One of the things Jesus said to those listening to him was that they kept asking for a sign and that no sign would be given them except the sign of Jonah. Later on, when pressed again about a sign, he said, roughly, that they could look at the sky and know if it was going to storm or not but that they were unable to read the signs of the times. I think my friend Jonathan does a good job of highlighting the importance of understanding the sign of Jonah (and there are a couple significant books on it besides Jonathan’s, namely Thomas Merton’s The Sign of Jonas) in his book New Monasticism: What it has to say to the church. It is important to be able to read what society and culture are pointing towards and therefore how the church is to react or if it is to react, but equally importantly it is necessary to be able to read the signs of the times within the Church. What is going on?
From my perspective, for a good while now, the church (and I think this is pretty true across denominations) has been pretty concerned with how it relates to and is relavent to culture. From the advent of “contemporary” worship in many churches in the last 15 years to the recent Emerging Church phenomenon, and even within Catholic and African American churches, as attendence has rapidly declined, I feel like the whole church is trying to find ways to connect. In the more distant past, it seems to me that especially in Protestant churches (since that was my upbringing), we were taught to be very different from culture, and that to some extent culture was bad. So there was a huge emphasis on not swearing, not going to rock concerts…all the nots, in my opinion, are at their core some rejection of a particular part of secular culture. That doesn’t mean it was total–people still continued to buy into certain parts of culture and nationalism, I think because they assumed (and still assume) that those were the God-ordained aspects that transcend particular cultures. Recently, churches have started to say, “Well, maybe some parts of culture aren’t bad, and we can turn them and use them for Christian purposes,” and so we see rock music has a Christian genre, you can buy T-shirts with “Christian” slogans, brand names, you name it, we’ve got it. Even more recently, and this is what I think of the Emerging Church, is that you have churches taking positive aspects of culture, like art, dance, drama, film, poetry, literature, and trying to connect with God and be welcoming to people who have no experience or interest in an institutionalized church. In trying to picture it, I think of two arcs, one of culture/the world, and one of the church, and there’s a point where these two arcs touch (see below-the Church is the bottom arc):
I’m not saying that our time in history has never happened before; I think the church has at times jumped up and met culture and absorbed it (the Middle Ages for example), but the long arc of the Church has been to start out as a completely different place with different holidays, different culture, different view of other people and the world, different view of sexuality, of war, or human life, of poverty. And when the new creation is in completion, that’s what the church will be again. From the perspective of the world, the Earth was formed out of chaos and randomness and will go on and end that way too, that human life will fade into oblivion in a few million years and the sun will collapse, etc. These two world views are pretty incompatible, which is why Jesus and Paul make great effort to stress a new way of viewing the cosmos. What I think is happening in the church right now is the Red X. In some ways, you could make the argument that that has been happening for over a thousand years, and that might be right, but regardless I’d say we’re in the X. We’re at a point where we’ve slowly moved toward accepting a lot of the dominant culture viewpoints about materialism, sexuality, war, and so much more. It’s to the point where there is not much of a definitive line between what the rest of the world says and what much of the Church believes.
What I really hope is happening is that this is a transition period, where the Church has become very enmeshed with culture and that over time, it will wrestle with it and emerge with a better understanding of its own unique worldview. In the process, the Church will lose members, because many people will just want to stay with culture. It’s so much easier to welcome the ideas and worldview of the dominant society than it is to persevere and work out a cristo-centric view of the world. If this does happen, if the Church emerges critical of culture and of what so much unquestioning acceptance of culture does to the soul, it will necessarily become the persecuted church that it was meant to be, because no longer will the government and the rest of society be unable to distinguish between Republicans and conservative Christians or Democrats and liberal Christians, but rather they will have a non-cooperative body that resists the Empire of this world. Once the church does that, there will be no room at the inn, and it will be time to get rid of Christians. And at that point, the church will be at its strongest and be further on the path towards the new creation. MLK was right about the long arc of history bending toward justice, because New Creation is Divine Justice, and that is what we desire, not the justice of the world.