As you may possibly imagine, I spend a fair amount of my time chatting with people – believers and non – about the church, its relevance, and how it will look as we move forward in the 21st century seeking to live faithfully in a culture in which church attendance has declined, faith is seen as something private and individual (and how often do our worship songs encourage this?), and in which the rapid increases in technology mean that we are at once more ‘connected’ than we have ever been whilst at the same time (anecdotally at least) many of us are less in touch with the ‘folk next door’ than in generations past.
Clearly I am not going to even attempt to cover all of these topics in one, short post. But I do want to share a few thoughts that have struck me through some of the reading that I have been doing over the past while: both biblical and extra-biblical.
A book that I reviewed recently as part of some training I am doing is Exiles: living missionally in a post-Christian culture by Michael Frost. As the name would suggest he looks at the church through an exilic lens, reflecting on the similarities between followers-of-Jesus living in post-Christendom Western Europe, the US and Australia and the Israelites in the Babylonian exile. I am not even going to try and summarise the book except to say that I would definitely recommend it.
We have recently started a new group meeting fortnightly in our home over dinner, seeking to flesh out what it means to live as missional followers of Jesus in our culture. As a group we decided to read through the book of Daniel and try to identify some of the characteristics of what it looks like to live faithfully to God whilst living in a ‘host-culture’ which at times (both directly and indirectly) makes that task difficult. For the remainder of this post I intend to jot down a few of my own thoughts (acknowledging that, inevitably, there will be things picked up in them that came from others – within the group and my wider reading):
First, I noticed that Daniel and his friends were trained and educated within the host-culture whilst at the same time refusing to bow to all its demands. Clearly the fact that they were essentially slaves might mean that it was impossible for them to avoid this training, although their acts of faith-motivated-conscience in other areas would suggest that we might rightly conclude that they wouldn’t have been afraid to completely disregard the training programme and take whatever consequences came their way. But they didn’t. Yes, they refused to eat certain foods, probably due to the fact that they had been made ritually unclean in preparation or offering to the king, yet for the most part they partook in everything asked of them. Chapter 1:17 even shows God blessing and increasing their learning/skill – something that would surely never have happened had it been inherently wrong. Later in the book we see Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refusing to worship an idol, and yet in other ways they had clearly embraced their host cultures norms, for example in terms of how they dressed.
What’s the point? Well whilst it may seem obvious to some, I think it’s important that as a church we seek to learn from our culture in as many ways as we can whilst at the same time maintaining our God-given-identity as His holy (set apart) people. As someone who still considers myself to be part of the younger generation I think that this is particularly important for us: i.e. we need to seek to embrace as much of our culture as we genuinely can – recognising the God-image in all people, expressed in a whole variety of ways – whilst at the same time living distinctly where we are called to. [I realise there are many ways in which this can be fleshed out and applied and will seek to address some of these in the not-too-distant future.]
Next I noticed that in chapter 2, when questioning why the king had made a particular decision, Daniel spoke “with wisdom and tact”, asking a question in order to try and get to the bottom of what was really going on. I wonder how often the church asks questions and seeks to gain an understanding of what is really going on before jumping in with our answers or disagreements. And I also wonder what would happen if we showed a bit more tact in some of our dealings with people outside of the church – particularly when it comes to our interaction with political agendas…
In 4:27 Daniel offers a stinging critique of the king. Given the almost deified view in which the king was held this act becomes even more startling – and yet Daniel was willing to do it. Well aware that this once again opens up a huge avenue for further discussion, debate, and future exploration, I look at the example of Daniel and find myself wondering what the critique might be that we are called under God to make of the culture that we live in? And when is it right to critique as opposed to journey alongside people/institutions as we prayerfully and practically endeavour to see the redeeming grace of God impact and transform them?
Two quick thoughts in closing: no charge could be brought against Daniel. In other words, it would appear that in both his ethical standards and work ethic he was blameless. Now surely this must be seen relatively, as we would certainly be wrong to conclude that he was literally blameless. And yet it certainly challenges me because I am so painfully aware of the fact that the same could not always (often?) be said of me: neither my actions, thoughts, or words are constantly such that, to borrow from the New Testament in Peter’s first letter, people will necessarily see them and be drawn to glorify God. And yet that’s what I should be aiming for as I learn from Daniel – not just in some areas, but all.
And finally, prayer. It seems to me that even as Daniel lived his life in the context of exile that one thing remained constant: prayer. In 6:10 we see a practice that I am assuming was a characteristic of Daniel’s life: personal and private prayer. And as I reflected on that fact I wrote down this simple phrase: “Daniel allowed his faith-practice to deflect him from the expected norms within his society.” In other words, through the closeness of his walk with God Daniel allowed himself to see his host culture as God saw it – both good and bad – and in seeing this he was able to live his life faithfully as a missionary follower of a missionary God even in some of the most hostile examples that we could imagine and under intense pressure to conform.