We all experience a pull to conform to the dominant culture in which we live. What is the reason for this pull?
As suggested last week, two pieces of the answer lie in our struggle to avoid rejection and our craving to gain acceptance. In fact, we are often willing to give up who we really are in order to gain that acceptance.
How can we overcome the pull to conform to the dominant culture?
One powerful approach in resisting and overcoming the ‘pull’ of a dominant culture is the concept of ‘story’. Related terms are “prophetic imagination” or “alternate reality.” At first this may sound like so-much-fairy-tale stuff, but this concept of ‘story’ is embedded within the Bible.
I’ll start by asking two questions we each need to ask: (1) “What is my ‘story’?” (2) “In what larger ‘story’ do I live?”
When I use the term ‘story’ I’m not referring to fiction. For instance, if I ask you, “What’s your ‘story’?” you will respond by selecting and arranging various experiences from your life. In that sense, we each have a ‘story’. In simple terms, it is composed of such things as our past and present experiences, our families and social heritages, and our future hopes and aspirations.
When you consider the larger ‘story’ in which you live that will include those settings and forces that inform and shape how you live – such things as cultural and social beliefs, values, symbols, traditions, worldviews, and behaviors.
Let me illustrate aspects of the larger ‘story’ in which a person lives by using a troubling off-the-wall example.
A young, white, American male has grown up in a normal, middle-class, stable family. Through a series of unfortunate events and associations, this young man is introduced to a white supremacist group. He hears, reads, and sees things that, at first, are strange and unsettling. After a while he gradually accepts some of these strange perspectives, ideas, beliefs, values, promises, symbols, traditions, and behaviors. He begins to believe certain things about himself and about other ethnic groups; perhaps he gets a tattoo or wears some other symbol such as a swastika; he shaves his head and leaves some hair on his chin; he wears a brown uniform and drugstore sunglasses; and, he acts in confrontational ways toward others who are not part of his group.
At some point, this young man had stepped over a line and began living in the ‘story’ that is told by white supremacists. The setting and forces of that larger ‘story’ then inform and shape the personal ‘story’ of the young man – he believes, thinks, speaks, and acts in conformity with the white-supremacist ‘story’.
Now let’s illustrate the concept with some biblical examples.
First is the Creation. Adam and Eve each had a personal ‘story’ and they shared the larger ‘story’ in which they lived. In that larger ‘story’ the Creator placed humans in an unsullied setting of extravagant blessings with God, each other, and Creation. Their larger ‘story’ was the ‘story’ of God.
As each relationship has boundaries, a boundary defined the relationship between God and humans: “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Genesis 2:16-17).
Genesis 3 opens with the Serpent luring Eve into another ‘story’ – an alternate reality – communicated through (among other things) ideas, words, desires, sights, and promises. The Serpent challenges God’s reality, or ‘story’ – or Eve’s understanding of that ‘story’ – with a question: “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” Eve betrays her loose grip and understanding of God’s ‘story’. In her response (Genesis 3:2-3), Eve changes God’s statement in significant ways that shift the ‘boundary’ and water-down the consequences.
The Serpent contradicts God’s ‘story’ and paints an alternate distorted reality: “‘You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.’ So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, …” (Genesis 3:4-6).
By their actions Adam and Eve step out of God’s ‘story’ and into an alternate ‘story’ defined by shame, guilt, fear, and death.
The Exodus is again a confrontation of two opposing ‘stories’ or realities. One is told and energized by the royal consciousness of Pharaoh and Egypt’s ‘gods’ – a ‘story’ that enslaved and oppressed. The other is God’s ‘story’ being told through Moses who “dismantled the religion of static triumphalism by exposing the gods and showing that in fact they had no power and were not gods.”
Israel’s journey through the wilderness is a continuation of the tension between these two ‘stories’ (Exodus - Deuteronomy). The children of Israel waffle between worship and doubt; obedience and disobedience. With few exceptions, the first generation never seems to enter into God’s ‘story’ and they die in the wilderness. Yet the personal ‘stories’ of two men, Joshua and Caleb, are lived within the larger ‘story’ of God: “for they have wholeheartedly followed the LORD” (Numbers 32:12; see also Numbers 14).
John provides us with insight into God’s ‘story’ as it is opposed by an alternate ‘story’ or reality – whether told and energized by a Serpent, a Pharaoh, a Caesar, or a President.
As suggested in an earlier blog, the biblical word “world” (kosmos) is one word that may provide insight into the meaning of “culture.” So, with caution, you might substitute “culture” for “world” in the following text. Here is how J. B. Phillips renders 1 John 2:15-17:
Never give your hearts to this world or to any of the things in it. A man [or woman] cannot love the Father and love the world at the same time. For the whole world-system, based as it is on men’s [and women’s] desires, their greedy ambitions and the glamour of all that they think splendid, is not derived from the Father at all, but from the world itself. The world and all its passionate desires will one day disappear. But the man [or woman] who is following God’s will is part of the permanent and cannot die.
The world (or, culture) is telling alternate ‘stories’ – ‘stories’ that offer, excite, and extol a craving for physical pleasure, a craving for everything we see, and pride in our achievements and possessions. Some of these things may be good – but at some point they conflict with our love for the Father. It is then we must choose: will we live in the live-giving ‘story’ of the Father, or in the enslaving ‘story’ of the world/culture?
Here are three all-too-brief recommendations:
1. Know the ‘story’. This means that we have to be hearing it. In practical terms this involves frequent, intentional, intelligent, dependent hearing and reading of God’s ‘story’ revealed to us in the Bible. (If you need help getting started, consider using the resource: “Historical Backbone of the Bible”).
2. Believe the ‘story’. This means that we accept it, imagine it, and seek ways in which to live it.
3. Live in the ‘story’. This means that we are called not only to know and give mental assent to God’s story, but also to obey by living within that ‘story’. One test of whether we’re living in God’s larger ‘story’ is whether we are loving the Father at the points of conflict with the ‘world’ (e.g., Culture).
In this way we are able to live in that place of wholesome tension between faithfulness to our God and relevance to our Culture.
I encourage your comments and questions.
Until next Friday,
John, a brother
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