I love Waiting for Lefty, a play I first discovered in the midst of my undergraduate education at North Park University. Written by Clifford Odets in the 1930s, the story takes place in the union hall of New York taxi drivers. We learn early on in the play that the majority of cab drivers are unhappy with their pitiful wages and are ready to strike. Indeed, we see as the play proceeds that one man—a husband and father—has had his furniture repossessed, and his wife is threatening to leave him. Another cannot marry his girlfriend because they’d have no hope for anything other than a life of poverty. There’s no dignity or fair wages to be had for a full day’s work.
So what’s stopping them from striking? Fear. In a depressed economy, they are easily fired and easily replaced, so they’re waiting for Lefty, the union organizer with strike experience who’s going to help them come out on the other side with both jobs and better wages. Until Lefty arrives, however, the workers merely hurl benign insults at the corporate fat cats who dominate the union and wish to suppress the strike.
Waiting for Lefty is significant to me because the place in which the characters find themselves stuck symbolizes a place where many Christians get stuck. We look at the culture that surrounds us, and it’s incredibly unsatisfying. It doesn’t meet our basic needs or allow us the freedom to become who we dream of being, who we are meant to be. Though most of us graduate from school with grand visions of changing the world, the world does not provide fertile soil for our visions, and those visions often succumb to the drought and weeds of life.
Speaking at Harvard’s graduation in 2001, Bono said, “The culture of idealism is under siege, beset by materialism and narcissism and all the other ‘isms’ of indifference.” This indifference is reflected in every aspect of North American culture—from politics to movies, education to business—and we desperately want to make a change, but we don’t know how.
So we shout insults at the “evil” world. We blame the liberal media for its muckraking of prominent Christians. We protest the removal of God from our civic institutions. We boycott immorality. We are reactive instead of proactive. We are paralyzed with fear, thinking that we are powerless against the overwhelming tides of a booming secular culture. After all, we live in a big, big world in which the poor are just an inconvenient byproduct of the free market, politicians are valued for their star-quality rather than their commitment to justice, and artistic expressions, as well as historic artifacts, are valued only in dollar amounts.
And then we have the Church—an earthly institution that is, to the undiscerning eye, bogged down by ritual, hypocrisy, and pride. Henrikus Berkhof writes, “The Church of Christ is spiritually unable to stand against the rapid changes that take place around her because she has not learned to view history from the perspective of the reign of Christ. For that reason, she thinks of the events of her own time in entirely secular terms. She is overcome with fear in a worldly manner, and in a worldly manner she tries to free herself from fear.” Too often, the bride of Christ is the cowardly perpetrator of violence rather than the wise bringer of transformational love.
In Waiting for Lefty, the oppressed workers try to free themselves from fear by believing in some sort of earthly saviour who will change their world for the better, who will give them the confidence to do what they only dream of—but Lefty is running very late and a trained union buster is succeeding in dulling the righteous anger of the taxi drivers. Toward the end of the play, a man comes rushing in with the news—Lefty has been found dead with a bullet in his head! The men are temporarily stunned; Lefty was their only hope. But then, in a wonderful, spontaneous, and collective change of plans, the union members decide to go it alone, and the play ends with deafening cries of liberated men: “Strike! Strike! Strike!”
If we take the analogy a little further between the workers and Christians, we are fortunate enough to have a Saviour who already went on strike for us. He single-handedly took on sin and death on our behalf, and the person running in at the end of the scene is not carrying news of defeat. Instead, we are awed with shouts of, “He’s alive! Come and see! He’s alive!” Believing in the risen Christ means believing in the truth of His resurrection and believing that evil has already been conquered. There is no need to fear! Satan could not tempt the sacrificial Lamb away from the slaughter, nor could Satan claim that sinless soul for eternity. Life from the resurrection on is simply about reclaiming what was God’s to begin with, boldly cultivating God’s kingdom here on earth in the knowledge that the perfect Ruler is returning.
But even in realizing this empowering truth, there is the danger that we will be overcome, this time with a lack of practical understanding of what that truth means. Many active believers easily perceive our role in this world as creating an alternative or “counter” culture—one that is sacred, as opposed to secular; one that exclusively glorifies the God of the Bible instead of the gods of the world. And there is something admirable in this quest to have Christian bookstores and Christian coffeehouses and Christian films. There is the desire of parents to keep their children safe from bad influences (such as the witchcraft of Harry Potter). There is the desire of devout individuals to keep themselves holy, their minds pure (void, for example, of the influence of sexually intimate images, regardless of whether those images represent truth). A friend of mine who was known for his fanatic following of the band U2, upon recommitting his life to Christ several years ago, gave away or destroyed all of his U2 CDs, videos, and paraphernalia in order to only listen to explicitly Christian music. At the time, I felt guilty for my own unwillingness to give up all things secular to show my commitment to God.
