I just finished listening to one of my favorite novels, To Kill A Mockingbird by Harper Lee. I’ve read it a couple of times, but this was my first time listening to it on CD. There’s something captivating when a great story is told by a skilled narrator.
I’m also amazed at how a story can speak in different ways depending on the reader’s place in his or her life journey. Being where I am today, I found Lee’s story confronting me with issues about the cultural influences on Christianity.
Set in the 1930s, Lee explores southern culture in a small Depression-racked Alabama town from the perspective of an eight year old girl named Scout. Throughout the story, you feel like you’re always “looking up” as a small child would in an adult world.
What gripped me during this reading was the embedded critique of the Church. You cannot help but shake your head in dismay as you read about “Christ-fearing” people who are more often drunk than sober, filled with hatred, driven by gossip or motivated by racism.
There is a powerful scene when Scout attends a meeting of the women’s missionary society and listens to Christian women discussing over coffee and pastries how the pagan natives in Africa need to be civilized and how the “blackies” in their town need to learn their place. Being two generations removed from the story’s context, the reader is easily appalled at how cultural evils of the time could infiltrate the Church’s life.
But then it made me think, in seventy years what will my grandchildren be appalled with when they read about the church of my generation? What evils and abuses spawned by our contemporary culture and embraced by the Church will they shake their heads at and ask, “How could they have done that?”
I’m sure we can all come up with a list. As a friend reminded me last week, critiquing the church is easy. Just close your eyes and heave a rock and you’re bound to hear the shattering of stained glass. So I won’t indulge in making a list of the ways our society has found entrance into the Church’s life.
The question I’m asking myself and anyone who reads this is what can we do to escape the cultural entanglements that plague the church in every generation and actually become the eschatological people who live God’s future kingdom in the present?
Although I think I have suspicions of an answer, I know I don’t have the complete answer. But there’s a couple of things I do know. First, we need to avoid restorationist theories. Throughout the ages, parts of the Church in any given generation sought reform by longing to return to an earlier manifestation of the Church. If we could only go back to pre-Industrialization or pre-Reformation or pre-Constantinian times. Or the elusive, if we could only become like the first-century Church. My question is, “Which one?” Do we want to be like the church in Galatia, on the verge of embracing a false gospel? Or the church in Colossae or Philippi, battling Judaizers? Or the church in Corinth with all of its issues? Or how about the seven churches in Revelation? None of them heeded the prophetic warnings and so none of those churches exist today. As Gordon Fee has stated numerous times – too much water has gone under the bridge to go backwards.
Another thing I know is that structural models are not the answer. Whether we belong to a denomination with a lengthy history or are part of an emerging “organic” movement, structure by itself is not the answer. That’s because structures are the institutional expressions of people. And it’s within people that the problem lies. For example, in To Kill A Mockingbird, racism is built into the Church because the people are racist. In our contemporary times, consumerism is built into the Church because people are consumerist. Structures reflect and enforce what already exists in people. And even if a different structure is developed to avoid or even combat institutional evils, the structure will inevitably fail if the problem isn’t addressed in people. People are notoriously adept at working their agendas into any system or structure, be it simple or complex.
No matter how I approach this issue in my head, it always seems to come back to my personal responsibility to authentically follow Christ in my life and in my Christian community with my brothers and sisters. In To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus Finch stands out because he chooses to lead by example. He is a lone figure who is at home in his small town, but also lives courteously, graciously and boldly by a standard much different than his surrounding culture. It is a beautiful picture of being culturally relevant and simultaneously counter-cultural. It wins him respect, yet gets him in trouble and ultimately endangers the ones he loves most. But it is so ingrained into who he is that he cannot help but live in such a noble manner. And in subtle and subversive ways, it changes people. I think Atticus Finch has many valuable lessons to teach us.