Let’s be irrelevant.
The Desert Fathers were a group of fourth and fifth century Christians that pursued solitude and prayer in the Egyptian desert. In describing them, Thomas Merton writes in the introduction to his book The Wisdom of the Desert:
“Society … was regarded [by the Desert Fathers] as a shipwreck from which each single individual man had to swim for his life … These were men who believed that to let oneself drift along, passively accepting the tenets and values of what they knew as society, was purely and simply a disaster.”
Upon reading that, I immediately scribbled in the margin of the book, “But what about being culturally relevant?” Understanding modern culture and being able to use certain elements of it to reach people is a very popular subject. The church down the street from me puts the Starbucks Logo on the front of their direct mail cards. By dedicating this amount of visual real estate to Starbucks, they are clearly saying one of the most important things a potential visitor needs to know is “Our Church proudly serves complimentary Starbucks Coffee and donuts every Sunday morning for your enjoyment.”
So what then, Desert Fathers, are we to do about cultural relevance?
Henri J. M. Nouwen answers in his book, The Way of the Heart, as he reflects on what Merton wrote about the Desert Fathers.
“Here indeed is ministry in its purest form, a compassionate ministry born of solitude. Anthony and his followers, who escaped the compulsions of the world, did so not out of disdain for people but in order to be able to save them.”
Merton, who described these monks as people who swam for their lives in order not to drown in the sinking ship of their society, adds to the Nouwen’s idea by remarking:
“They knew that they were helpless to do any good for others as long as they floundered about in the wreckage. But once they got a foothold on solid ground, things were different. They had not only the power but even the obligation to pull the whole world to safety after them.”
The question I ask is this, “have we as Christians, having lost our ability to embrace solitude, confused being culturally relevant with what is actually floundering about in the wreckage?”
Have we spent more time studying the way Apple communicates through their marketing and the ways Starbucks builds a sense of community and far too little time in solitude? Have we ever gotten a foothold on solid ground?
My personal answer is no. I, as an individual, did not swim away from the wreckage before I tried to pull others to safety. I simply tried to look at the wreckage from a Christian worldview. But I most certainly did not spend any time in solitude, what Nouwen calls “the furnace of transformation.”
The other question that this all raises is, “Is being culturally relevant enough?” Does our relevance give us an angle with which to reach people? Is our understanding of culture the rope that connects us from the solid ground to the drowning victim?
Popular culture may have changed dramatically, but I don’t think the culture of emotion has changed that much. The expression of it certainly has, as emails and cell phones and a thousand other progressions have evolved the way we communicate and interact. But the core issues that we all struggle with and rejoice in, are the same throughout the centuries. Joy. Loneliness. Anger. Fear. Peace. These are the some of things that the Israelites wrestled with in the desert and some of the same things the soccer mom wrestles with at Target. They are not new. In the recent marketing book “Waiting for your Cat to Bark” Bryan and Jeffrey Eisenberg express that same idea by writing, “Technology may evolve at a pace that leaves us breathless, but the essential qualities of human behavior aren’t nearly that transitory. The road may have changed, but those traveling on the road haven’t.”
What if instead of trying to stay on top of trends and culture, an exhausting activity, I learned how to be spiritually relevant? Would my ability to connect with someone’s pain or happiness be a stronger, thicker rope from the shore to the sea? What if the yearnings of the human condition became so relevant to me that the trappings of culture became irrelevant? What if instead of having an understanding of culture as our final destination we aimed toward shaping it and actually creating it?
When I take those questions and hold them up against the prodigal son story, the topic of my book, an interesting idea emerges. The particular part of the story that raises the greatest question is the party itself. Throwing a party in response to the son’s return was not a very culturally relevant thing to do. If anything, it was wildly irrelevant. When told this story, a group of Muslim young men asked my friend why the father didn’t kill the prodigal son. That response, murder, would have been the culturally relevant thing to do.
But instead they had a party.
When the older brother returns from the field he is taken back by the irrelevance of the whole situation. He asks what the meaning of the dancing and the celebrating is. At this point the father comes out the back door and pleads with him to attend the party. Maybe that’s how we’re supposed to approach the question of relevance and irrelevance?
Maybe we’re supposed to be intentionally irrelevant? Maybe my response to situations is supposed to be so different from what is expected, what is relevant, that people in my world can’t help but ask questions? Maybe what the church needs now, more than ever before, is not greater relevance to what’s happening in culture, but more irrelevance?