This week on my blog, I wrote about listening to David Kinnamon speak on the Barna Group’s survey of young adults and their attitudes towards Christianity and the church. The survey results are one thing, much of them found here and elsewhere on the Barna site. The analysis of the results is another thing.
When Kinnamon was talking about where the church found itself, he paralleled the Church’s current situation to that of the Jewish exiles in Babylon: a group of the faithful, devoted to God, but surrounded by a hostile, alien culture. The exiles had been sent to Babylon to be purified by God, and now their job was to remain faithful, and to avoid giving in to the world around it. They were to plant gardens, and work for the good of the Babylonian cities, but mainly, their job was to survive unscathed until God sent them home to Israel.
I tweeted at the time (a tweet that I think the speaker saw, actually. High-five, Twitter auto-locate function!) that something was bothering me about the Babylon analogy. I continued to ponder it, and I finally figured out what it was.
Aside from my innately Anglican dislike of the absolute culture vs Christianity dichotomy, I think there’s a real misread here of what the Babylonian Exile was, and where we are positioned as 21st Century Christians.
The Jews in 586 BCE were violently conquered and dragged from their homes on the threat of death by Babylon. The temple in Jerusalem was ransacked and burned. This all caused a religious crisis so deep that most of the prophetic literature in the Hebrew canon revolves around it, if not most of the Hebrew canon itself. Next to the Exodus from Egypt, it was the single defining event of Jewish history. (And you could possibly argue that the Exodus, to large extent, gets read in light of the Exile.)
When the Jews ended up in Babylon, and in the diaspora, it was basically that, or die. Jeremiah doesn’t recommend planting gardens, building houses, and working for cities’ prospering because gardening is fun; he recommends it so that the exiles don’t die. This is a life and death situation, quite literally. Esther saves her people from a genocide. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abendego are thrown into the fire so that they will die, as consequence of being on the wrong side of Babylon.
Contrast this to the situation of Christians in 21st century America. While I recognize that this is meant to be an extended metaphor, I’d like to point out that we aren’t being killed, neither are we being forcibly prevented from worshipping as we choose. A majority of Americans self-identify as Christian; this number includes the President, all but three of the nine Supreme Court justices, and a full 86% of the US Congress. People who identify as Christian do not lack access to the levers of power in this country. The disappearance of Christendom doesn’t come from a lack of power; it stems from a lack of authority. And authority in the 21st century derives from authenticity: to what degree we live up to what we preach and teach–a very, very different thing from raw power.
What we’re experiencing now is pluralism–one claim among many–not the experience of an oppressed minority.
And so I’m left wondering: what Biblical metaphor is better than Babylon? We talk about the Acts community a lot around here (for obvious reasons) but are there others? Paul’s community at Corinth? Abraham in Genesis?
What metaphor speaks to you about living in pluralism?