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Too Christian, Too Pagan
In an age of unparalleled material prosperity, our world is unraveling. As a talk show host I observed this by reading five newspapers and skimming nine hundred select articles daily, as well as perusing an average of twenty review copies of new books each week. Emerging from this rubble of information is a portrait of the modern world as "an uncomfortable, unfulfilling place to live" as a 1995 Time magazine cover story titled "Twentieth Century Blues" once concluded. The rapid spread of societal decay into our everyday lives seems indisputable, inevitable, and even more pervasive now that we're in the twenty-first century.
For followers of Jesus, this volatile world poses a grave threat. When living counter to culture, Christians are despised and hated by the world. When conforming to culture, Christians risk succumbing to the seductive desires of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of riches (see 1 John 2: 16). Most of us know people who jettisoned their faith for the momentary pleasures of this age, and all of us experience and sometimes give in to the kinds of temptations that, if unchecked, lead to the contamination of our spirit.
Today, Christian responses to the world include de facto withdrawal into a protective cocoon, combat in the culture war, or a widespread, chameleonlike conformity. Our instincts for personal spiritual survival warn us to stay clear of this alternatingly inhospitable and enticing place. Yet ironically, this soul-threatening society also offers our greatest opportunity for influence, because an unraveling society produces a spiritually restless people needing Jesus' transforming good news.
The Spirituality Craze
And so it is that in today's uncertain and anxious hour, "spirituality," once a taboo subject, is now mainstreamed, an acceptable topic for everyday conversation. "The spiritual" permeates film, music, and best-selling books. In her book God-Talk in America, Publisher Weekly's former religion editor Phyllis Tickle concludes, "More theology is conveyed in, and probably retained from one hour of popular television, than from all the sermons that are also delivered on any given weekend in America's synagogues, churches, and mosques."
On television in a three-week span Larry King interviewed the Dalai Lama, Benny Hinn, and Billy Graham. On the fortieth anniversary celebration of King's broadcasting career, Bryant Gumble asked, "Larry, if you could interview God, what would your first question be?" King responded quickly, "I'd ask God--do you have a son?"
Today's spiritual journey is increasingly carried on outside organized religion. This is especially true for the next generation. A survey from the University of Chicago's National Opinion Research Center reveals that in 1998, among eighteen- to twenty-two-year-olds, only 16 percent had any contact with organized religion. Yet they have a higher interest in spiritual issues than the same generation twenty years earlier, with 82 percent of them asking questions about life after death compared to only 69 percent in 1978. They are more likely to seek answers to their questions in a Barnes and Noble bookstore, or in discussions about recently released movies or music, than they are in a church. Because today's spiritual conversation has moved outside the church and into everyday life, it is more essential than ever that you and I engage people where they are in the rough and tumble world.
Too Christian, Too Pagan
This poses a problem. Most of us want to make a positive difference in our circle of influence, yet we feel woefully inadequate to take Jesus into our world. There are two equal and opposite reasons for this. In my observation most Christians are either too Christian or too pagan. The Christians who are "too Christian" are very comfortable within the Christian subculture but are ill at ease when in the world. On the other hand, Christians who are too pagan are at ease with the world but fail to integrate their faith into their everyday life.
Taking Jesus into our world requires fully engaging both our faith and the world, yet few of us have learned to live a fully integrated life of faith in the world. Paradoxically, in my experience those who wholeheartedly embark on this path will end up seeming both too Christian for their pagan friends and too pagan for their Christian friends.
This was certainly true for Jesus. Read the gospels and you'll see how Jesus' nonconformity in religious and pagan culture made him somewhat alien to both. The religious were suspicious because Jesus partied with pagans--drunkards, prostitutes, and tax collectors, to name a few. The pagans loved Jesus' company, but eventually were uncomfortable when he challenged them to make radical changes in their personal lives. The woman caught in the act of adultery was forgiven, but was also told to go and sin no more. Zacchaeus, the tax collector, ended up repaying everyone he had defrauded and giving half his wealth to the poor.
Because Jesus was determined to please God instead of humans, he was a nonconformist. In fact, Jesus was a winsome, compelling character precisely because God--not the culture nor the religious subculture--set his daily agenda. He clearly marched to the beat of a different drummer.
Following Jesus today requires you to practice that same single-minded nonconformity. And it will produce the same effect in your life that it did with Jesus. If you truly follow Jesus, in addition to enjoying a most excellent adventure, you will likely end up seeming too Christian for many of your pagan friends and too pagan for many of your Christian friends. When you truly follow Jesus, you'll spend considerable time and energy in the world like he did, and as a result, many of your religious friends will think you're too irreligious. On the other hand, many of your irreligious friends will find it odd that you are so focused on the spiritual. Thus, you end up seeming both too Christian and too pagan.
One friend agreed with me and then said, "It sounds like a lose-lose! Why would anybody want to end up out of sync with both their pagan and their Christian friends?" This book will try to provide a compelling answer to that question. In addition, it will show you how you can be more effective in taking Jesus into your world.
For some, this book will improve spiritual literacy, and for others, it will improve cultural literacy. In both cases, the hoped-for result is progress toward becoming disciples literate in both faith and culture, disciples experiencing the joy of becoming a complete person and a confident, compelling presence for Jesus.