Our connections to "worldliness" extend much deeper. Barry offered the following as an illustration of just how deep consumer culture infects our understanding of Christianity and so the Church. We become disenchanted with our church of choice for the moment and we refer to our condition as, "Not being fed." Which, according to Barry, really means we don’t like the place anymore and so we will shop around. We actually refer to those who are looking for a church as "shopping!" Consider the normal grocery store carries nearly 50,000 products including a variety of any one product and you see how we need to get just the right one. Once our mustard of choice no longer adds the right spice, we simply look for another brand with differing ingredients.
Stephen Shields notes recent studies of the nearly 350,000 churches in a country of nearly 300,000,000 people singling out the top 22 "Light House Churches" and the top 250 to "watch." Doug Pagitt recently pointed to an increase in church attendance by the National Council of Churches. (I also know Doug. These stats may help him make some point. However, for this Southern Baptist to read more than 16 million with an increase of .02% fails to take in the reality that no one actually believes 16 million Southern Baptists regularly attend church. Doug, we honestly have trouble finding half of those.) I offer these two reports as a way to indicate an attempt to see what’s cooking and who’s eating where; also, consumer images.
We are likely more "worldly" than we care to admit. Students polled by Barry indicated they attend movies, buy music and go to places normally considered taboo and yet ask the question about holiness in terms of other socially stigmatized choices. Defining worldly in our context is still the prerogative of those who prefer to keep the gate than point to grace. Since the subtleties of the new forms of worldliness go unnoticed we have re-contextualized holiness. Mind you we have only done this in practice as we still hold on to former forms of holiness as the preferred way.
Consider the way in which Jesus sought to re-contextaulize holiness. (I know you are about to stop reading, call my church and deem me heretical at this point. Stay longer and maybe you will abide my assertion.) In Matthew 23 it could be argued the woes Jesus gives regarding the Pharisees tend toward undermining a holiness more burdensome than people could perform. Desiring purity in all things, the Pharisees spent more time saying than doing and certainly offered no help in keeping the very laws intended to illustrate one’s holiness or the reflect of the character of God. So Jesus allows threshing and healing on the Sabbath. He fails to require a good ceremonial hand washing by his disciples. Pharisees pounce considering Jesus crude and irreligious – and certainly not holy.
Look back to the Sermon on the Mount and a careful read will undermine superficial holiness for something more. We keep the ship clean above the water line but the barnacles of anger, contempt and rage spoil the trek even in the most civil of church contexts. Care to question that? Our ways of handling conflict are more akin to tabloid telling than needful reconciliation. Since we leave rather than reconcile we look too much like what goes on around us and less like the Rabbi – the Teacher.
We could look at the other illustrations of Jesus’ "You have heard it said, but I say to you" and scrape away the superficial holiness that gives us no more resemblance to Jesus than the recently popular Jesus dolls. Until we illustrate holiness on a level deeper than the social contracts of bygone days we will forevers strain gnats and swallow camels placing burdens on we human beasts to difficult to bear.