In times of significant cultural upheaval, it’s common and eminently understandable to seek whatever stability and calm we can find within our lives and to do some good soul searching about the way we’ve chosen to structure them. Are we contributing or perhaps even capitulating to the nervous, noisy way of life we see all around us? In a cultural moment tyrannized by all things digital and overloaded with a constant bombardment of information, so much of it shallow-minded if not salacious, have we neglected a simpler, more richly satisfying and God-honoring way of life? Have we unknowingly – or perhaps knowingly! – imbibed the fuss and fury of a fallen world put on fast forward? These are important questions to consider, and I’m afraid certain trends among Christians are offering overly simplistic answers in their worthy quest for a simple life filled with spiritual substance.
This piece will not be a critique of any particular book or movement; it’s more a series of observations and an offering of cautionary thoughts as we consider the increasing number of calls by Christians for Christians to come away from the clamor and corrosion of our corrupt culture and to build Christian communities defined by a simple, Shalom-pursuing life. We’re told that this is the best way to influence an anxiety-riddled, warful world for the Prince of Peace.
There’s no question that our culture is rattled; some say it’s the death rattle of the West. There’s no question that ours is a raw-nerved, anxious generation, and it’s easy to get caught up in the noise and nervousness. (I’m using the term “generation” in the way Scripture sometimes does, to indicate not so much chronology as character – see Psalm 24:1-6.) It’s popular to mock millenials for being so utterly incapable of dealing with any stress whatsoever. While stress and anxiety are more statistically evident among younger generations, it’s not just young people who’re struggling to keep it all together. The irony is palpable when much older politically conservative talk show hosts bluster and storm against the “snowflakes”, mercilessly mocking them and screaming through the airwaves that if they hear about just one more millennial meltdown their heads will explode. Seems those radio guys are a tad touchy, too! That touchiness is not so much a millennial way of life as a cultural way of life, based on philosophical and theological decisions made long ago and whose consequences are becoming increasingly clear with successive generations.
Predating our country’s founding, the Enlightened West had already been living as if God were dead. Extolling our own ingenuity and goodness, and trusting the pristine, indomitable force of autonomous reason, we were only too happy to let it take God’s place in matters of practical, daily life – politics, civic and cultural endeavors, education and family life – in everything, really! Alas, though living conditions have improved, human beings themselves have not, nor are we even any more reasonable. Some of society’s most socially and scientifically sophisticated people have been her cruelest, and the constant and amplified warfulness of the world has shown us that the Enlightenment’s bright and blazing optimism about a peaceful world without God was galactically naive. Humans were meant to be God’s representatives in the world, not his replacements. Naturally, the crushing burden of our culture’s age-old and growing god complex weighs most heavily upon the young, so we really need to mitigate the “I thank you, Lord, that I’m not like them” mentality with which it’s popular to regard millenials and those coming after. Fallen humanity’s god-complex applies to all ages, and each of us needs to repent for our own particular participations in it, rather than stereotyping and slandering wide swaths of fellow participants.
So how can the young and old live in a quiet, peace-inducing way as we feel the constant, concussive force of an autonomy-addicted culture as it pounds its anxiety-inducing principles of life like a thumping car stereo system you can hear from a block away and feel vibrating in your chest? One increasingly advocated option is to move away from the noise and to make our own life-music by building Christian communities composed of disciples who, like we, seek a shalom-filled life of simplicity – to do work, school, family and recreation explicitly in the name of Jesus and exclusively, at least for the most part, among Christians – along with any unbelievers whom we may inspire and who want to join us. These communities would be a refuge from a rotting modernistic culture, a haven whose unadorned holiness can’t help but shine, without needing to shout, in the midst of darkening societies shrieking in their self-inflicted emptiness. This way of life is very tempting to pursue, but there might be more to this call than meets the heart-level craving for it we might have.
Often within this overall call to separation and simplicity is nostalgia for the days not dominated by digital devices, or days even farther in the past. But while it’s great to get a break from smart phones, a return to the era of dumb phones or no phones can’t provide in itself the peace we seek. We won’t find shalom by getting back to older, idealized ways of life, means of living that are so often culturally conditioned, and riddled with the same essential problems and anxieties though perhaps in a less advanced and obvious form. Rewinding a film doesn’t change what the characters eventually do.
Yes, we’ve lost much in the way of patience, industriousness and self-reliance as we’ve come into an age of instant gratification where two clicks on a phone can get as much done as several days’ work (or pursuit of vice) would yield even twenty years ago. But once again, it seems that the fundamental issue is the spiritual caliber of the people, and not the cultural circumstances of the days in which they live – the character, not so much the chronology. And it is on this level that the Word of God meets us, teaching us what kind of people to be in any age and in any cultural circumstances. I’m afraid in some cases we might be mistaking culturally specific circumstances for Christ-like character as that which induces shalom in a community and by extension in the world.
