Posted by: Alex | August 30, 2011

Cultural Relevance in Blue Like Jazz

So camp is over and I am back in New Haven.  The summer proved to be far more busy than I had anticipated and I did a lot less reading and writing than I had planned.  So here is where the plan stands at the moment:  I intend to finish out my comments on Blue Like Jazz (this post and one more after it) and possibly make a few cursory remarks about some of the other books on our reading list.  Then the plan is to change gears a bit for this blog.  I would like to envision this page as more a catalyst for dialogue about the state of evangelicalism than just me touting my own thoughts about what other people have said.  So I am in the process of inviting a few more contributors to join in and hopefully in a couple weeks we will begin a new phase here, discussing major events, writings, conferences, and viewpoints in contemporary evangelicalism from a variety of different perspectives and fostering some good dialogue.  We’ll see how this turns out, but that is kinda the dream right now.

To begin wrapping up our discussion of Donald Miller’s book Blue Like Jazz, I want to look today at the idea of Christianity’s cultural relevance.  This is another point at which Miller and I share some substantial agreement, but I will let you judge his own words.  Miller tells many stories about his experiences outside the comfortable bounds of his conservative Christian background, many of which center around his time as a student at Reed in Portland, a campus known for being exceptionally hostile to religion:

Interacting with these guys showed me how shallow and self-centered my Christian faith had become. Many of the students hated the very idea of God, and yet they cared about people more than I did.

What Miller is describing is something that I have encountered many a time, and which has been the source of a great deal of my frustrations with the evangelical community.  This is an apparent tendency to put up blinders and only look for very particular “spiritual needs” which can be met in under a minute during a street evangelism session whilst completely ignoring perhaps more pressing, certainly more “difficult,” needs (like food, water, shelter, clothing, medicine).  This seems to me to be exactly what Miller is getting at, and he highlights the problem by pointing to his experience with those who would never darken the doors of a church but who seem to do a better job caring for their fellow human beings than those who regularly do so.

Miller doesn’t just issue a critical call to action, however.  He is well aware of the common criticism of the emergent movement that attempts at being “culturally relevant” often turn into a way of accommodating to the surrounding culture, of assimilating into it rather than ministering to it.  Miller joins in such critiques, but not in a way that dismisses the notion of cultural relevance:

I don’t think any church has ever been relevant to culture, to the human struggle, unless it believed in Jesus and the power of His gospel. If the supposed new church believes in trendy music and cool Web pages, then it is not relevant to culture either. It is just another tool of Satan to get people to be passionate about nothing.

What I think this shows is a real interest from Miller in keeping the main thing the main thing.  A website is nice, but if it replaces the actual work of ministry then its a distraction, not an asset seems to me to be what Miller’s argument comes to.

To close out this post I want to look at a passage from Miller’s book that encapsulates a good deal of my own experience:

I began to understand that my pastors and leaders were wrong, that the liberals were not evil, they were liberal for the same reason Christians were Christians, because they believed their philosophies were right, good, and beneficial for the world. I had been raised to believe there were monsters under the bed, but I had peeked, in a moment of bravery, and found a wonderful world, a good world, better, in fact, than the one I had known.

I similarly discovered that the world outside my evangelical upbringing was a good and nice world and that the deep suspicions that exist on both sides of the divide are largely misplaced.  The problem is very few share that conviction and there seems to be an inevitable need to choose sides.  Which side should I choose?  I haven’t quite decided yet, perhaps I’m still holding out for a way to split the difference.

What do you think?  What kinds of needs should we focus on meeting in other people?  Are “liberals” dangerous?  What about “conservatives?”  Is there a way to keep a middle ground between these two groups?


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