Posted by: Dan | March 8, 2008

Challenges to 'Counter-Cultural' Christianity

In The Making of the Counter Culture: Reflections on the technoratic society and its youthful opposition, an exploration of the counter-culture of the 1960s, Theodore Roszak notes how the majority of those interested in the counter-culture are youth who were raised within the domains of bourgeois society. Roszak views this as an unanticipated development within the middle and upper classes. Thus, he argues that “the bourgeoisie, instead of discovering the class enemy in its factories, finds it across the breakfast table in the preson of its own pampered children.” He then goes on to note the twin perils of this counter-culture: “on the one hand, the weakness of its cultural rapport with the disadvantaged, on the other, its vulnerability to exploitation as an amusing side show of the swinging society.”

I think that this is an astute observation, and one that remains true for Christians who are interested in pursuing (or recovering) a counter-cultural form of Christianity within our contemporary context. In particular, I can't help but think of the Emergent Church 'Conversation'. It seems to me that the Emergent Church is, by and large, filled with disillusioned bourgeois Christians, and frequently falls prey to the perils Rozsak notes. It frequently fails to connect with the disadvantaged (even as it talks about AIDS in Africa, and caring for the environment) and is frequently simply a means of amusement, and self-gratification, for those who are no longer amused, or gratified, by the expressions of Christianity that dominated mid-to-late twentieth century America. All that to say, I don't think that there is very much that is 'counter-cultural' about the Emergent Church. Rather, I think it frequently simply counters the culture of modernity, and posits a form of Church that fits well within the dominant culture of 'post-modernity', or 'late capitalism.' Indeed, that the Emergent prefers to be called a 'Conversation' and not a 'Movement' should already be tipping us off to these things!

To a certain degree, I think that the same criticisms, and cautions, should be applied to the New Monasticism. Granted, there seems to be genuine efforts to attain a much deeper connection with the disadvantaged, but the extent of the depth of the New Monasticism remains to be seen. Given the media hype that has surrounded some of its proponents (think Shane Claiborne), I can't help but wonder if a great deal of its popularity is due to the fact that it can be viewed as an 'amusing side show'. Here I am reminded of Herbert Marcuse's response to his own rise to fame after the student revolts of 1968. “I'm very much worried about this,” Marcuse said. “At the same time it is a beautiful verification of my philosophy, which is that in this society everything can be co-opted, everything can be digested.”

Finally, I think that the same caution can be issued to certain 'hot' theological topics, especially topics that attempt to posit something unique (and thereby counter-cultural) about Christianity. Take, for example, our increasing interest in trinitarian theology. Now I don't want to suggest that we abandon trinitarian thinking (far from it!); what I do want to ensure is that trinitarian theology remains grounded in the proper place. That place, of course, is the cross of Christ, which then also becomes our own places of cruciformity as we follow Christ on the road to the cross. Thus, Jurgen Moltmann (who is surely one of the reasons why trinitarian theology has gotten 'hot') says the following in his recent autobiography, A Broad Place: “the doctrine of the Trinity becomes abstract and loses its relevance without the event of the cross.” Rather than being a amusing side show within theology, trinitarian thinking should also lead us to a deeper connection with the crucified Christ, with the crucified people of today, and with our own call to cruciformity.

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