A modified monasticism, a private, quiet and quaint way of life, focusing on the cultivation and enjoyment of the good and simple things of life, can sound so much like the deep breath of fresh air our souls need in a culture pungent with moral rot. After all, doesn’t Paul call us to live peaceable, quiet, dignified lives? So why not take from the Apostle’s word an encouragement to build Christian communities based on these attributes (See 1st Timothy 2)? We have to be so careful here. It would be easy to mistake culturally-conditioned applications of Paul’s principle for the thing itself, to unknowingly and sometimes self-righteously extol a particular form of life lived out by a faithful few as society’s salvation, a form of life conveniently full of personality-specific customs to which we attribute sacramental significance. An attempt at monasticism could easily yield moralism, with godliness no longer defined by what we don’t read and what we don’t drink, as with certain sects of fundamentalism, but by what we do read and what we do drink as good reformed anti-gnostics.
People within a culture of blaring sound, garish sights, social-media-induced loneliness and junk food are discovering the value of book clubs, community meals, organic food, good wine and gardening; they’re thriving on the deep thinking, generosity and creativity which these activities activate and, rightly, giving glory to God for it all. These can all be wonderful endeavors, but the fact that they’re not all universally available and applicable should give us a clue that these are not in themselves the biblically-mandated societal stabilizers God’s people ought ever to seek in every age, however much life in the Shire may appeal to us. Some of us love the city. Quiet, grassy hovels set among rolling hills make us want to scream, and the opposite view is just as valid. Some of us feel our blood pressure spike and our windpipes constrict as we approach a sprawling, factory-filled city, and others of us love coffee shop gatherings right in the midst of retail busyness, feeling perfectly at peace in a noisy, caffeinated crowd. Some of us love to hit up such spots sporting the kinds of spectacles, sleek jeans and sharp shoes which authentic trendiness requires. God has built into creation and his new creation, the church, the essential rhythms of a Shalom-filled life, but we can pursue them whether we prefer to live as a hobbit or a hipster. Scripture compares peaceful, productive life with Jesus as a walking beside calm waters (Psalm 23), and as dwelling in a shiny city (Revelation 21). The form isn’t the substance, and the substance is always Jesus himself.
Family, community, work, worship, Sabbath rest – when all centered on Jesus – comprise a holistic, integrated, satisfying life. These are the essential rhythms of life in a fallen world being made new, the patterns of life which, in whatever cultural circumstances we live them out, provide stability in times which tremble with the collective anxiety of autonomy-seeking lives. And the Lord does call us to come away as a Christian community, once a week on the day he rose from the dead, to slow down, rest and revitalize. Spending the day focused in corporate and private worship on the risen Christ, not in isolation from society but certainly away from the work and recreation of the rest of the week, is a crucial shalom-inducing discipline in life. Jesus meets us on this day in the means of grace in especially powerful ways. With these as the defining notes of our lives, our lives sing of our Savior as we pursue the personality-specific passions with which God blesses us as individuals, families and communities. These are beautiful means of glorifying him and loving our neighbors, but are not in themselves the substance their souls need.
In short, it is Christ we need, at all times and in all cultural circumstances. He is our peace; he is our repose, he is our righteousness, the stability of our times (Isaiah 33:6). And he is always available and active as our intercessor, the only mediator between God and man, whatever our societal context (1 Timothy 2). God was pleased to use farmers like Amos and statesmen like Isaiah; Promised Land dwellers like David and Captivity- constrained scholars like Daniel; societal outcasts like John the Baptist and those who attained great power and high rank in an evil empire like Joseph to advance his eternal kingdom, to build his church, to serve as heralds of his Son, the coming King. Each of these servants was, in their own times and places, a member of the everlasting community of peace, the church, a community which is meant to spread out and into, not withdraw from, the world which so desperately needs shalom. The lack of peace in the world, and within the church, cannot be filled up by culturally-conditioned, personality-driven habits of life which have the form of godliness – and which may be fine contexts in which to pursue it – but which, when praised and pursued as inherently godlier ways to live, lack the true power thereof.
In whatever times we may live, in whatever places we may dwell or build, may we pursue Christ then and there, studying and applying the shalom-inducing truth of his word in the wisest, humblest and most neighbor-loving ways we can by his grace. May we live out our faith, beyond ourselves among those who do not share it, and so hold forth the word of life and minister the tangible touch of our Lord’s mercy. May the Lord bless the work of our hands, whether in the shire or in the silicon valley, that it would produce good fruit by which to love our neighbor in the name of Christ. May we as Christ’s heralds speak the gospel of our Savior humbly and courageously and adorn it with lives of heart-level holiness in all that we do everywhere we are (2 Peter 3), and so hasten the return of the King.