The following is a small group reflection written for our church planting planning team.
“I would rather be with someone who is real than someone who is good.”
– Philip Yancey
During the 2006 campaign, ‘political correspondents’ for the Daily Show with Jon Stewart purported to provide election coverage from locations all over the state of Ohio. You can see a clip here.
From different towns and cities and polling places.
Every correspondent though reported their story while standing in front of an Applebee’s restaurant.
Each exactly like the other.
As usual, the Daily Show skewered something very true about our culture.
Just think of the homogeneity of our shopping centers. When there is a combination of Barnes and Noble, Home Depot, Target and Panera everywhere, it begins to feel as though every place is the same, or that no place is unique. Or real.
What we experience in shopping centers isn’t that different in kind from the fake reality we see on television.
What we see on television isn’t that much different from the abundance of fake foods sold in our supermarkets.
What we find in our supermarkets is but another example of the digitally altered and perfected music we hear on the radio or the false sounds we hear from politicians.
On many levels, ours is an inauthentic culture:
the artificial is everywhere and everywhere it is promised to trump the real thing.
In such a culture, Christians are called to be a People who are honest, genuine and real.
There’s a story in the beginning of Mark’s Gospel. It’s the last in a series of 3 ‘Kingdom moments’ in which Jesus non-violently upends the status quo. Jesus calls Simon, who is a tax collector and, as such, is a Jew who makes his living by colluding with the Roman Empire.
Tax collectors were sinners. Outcasts. And even among the ‘ochlos’ (the despised and outcast poor) tax collectors were the most loathed of people.
Not only does Jesus call Simon to follow him, Jesus promptly eats and drinks with Simon and other sinners. Mark’s telling of Jesus eating and drinking with sinners includes the curious phrase “on his left elbow.”
That is, Jesus is reclining at the dinner table on his left elbow.
The left elbow was a 1st century colloquialism for being casual with another.
For being real.
Not a high and mighty Messiah, Jesus was authentically himself with sinners.
And by giving them his left elbow, Jesus gave sinners the right signal to be authentic themselves.
Incidentally, it’s when Jesus and his followers are being real around a table that Mark uses the word ‘disciple’ for the first time.
The postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard, commenting on the fake reality of contemporary culture, writes that what is needed is a “substituting the signs of the real for the real.”
There’s both a need and a hunger, he argues, for a reality that’s really real. He’s right. From farmers’ markets to home-brewed beer to handmade clothes sold on Etsy, people crave the authentic.
What’s more, today people are so numbed to the artificiality marketed to us from every angle that increasingly they have what Ernest Hemingway called a “a built-in, shockproof, bullshit detector.”
[What things in or about church would set off Hemingway’s BS Detector?]
Missiologist Michael Frost says this is both a challenge and an opportunity for the Church.
On the one hand, more and more people long for authentic relationships and experiences, communities of truthfulness and vulnerability.
On the other hand, this is exactly what many churches tend to avoid.
Churches too, Frost points out, peddle the artificial and inauthentic. Often churches are not places where folks recline on their left elbow with each other, sharing what’s really going on in their lives.
Churches are sometimes guilty, Frost says, of painting the Christian life in the sweet, sentimental glow of a Norman Rockwell painting. When Norman Rockwell fails to match people’s reality (because, admit it, it does for all of us), churches can end up alienating people.
Which leads to an interesting question:
[What are the things you can’t do, say or express in Church that you do in other everyday activities in your life?]
Which is just another way of asking:
[Why do Christians so often value respectability over authenticity?]
It’s important that we have an answer to that last question.
As Frost writes, in our increasingly post-Christendom culture Christians need to earn the right to be reheard:
“Is it too simplistic to say that we earn that right through our authentic lifestyles?
In a culture yearning for authenticity- the real- the pressure is on us in the Christian community now more than ever to put our time and our money where our mouth is and live what we preach.”
We’re called, in other words, not to be perfect Christians.
We’re called to be genuine people.
Who are trying to follow Jesus.
Which is good news.
Because if authenticity is what more and more people hunger after, then they’re searching not for the former but for the latter.
[What does a community of authenticity look like?
What’s the congregational equivalent of a farmers’ market?]
[What might it mean to practice an organic, homebrewed faith?]