Posted on February 1st, 2012 | Filed under Challenges, Community, Congregation, Featured, Popular Culture, Social Issues
Tagged with Christian, Christian counterculture, community, counterculture, culture, love, Reflection, United States of America, values
A Google search of “Christian counterculture” nets almost 3,950,000 hits. While Youtube does not have nearly as many hits for that same phrase, there are almost 150 videos that I found expressing people’s opinions regarding Christian counterculture and what it means to be Christian and countercultural. In some of the instances in which I have heard the phrase being used, it has seemed that being Christian and countercultural means rejecting current pop culture in America. I remember an occasion where a friend of mine related a story where someone told her that she should not listen to her favorite band because it was not a Christian band and did not promote Christian values. If something is not “Christian” or does not express the proper Christian beliefs or values (which can vary widely from person to church to group), the call to be countercultural can arise.
According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, counterculture is “a culture with values and mores that run counter to those of established society.” While the values and mores can run counter with society’s, it does not mean that they need to reject the entire culture, including all of its music, for instance. Rather, being Christian and countercultural suggests that there is something fundamentally different that distinguishes Christian culture from American culture (While I would identify primarily with American culture, I suspect the fundamental differences would differ from culture to culture).
Rather than being a loose term used in churches and conversations regarding Christianity or a rallying call for the opposition of the larger culture, “Christian counterculture” actually begs a deeper question for reflection. When one claims that Christians are countercultural, what is so fundamentally unique and inherent to the Christian culture that distinguishes it from the larger culture?
I would argue that it is not necessarily our various viewpoints on political and social issues. While it is true that there are some big differences between how many in the Christian culture and the larger American culture view various social issues, there is such an diverse range of viewpoints within the Christian tradition that it makes it difficult to define it as the distinctive difference between Christian and American culture. Although there have been statements that allege that being Christian means you believe certain things, when it comes down to the individual Christian, all bets are off.
I would also argue that Christian theological beliefs are not what distinguish Christian culture from American culture. Beliefs can inform our values, of course, but they are not themselves values. Additionally, our beliefs already distinguish us not only from the larger culture, based on the U.S. Constitution which separates religion and state, but also from other religious and non-religious groups as well as other Christian denominations. While it is true that there are important differences between the various denominations and faiths, these differences do not seem to embody what Merriam-Webster defines as counterculture.
Although religious beliefs and views on social issues are both important pieces of individual Christians’ identities and the larger Christian culture, I do not think this is what defines Christian counterculture. Rather, I believe that Christian counterculture is defined by its commitment to community, perhaps best expressed in 1 Corinthians 12:12-27 and 13:1-13 as the "Body of Christ."
In light of increasing individualism and hierarchical values in the workplace in the US, the value of a unified Christian community joined in love runs counter. In this letter, Paul expresses that the Christian community is unified together in one body, a poetic expression of the importance and value of all the people in the Christian community. No person (written as no body part) is expendable or worthless. Each contributes something positive to the functioning of the community. If one suffers, the entire body suffers; if one celebrates, the entire body celebrates.
In chapter 13, Paul continues to express the highest value of this community, the common bond that unites all these different people together: love. If the community is not joined in love, then what value does it have? Without love, all endeavors are useless, a mere clanging of symbols. It is poetic, but it is poignant.
Sadly, this ideal and value is not always practiced, and there are many who have been hurt or turned away by churches and Christians because of this. Yet this value has been present within Christianity since its beginning. According to the Christian Scriptural tradition, Jesus dined with those of all walks of life and regularly traveled with a community of disciples and followers. The early church was run as extended family units composed of people worshiping together from various walks of life in a communal setting. Over time these groups may have split into different denominations, with different understandings, values, and beliefs, but the importance of a Christian community has remained.
American culture, on the other hand, has become in many ways individualistic and hierarchical. Family-run businesses are more rare than they used to be. Hierarchical mindsets have become common in many business and corporations. Technology has ushered in an age where people can become isolated behind a virtual wall. I noticed at my family gatherings this past holiday season that despite being in the same room, many were on their cell phones checking email, tweeting, surfing the Internet, or texting. Such is the scene at bus stops, train stations, waiting rooms, restaurants, and so many other places. As opposed to the very family-oriented values of early American culture, our current culture differs greatly.
So I am now adding to the variety of opinions expressed regarding Christian counterculture in the United States. To me, it’s defined by its call to unified community, bound in love, sharing in pains and joys, but striving together to live out the call of Christ. Additionally, if this is how Christian culture, and counterculture, is defined, then it even becomes a challenge to more fully embrace and practice to value of an inclusive community united in love. But, as I pointed out, this is just my opinion. The nature of counterculture and labeling something as such invites all of us, whether Christian or not, to reflect upon what values define our larger culture and how our various subcultures differ.
How do you understand the idea of being countercultural, and what examples do you have of your religious congregation, interfaith group, or secular organization embodying that spirit, if at all? Please share your stories, thoughts, and opinions in the comments below!
Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons and can be found at: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rush_hour,_Haymarket_Station_-_geograph.org.uk_-_1515195.jpg
Christina Yost is a first year M.Div. student at Methodist Theological School in Ohio and received her B.A. in Pre-Theology and Psychology at Ohio Wesleyan University. She is pursuing ordination in the United Methodist Church and is currently a certified candidate in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.