Now if you have no idea about that split spare yourself the details. It’s just celebrity gossip and now terribly dated as well. I mention the story because it represents a misunderstanding that can occur in church cultures about the irreligious or even just those they think are slightly less religious. People can think we are into the most superficial crap they can imagine. Celebrities. Selfies. Not having babies so that we can have fame and material success. They presume we are both very casual about sex and yet obsessed by it. We are secular culture or sexual culture even.
To understand this we need to look at the underlying myth of “the world.” The world, from which we get the negative descriptor of worldliness, has a particular meaning in Christian thinking. It is not merely the same as the earth – a planet we live on. The world is human society but not exactly. Human societies can be distinguished by their differences. Human societies have conflicting values across time and place and even in the same time and place. The world is either a reduction, or a projection, of diverse human societies into one consistent phenomenon shaped by inherent selfishness and a desire to rebel against God.
Let me explain what I mean by a projection. By projection I’m allowing for the possible meaning of the world to be a potential future or even a primordial past that is present as either destiny or cause of human society but is not the sum total of what human society is presently. With this description it is still possible to recognise both the good and bad and diversity of human societies because all present societies are becoming either more or less like the world and potentially in different ways.
I want to be as fair as possible to the Christian concept of the world. In doing so I must also note that there are echoes of this concept in all heroic imaginings. The rationalist who views critical thinking and hard evidence as the cornerstones of progress will contrast their own cause with a world that is shallow in its thinking, motivated largely by the pursuit of comfort and conformity. Although they might not use the term they are saying something similar to “the world” when they describe the Dunning Kruger effect or confirmation bias. Here the rationalist may view themselves as having escaped the world fully but the more critical will be aware that they share its weakness and try to police them.
This rationalists translation of the Christian world however might be better called psychology. Like the Buddhist idea of the human dilemma there is no sense that walking away from crowds will diminish the problem of mind the rationalist wants to overcome. By contrast the Christian notion of the world is social. For the Christian there might be a human psychology (or inherent sinfulness) that cannot be withdrawn from, that recreates the world, but there is also a sense that the flaws of individual psychology are amplified in the world or that the world manufactures flaws that a solitary human could not.
This resembles more closely Marxist ideas of how people are alienated within economies and how dominant ideologies in society become paradigms that we can’t even see. For example everything is reduced to property under capitalism so that perceiving land without an owner (even a state owner) becomes impossible. When such a system produces injustices it can be difficult to identify anyone who is responsible. Certainly the landlord who rents a house at unaffordable rents is not held responsible for homelessness when they are simply following the market rate. Neither is the train station guard who tells the homeless person that they can’t sleep in the doorway they’ve chosen. Everyone is simply complying with the dictates of property. This sounds very similar to the Christian concept of the world ; a totalising cultural phenomenon that is hard to resist. The world can be a useful concept for naming the “water we swim in” culturally.
As much as the world can help us bring to light unseen cultural trends it can also be a concept that goes sour very easily. This occurs when the world and the church are understood as two distinct spaces in their current form. The church then becomes code for us (if you are a believer) while the world is them. Us and them. So let’s look at the ways that Us and them thinking about the church and the world goes wrong.
1. It misses a call to deeper difference with the world.
Churches which hold to us and them thinking about the church and the world need to focus on superficial matters where they can draw clear distinctions. Once upon a time they might have used divorce or sex before marriage as a mark of distinction but increasingly they can’t because there are unmarried and remarried parents in their pews. Instead now they might talk about hook up culture or porn use or acts of piety like church attendance. Meanwhile the church and its’ members accumulate property, and otherwise live as parts of the political economy just like citizens of the world. On average church attendees give more to charity but as they pursue political and economic power and security with the excuse that they have the right to like any other group, the way they distinguish themselves from the world is a missed opportunity for challenge.
2. It at least appears to be astonishing in its ignorance of church failure.
Our Prime minister, Scott Morrison, made a big deal of his Christian faith in the lead up to the election. He is defending the most blatant practice of pork barrelling by any Australian government as I write this. Of course child abuse in the church has been a national scandal with our highest profile sex abuser, Archbishop Pell, being defended in character by our most well known Methodist, Ex-PM John Howard. The notion that the church and the world in their present forms are the contrast between Gods way and the highway cannot be believed. I believe Christians who make that sort of claim generally mean the Church as it should be rather than how it is, but if this is not made clear the effect is to seem blind to injustice enacted by their own tribe.
3. It is astonishing in its ignorance of what is happening outside the church.
When Church voices draw a distinction between church and world as two separable places in their current form they have to paint the secular world as devoid of hope and virtue. This is the concern that prompted my writing. I am so tired of people in church talking about secular people as “the selfie generation” without any irony. It honestly feels like the authors of those comments caught an ad for a mainstream television reality show and figured that’s what everyone outside the church is like. Their benchmark for assessing popular culture is the Kardashians. But if you are generally concerned with opposing vapidity in culture how is it that you haven’t found any of the allies in all the spaces outside of church? Just talk to young people themselves and you will find many who don’t want mobile phones or are unimpressed with social media and celebrity culture. In another example every Christmas there are numerous voices from Christians and non-Christians wanting to simplify and move away from consumptive consumerism, and seeking to make the season kinder to planet and the poor. But to hear some Christian speakers use of the world, its as if secular society is all lining up for the sales while in contrast Christians reflect on the incarnation. What a missed opportunity for alliances.
Even worse is the attribution of millennial frustrations to selfishness and cultural priorities. Why aren’t non-churched people having kids? It would have to be a desire for fame, fortune and freedom instead... and a lack of hope. It couldn’t be a decline in real wages and a housing market that is an investors playground. Could it? OK Boomer.
4. It’s vague as all hell and can easily be an excuse for blind bigotry.
The call to be unlike the world can be misapplied to suggest that any compromise of rigid fundamentalism for compassion or common sense is a compromise with the world for worldly gain. Zippers on pants instead of good honest buttons? Contraception? “Secular” movies and music? Women priests? Blessing same sex relationships? Anything can be worldly if you don’t like it.
If a person wants to argue against those things then they should develop arguments unpolluted by just labeling something worldly.
Worse still the term worldly can be used to dog-whistle one’s prejudices without actually having the courage to express them or to sound like you mean different things to different audiences for maximum appeal. The hypocrisy of this frankly cowardly approach to preaching is that it uses the rhetoric of radical bravery as it makes supposedly challenging calls to reject the world. Meanwhile everybody gets to decide what that means for them while looking down on others who decide differently.
I hope some of what I’ve written inspires the Christians I know to challenge how the concept of the world is used in their own and their peers rhetoric. To non- Christians reading this please know many Christians are not actually like the preacher from Footloose, there are Christians I know who are ACDC fans, avid board-gamers, into musical theatre, or complete nerds about anime, but it can be hard to confront how the world is used negatively by Christian leaders and teachers particularly when it is all dog-whistle and lack of detail.
Lastly this isn’t just a problem for Christians. The idea of the world can take many forms. From my own left wing perspective I should be critical of what I see as the path capitalism paves for our culture without needing to think every participant in it is corrupted by it and that every product of capitalism is entirely destructive. The four errors I mentioned above can easily be made by me. In a sense the world is always both present and being resisted at the same time and moving beyond simplicity is necessary for us all.