Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Moral Outrage

I'm 350 miles from home and taking a class this week. So this will be short - and inspired by this status update from earlier today.

I'm continually boggled by the outrage from my Christian friends when someone in the larger culture acts in outrageous ways. Now if an upright, predictable, moral church leader went out one night and became a stripper or a prostitute; or if the head of your congregation's governing board became a bank robber - that would be surprising and outrageous.

Those actions are incongruous with both their stated and lived beliefs as well as the shared moral code of Christianity. They are shocking.

For those steeped and raised in our culture and society, outrageous acts are just not all that outrageous. They're downright predictable and completely understandable. They shouldn't be surprising.

On of my favorite TV shows is TMZ. It's a paparazzi-based tabloid, following and largely mocking the outrageous celerity culture, whilst also completely participating in it.

My wife hates that I ever watch it. I've received strange stares from colleagues as I try to relate how important being well versed in popular culture is for ministry. The show is full of useless trash. It just is. I won't deny that there's some voyeuristic pleasure in seeing parts of people's lives that they work very hard to pretend doesn't exist.

At the same time, it is the world we're living in. The videos, topics, themes, persons, and opinions expressed there show up in teenagers the next week and in the culture at large some time later. In a culture of celebrity, celebrities control the culture. It's just a reality of contemporary US society.

The value, as I see it, in watching such shows and keeping up with the tabloid trash is that I'm generally well versed in the underlying morals and ethics of the larger culture. Those things which shock so many, make perfect sense to me, given the context.

It also seems easier to address such cultural realities from a Christian perspective given a better understanding of their roots, causes, and foundations. I could talk along time about the complicated persona that is Miley Cyrus precisely because she's been in the public eye (and semi-private eye exemplified by TMZ) for so long. Yeah, it's a sad state of affairs - that clip is like watching a functional alcoholic finally go off the rails - but it's not shocking. Or at least it shouldn't be if you're paying attention.

What it seems like so many Christians know, but haven't yet internalized is simply the fact that Christendom is dead. This notion of a shared, moral frame of reference no longer exists (at least it is no longer based on the Christian religion). Christendom was essentially a common culture built around the traditions of Christianity. Christendom is not Christianity; it may be religion, but it's not ultimately reality.

Religion is shared practice based on a set of beliefs. For a long time, our religion and our culture have been essentially the same - both informed by Christ. I suspect it's time we realize that this is no longer true. Our culture (as a society) is no longer the same as our religion. I'm not sure we need to cling to either anymore.

Both our culture and our religion have fed off each other, neither one fully reflecting the person of Christ, but balancing Christ with the needs and wants of society. We can't escape religion, but we can certainly re-imagine it. We can step out of those religious practices that have been informed and sculpted by religion's marriage to culture.

From this we are freed to focus on what it means to live in Christ - not as society, but as a new, unique culture within the larger culture. We can craft a religion which tells an ultimate story without having to be necessarily inclusive. That is, it doesn't have to keep and describe all people. It is and always will be invitationally inclusive - which means it is applicable to all people, but not forced upon them.

It challenges us to create something different, alternative - rather than treating the rest of the world as the oddity, we, who follow Christ, can become the oddity, living into a story (with religion and culture all our own) that reflects the outrageousness and absurdity of society around us, not from a place of judgment and disdain, but from a position of grace and hope.

Most of our moral outrage is directed at actions which reflect the profound lack of hope and identity present in our society. I suspect it's been present for much, if not most (or all) of Christendom, we just got good at masking it. Regardless, we cannot stand in reaction to such statements of hopelessness and rootlessness with condemnation. It merely sends the message that these statements ring true.

What it also requires, though, is something more than what was, what has been. Every act of outrageousness is a declaration that what has been is not good enough. As much as I agree with and appreciate the timelessness of God's story in the world, we have to admit that the whole of human history is us getting that story wrong. What has been is not what is or what will be.

Ok, so it didn't end up being too short. I just think that condemnation, outrage is a ridiculous response to something so entirely predictable and historically, sociologically, rationally appropriate.

There has to be - there is - something better. It is before us and not behind us. If we are not moving forward with the culture, as outrageous or outraged as it may be, we have nothing to offer. There is no divide between us and them - no matter how terrible "them" happens to be. There is only "us." If the outrage and outrageousness is us, we have an obligation to do more than tsk, tsk.

But that's just me, I guess.

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