There are many times during the course of my immersion into the realms of science fiction and fantasy, whether it be reading books, watching shows or movies, etc., when I wish that I could experience aspects of those cultures first-hand. For instance, in the short-lived show _Firefly_, two cultures merged into one when humanity abandoned Earth. The predominant world superpowers at that time were the United States and China. So, when new worlds were terraformed and then populated by Earth’s refugees, it wasn’t long before most inhabitants of this new solar system were bi-lingual, speaking English primarily but switching over to Mandarin in moments of high emotion.
In Stephen Lawhead’s Pendragon cycle, the culture of Britain in the early days after Jesu left his mark on the world was rich with history, symbolism, and faith. The mere image of the cross was enough to spark strong emotional and behavioral reactions in the followers of the Great Light, of the one True God. You can believe that nothing in their faith was taken for granted.
What it comes down to is this – I see in many Americans a shallowness that borders on being depressing. I don’t believe it always used to be this way. Early on in our nation’s history, national pride was treasured, cherished. It was important to be known as an American, important enough to die for, as many did. Today it seems that so many of our citizens are almost ashamed to be called Americans, thinking that to claim such is to be pretentious and arrogant in the eyes of the world. We are becoming American in name only, with so many having no concept of the pride that goes with being called such.
So, too, in our churches and in our faith. We are becoming Christian in name only, and that often only barely. Cultural shallowness has begun to penetrate our minds, our hearts, our churches so that our ministries become less effective, less robust. As both Americans and as Christians, we are losing our culture, those elements that root us in what we are and in what we believe. The cross of Christ has become less of an integral, necessary part of our belief system and more of a digitized placeholder of faith whereupon we look and remark in a distracted manner about how important it is to our faith.
A recent email conversation among some friends has addressed this topic from the perspective of the church’s affluence. The problem posed at the outset of the discussion is that of the presence of “fancy buildings… sound systems, and the musical instruments, and the hundreds of different colors of papers, and the power point programs, and twenty children’s programs and all associated materials.” These are all things that most of our churches today seem to think they require in order to function and minister effectively. We seem to require that our auditoriums be air conditioned and that crying children be removed from the service, that the drums not be played too loudly (or at all) and that the pastor have the appropriate level of pious humility if we are to be expected to worship at all. ((Email correspondence))
There are several things that I believe have contributed to the current state of affairs in our churches. The first is that the increased development of technology has pushed the pace of culture into hypersonic speeds. Information and data travel at a breakneck rate nowadays, and most of us have noticed that life has moved into not just the fast lane but into the ultra-fast lane. We have less time now than we ever did, and what free time we have we fill with activities that are, essentially, needless. We are constantly inundated with more and more information that we must sort through and process, and as a result we have become detached from those things that are truly important, things like God, faith, and family. This is contributor number one to the shallowness of culture.
The second contributor is the shift toward post-modern philosophy. Truth is no longer what it once was. It has become an ethereal entity that cannot be grasped. Indeed, truth has become little more than a vapor, a thing that is seen – and then only just barely – before it is caught up by the wind and blown away. We try to clasp it in our hands so that we may know it, yet it slips through our fingers and goes on its merry way, leaving us wondering if it was ever real to begin with. This is the way popular culture sees truth today, as an insubstantial, ever-changing entity that is unique to each individual. Truth has many faces, so that it may look different to each individual who views it, even changing in form to a single person depending on the circumstances surrounding its pursuit. We are continually losing the notion that truth is, in fact, static and stable, never-changing, steady throughout the ages. The Enemy attacks the idea of absolute truth because those who do not believe in it are merely sheep to be led to the slaughter. The disappearance of absolute truth has contributed to the shallowness of culture and the loss of those things which are most important. Now what is most important is determined by each person privately and may look vastly different from what is most important to the next person.
The third contributor has already been mentioned – the affluence of culture. As another contributor to the conversation stated, it seems that “the more STUFF we have around us, the more FAITH we need.” I do not believe that this is just limited to material possessions, either. I have watched as men fill their heads with more and more knowledge and ‘facts’, information that they learn and catalogue. In so doing they see less and less of God’s presence in the world and in creation and less need for something outside of themselves to provide truth and to make sense of those things that happen that we simply cannot explain. We are an affluent culture, both in the things we _own_ and in the things we _know_. The more things we have, the more we become distracted by them and the less we see a need for God. It is the _things_ that then become important because we must maintain them, maintain a certain way of life, maintain traditions that we have become comfortable with and that continue to make us comfortable. The things take a place of higher precedence, usurping God and pushing faith into the background. We continue to believe that we have faith, but all we are really left with is a dependency upon things that, when taken from us, cause us to come crashing down because, in pushing faith aside, we have struck our own foundation out from under ourselves. The acquisition and collection of things contributes to a shallow culture and a faith that is sorely taken for granted. Things are temporal; faith is not, yet we seem to have gotten the two in reverse.
I find myself yearning after some of the things I read in my fiction, not as a substitute for my faith but as a return to a simpler way of doing things, a way that eliminates so many of our distractions and restores a richness to culture and to faith that has been lost in today’s hustle and bustle of activity. I think perhaps what most appeals to me about Chinese culture, in some ways, is the richness of it, the legacy of history that inspires millions to both national pride and devotion (though even that is being lost as Western culture invades the Chinese borders). There is a power within a national legacy that the cultures of both America and American Christianity seem to lack. We have become shallow people, abhoring and rejecting that which is most important in favor of pursuing those things that are most important to _us_, our selfish and narcissistic ideals. That is what our culture has told us is important, to what and to seek out that which _we_ want, rather than what our Creator God deems important.
A return to simplicity is needed, I think, in order to return us to our roots, so that we may find again the awe of our faith and the power of God in our lives. I believe that the icons of our faith can once again become powerful, no longer taken for granted as just another pretty picture on a wall or a decorative item to be viewed and then dismissed. I also think that simplicity can be communicable, a contagion that can spread through the Church and returning it to a place where the important things are remembered and the unimportant set aside and forgotten.
Yet, I think in order for that to happen, simplicity must first take place within each one of us separately, as we extract those things in our lives that prevent us making the most of the time we have here in this life – the possessions that demand our interest, the activities that require our time, the pursuit of more knowledge and facts that only serve to distract from serving our Lord. It is in the doing and living that makes the most impact on others, that demonstrates that we do not, in actuality, require most of the things we cling to with such ferocity, that we can really be happy and content with less. It is not, and will not, be an easy process, no. But I think more and more that it is a necessary one if we as a Church in America wish to again be salt and light in our culture. We do not yet see that we need less because we are blinded by our own affluence, but there are Christians in many other countries who pray that Christians in America will face the persecution that strips away all the unnecessary things so that we will once again remember Who it is we serve and remember again what business it is we are to be about.
Less is more. Jesus knew this. It is why he taught time and again that for any man to follow Him, he must first give up all he had and then follow Him. Would that we should remember that.