Now, however, I realize that my uncomfortable feelings about his actions were not so much guilt as they were a sense of disconnect between believing in an all-powerful God and believing that a secular culture had the power to overcome that God. My friend’s intentions were good, as are the general intentions in creating a counterculture, but the theory is inadequate. Primarily, the theory assumes that we as Christians are being led by culture rather than being leaders in culture.
As followers of God living in a culture created by God, we are not separate from culture, we ARE culture! We are members of the body of Christ seeking to live according to the way God intended we live at the creation of the earth, as collaborating cultivators who name, maintain, and create. Calvin Seerveld writes, “Unless the first chapters of Genesis are simply a handy preface to God’s revelation to refute macro-evolutionistic theories, Christians must hear what the Spirit is saying there to the churches, if they want the life perspective of biblically straightened-out believers. Culture is not optional. Formative culturing of creation is intrinsic to human nature, put there purposely—God knows why.”
God doesn’t just require us to love the good things He created; rather, God requires us to do something with them. We aren’t supposed to merely love justice; we are to DO justice. We aren’t merely supposed to feel the emotion of love toward God and others; we are to undertake the action of loving God and neighbour, for “faith without deeds is dead” (James 2:26b, NIV).
But still, there’s that nagging question: what exactly is our task? My husband and I, along with several others, have dedicated our vocations to finding a practical answer to that question that will inspire a large-scale revolution in the way Christians engage culture. A passage we find speaks directly to this question is Ephesians 4:11-16 (NIV):
It was Christ who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into Him who is the Head, that is Christ. For from Him, the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love as each part does its work.
Every time I read this passage, I make a new discovery about our collective function as the body of Christ and my individual role as a member of that body. It was in dissecting this verse that we came up with the motto for *culture is not optional: Unite. Learn. Serve. And it’s in the three parts of this motto that we can find some of the practical answers to the question, “So, I’ve accepted grace through Christ—now what?”
An important first step is to realize that none of us works alone. You’ve heard many sermons, no doubt, on the analogy of believers as members of one body—this image is central to understanding our task as followers who have seen a glimpse of the Kingdom that is both here and still to come. We are paralyzed from the task of fully engaging culture when we mistakenly think we are working alone or that we can work alone. The mistake is an easy one to make, which is why we all need to surround ourselves with practical evidence that the opposite is true.
We do this by intentionally being part of something larger than ourselves, even larger than our individual churches. Find a local, national, or international organization that is doing work in connection with your passions. For those interested in politics, keep up with goings-on at the Center for Public Justice orSojourners. If you’re passionate about children, get in touch with Compassion International or the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding. Support such organizations with your time and resources, and use these organizations as a means to finding the people who are doing practical work to cultivate the Kingdom. Get connected in a way that allows you to interact with like-minded believers: find a local group; go to a conference; register with an online community (like the one at www.catapultmagazine.com).
True unity involves more than networking; it involves the intentional building of community. True unity involves developing relationships that are intimate and interdependent. One of the most significant catalysts to starting *culture is not optional was the fact that we were surrounded by a community of individuals who had given us the permission to take risks, in that they were willing to support us emotionally, spiritually, and financially as we moved forward in blind faith. When confronted with the news that we were quitting our full-time jobs to start a non-profit organization with no guarantee of funding, these people did not react out of fear (even though our mothers naturally were having visions of our empty cupboards and rotting teeth). Rather, their reactions were guided by the desire that we fulfill our unique purposes and do what we were made to do. Each one of us needs this Christ-centred community, wherever we may find it.
Something college students must understand as a fair warning is that the transition from university life to the so-called real world is the easiest time to find one’s self lacking that community. The personal discovery of this truth inspired the initial online discussion board that eventually became *culture is not optional. As members of the Dordt College diaspora, several of us found ourselves longing for late night discussions about culture and an atmosphere that challenged us to develop and live out our worldviews. In recognizing our isolation from one another, we made a conscious choice to seek a medium for staying in touch and to invite other like-minded folks into that extended community.
Outside of online possibilities, remaining grounded in community may be as simple as establishing a yearly get-together with close friends who make you feel alive when you’re around them. Or you could get connected with like-minded believers in your area through *cino or through a local church. Or you could go so far as to commit to sharing living space with a few like-minded people in an effort to be stewardly with your resources and make the risks of discovering your true vocation less scary. Perceiving our task with clarity is a blessing as well as a curse, when its enormity inevitably threatens to overwhelm us, so take precautions against fatal discouragement by surrounding yourself with people who can help you remember and achieve the vision when your eyes lose focus from exhaustion.
