Friday, June 21, 2013

Are We Suspicious Enough?

Guest Post by Brian Mattson

You know what “normal,” ordinary Christian people do? They do what most other people do. They go to school, get a job, get married, have children, work 40 hours a week, buy a house in a nice neighborhood, go on vacations, get involved in their church, their neighborhoods, their communities, and live life. That has a lot (not everything, but a lot) in common with what the other 99% of people on the broad road to destruction are doing. Advocates of “radical” Christianity want us to be suspicious, very suspicious of this “normal” way of life.

We 21st century inhabitants of the Western world are suspicious people. We are conscious, perhaps more than any people group before, of power relationships. We are suspicious of “privilege,” that is, being so much a part of a majority group that we blindly take for granted things that other, marginalized or suffering people cannot. This suspicion of “privilege” has now achieved the point where I now often read the term “Christian privilege” on a popular Christian blog used to guilt-shame Christians for taking their status in America for granted in a variety of ways.

In a deep sense, the concept of “privilege” is related to the question of being “radical,” because it is simply another way of describing a norm. The “normal” is inevitably what the majority of people think, enjoy, do, or take for granted. And those who are “normal” in a society are “privileged” in that society. Things will naturally be structured in a way that benefits the majority of people. The call to be “radical” is usually to reject this norm or privilege. Stop taking your privilege for granted and to reach out to the marginalized and suffering. Take your faith back from “the American Dream.” Turn your back on the 401(k), retirement, 40 hour work week, and do something radically different than what normal people do. Be “missional” and move to a poor neighborhood in the inner city. Quit your lucrative career and engage in full time “ministry.”

This suspicion of the “normal” or “privilege” has become conventional wisdom, but it seems strange to me that we never seem to be suspicious of where we got this suspicion in the first place. It is in large measure the legacy of postmodern philosophy. In the postmodernism of, say, Foucault or Derrida, there is no fixed “nature.” All “norms” (even sexuality and gender identities) are just social conventions established by the powerful to keep the marginalized down. Norms are just power plays by the haves over the have-nots, the insiders over the outsiders. Put bluntly: Norms are bad. Norms mean privilege. Privilege means oppression.

When popular Christian authors express suspicion about the “normal” because it means “privilege,” which leads inexorably to oppressing others, I wonder why their cultural suspicions stop there. Why shouldn’t we be suspicious of the people that taught us to think in these terms? It seems to me, given our cultural situation, that it would be more “radical” to begin suspecting the likes of Foucault and Derrida, who, after all, didn’t believe that God endowed his creation with norms. Whatever that is, it isn’t a Christian conviction.

“Normal” is not an escapable concept, as any statistician can tell you. If everyone is “radical,” then “radical” simply becomes the new boring norm. There’s no getting around it. And the same is true for “privilege.” Somebody’s values and beliefs, their ideas of the good, the true, and the beautiful, will win the day in any given culture. The idea of a thoroughly egalitarian, privilege-less society is a utopian, postmodern mirage. Something John Lennon sang about. And yes, he was a dreamer.

This isn’t to say that there isn’t truth in postmodernism’s observations. Surely many societies make idols their norm and oppress people and do very bad things. Of course, we didn’t need to read Foucault to figure that out: a cursory read of the Prophets would tell us the same. The difference is that the Bible doesn’t condemn “norms” or “privilege” as such. It does something far more sophisticated than our deconstructionist teachers could ever do: it tells us there are righteous and unrighteous norms, and a righteous and unrighteous enjoyment of privilege.

I think we often have a knee-jerk reaction that says that the root of the problem must be in the structures of our way of life, when the real issue, it seems to me, is an ethical question about how we use (or, better abuse) the structures of our way of life, for righteousness or unrighteousness. This is a perennial temptation, from the ancient Gnostics who thought material existence in space and time is itself the root of our miseries, to Marx and Engels who laid the blame on economic inequities, to the Wendell Berry-esque anti-urbanites in our own day who think cities are the problem.

This isn’t to say there are no unethical structures or ways of life. That would be silly. 19th century American slavery was nothing if not a structural phenomenon. We do well to critically examine our “normal” way of life and bring it into ethical conformity to Christ. But we misfire when we mistakenly assume that the ultimate source of our miseries is something exterior to our hearts, whether it be economic arrangements or a variety of social orderings.

What we need is an account of those “exteriors,” what I call the “stuff.” For that we need a doctrine of creation and fall. And more on that to come.

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