Next to and intertwined with community, another element of engaging culture successfully is learning. The most basic skill we need to learn is discernment, so that, as the Ephesians verse says, we will no longer be children, believing everything we hear. A quote I keep coming back to again and again appeared in Madeleine L’Engle’s book, Walking on Water, and it’s from Emmanuel Cardinal Suhard: “To be a witness does not consist of engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.” I think this is a beautiful way of stating our responsibility of living in this world as followers of Christ, but how can we fulfill that responsibility if we can’t distinguish between the way God wants us to live and the way the world wants us to live? That is the function of learning in the context of faith—to answer the question Francis Shaeffer addressed in his famous book: if the Gospel of Christ is true, how should we then live?
Practically speaking, answering this question involves committed meditation on the Scriptures, learning how to be in a state of constant prayer and study of other sources relevant to living a life of faith. Find strength and inspiration in the communion of the saints, past and present, whose stories are recorded in the Bible and elsewhere. Study the words of Paul and John and Isaiah alongside the words of Paul Marshall and Ron Sider and Dorothy Day, developing a genuine hunger and thirst for righteousness, for the “aha” moments that bring us closer to embodying the mind of Christ and knowing the unchanging God.
Another major part of learning in the context of faith is the discovery of what you were made to do, of the unique purpose that will make sense of your few days on earth. Frederick Buechner said, “Where your deepest gladness and the world’s deepest hunger meet, that’s your vocation.” At any stage of life, we need to be intentional about our vocations, as the discovery of a true calling is intimately connected with the third element of engaging culture, which is service. George Bernard Shaw wrote:
This is the true joy of life: being used up for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one; being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to others, and as long as I live, it is my privilege to do for them whatever I can. I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live.
Do you know anyone who might be described as a “feverish, selfish little clod of ailments?” Someone who’s always complaining that nothing’s going their way? For a long time, I assumed these individuals simply wanted to be difficult and contradictory, but their disdain for themselves and those around them is a deeper issue that stems from lack of purpose. I can pick out unique talents and passions among every person I know who fits into this category—were they to put their minds to something constructive, they’d certainly be, as Shaw puts it, a “force of nature.” But they live their lives as if the only goal is to survive with a modest amount of material comfort and as few moral failings as possible. Ultimately, they lack vision for their lives, and, in the middle of the pressures of mortgages and insurance and children and vehicles and taxes, it’s one of the easiest mistakes to make.
Some people will stumble on their lives’ purpose by accident, but usually, developing a vision for your life and discovering your vocation requires you to stop with intention at various points in your life. Spend time in study, meditation, and conversation, intentionally evaluating your gifts, passions, and experiences as a means to answering the question: what was I made to do? Or, if you come up with too many answers, like I did, ask yourself: what can I not live without? Quoting an unknown source in his book Wild at Heart, John Eldredge writes, “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”
What makes me feel most alive? Is it writing essays or working outdoors or helping children learn? Is it caring for the earth or working with numbers or traveling the world? A friend of mine, giving equal consideration to writing and theology and social justice work, in asking herself what she couldn’t live without, discovered her passion in animal rescue. She’s now on the path to create a mobile spay/neuter clinic in her mostly rural county, which will give low-income families assistance with their pets and save hundreds of unwanted animals from life (and death) in a shelter. Chances are, if you can answer the question of what you can’t live without, you’ll be closer to answering the question of what you were made for and the question of how you can make a difference. We all need to engage seriously in a practical vocation if we hope to fulfill our roles as members of the body of Christ. Each of us needs to claim a calling.
Throughout the journey to fulfill our callings and fully realize the connection between thought and action, we’ll inevitably endure many switchbacks on our way up the hill, alternating between despair at the vague, humongous task of engaging culture and returning again and again to the hope that there are practical ways of achieving that task. Part of what keeps me on the hopeful side of that path is the work we’re doing with *culture is not optional. Our ultimate vision is for a vast network of committed Christians, all obediently doing their parts with a definite sense of purpose, all seeking to bring light to every dark corner of culture. In such a clear statement of truth that it’s often repeated, Abraham Kuyper declares, “There is not one square inch of the entire creation about which Jesus Christ does not cry out, ‘This is mine! This belongs to me’.” The inspiring thing about faith in such a possessive Saviour is that it does not merely consist of a mass of impractical theory. John Calvin writes, “The gospel is not a doctrine of tongue, but of life. . . . Our religion will be unprofitable if it does not change our heart, pervade our manners, and transform us into new creatures.”
We have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to do practical work that cultivates God’s all-encompassing Kingdom here on earth. We’re no longer in a period of passively waiting for the Saviour, for Christ has come, and victory is ours. Only by claiming our calling in the community of believers do we claim the victory that is ours through Christ.
A revolution is already underway. Christians all over the world are uniting against the fear of being overcome by evil, against the desire to create an aesthetically inferior Christian subculture, against the lack of purpose that leads to a life lived in vain. By joining the strike against passive faith, we stand on the side of excellence in praise of a magnificent Creator, of unique gifts put to practical use in the service of Christ, of faith in the ability of the community of believers to reclaim every nook and cranny of God’s culture. Now is the time. The Kingdom is at hand—won’t you join us?