Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Monks and the Christian Subculture

As strange as this title may sound, there is a strong logical connection between the monks of the fourth to tenth centuries and (especially the fundamentalist) Christians of our current century. For those who are unaware of the basic historical outline of Christian monasticism, it all started as a flight to the desert when thousands of Christians were concerned that their morals would be compromised in an age when Christianity had become mainstream. Constantine's implementation of Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire put a quick end to the persecution and martyrdom that had been tormenting Christians for three centuries. However, as many are aware, nothing will lend more to the spiritual deprivation of a religion than for it to be shifted from the realm of the lawless to that of the mandatory. The danger suddenly arose (a danger which still exists today) that people would forget the meaning of Christianity, and would allow it to become so common and so habitual that it might as well not even exist.

And so began the history of Christianity as a counter-cultural phenomenon. Without wanting to deny any of the good that comes out of the monastic tradition (it is only because of the monks of the Benedictine tradition that much of the literature from the Greek classical era survived through the so-called Dark Ages), it is interesting to see how the anti-cultural prejudices of many Christians of the medieval times are still prevalent today. One of the clearest manifestations of this pattern is seen in the Christian music industry, which offers Christian kids an alternative to the "evil secular music" that parents are so afraid of. The philosophy seems to be that we can set up for ourselves a Christian equivalent to everything that is popular in the secular world, and if we succeed, maybe, just maybe, the world will be won for Christ.

Now, it would be negligent for me not to point out one of the key differences between early medieval monasticism and the contemporary Christian subculture (a difference which may just distinguish what is redeemable and noble in the first from what is cowardly and despicable in the second). What led so many Christians to flee the Roman cities in the fourth century was that their faith was being trivialized by the nominalism of its new adherents. They weren't trying to escape the secular world because of any physical threat it might pose on them. In fact, they had withstood physical threat for three centuries, and Christianity was, in the face of it all, growing. The post-Constantinian Christians' spirituality was so honest and meaningful that they were refusing to allow it to be lost in this new wave of apathy and impiety sweeping across the Roman Empire.

As we examine the Christian subculture, we see the same trend of wanting an alternative to "mainstream" culture, but this time for all the wrong reasons. Although pluralism is making society far more tolerant, one still encounters a certain tone of ridicule and disrespect directed towards organized religion and its devoutees. It is this tone that Christians today find so inconvenient to have to deal with, and the solution is to retreat into an inpenetrable bubble permeated with Christianized impedimenta.

One could go on for hours listing the many ways in which Christians have tried to avoid culture, but I think it would be more appropriate at this point to look at alternative approaches to the "secular". I think it woud be altogether better for the world and for Christians if we had some idea of what things are like "out there". We often try to convince ourselves that the world hates us because we're Christ-like, but I think the real reason is that we come across as being stuffy and sanctimonious. What is most concerning is that we set the church up as a place where people are only welcome once they've cleaned up their lives. What normally happens is that people become so tightly knit into the social fold of a church that they are never able to admit it when they have become, shall we say, less than faithful. Hence the all-too-common and all-too-tragic scent of hypocrisy wafting from the church's pores in every direction.

I don't pretend to have all of the answers, nor do I have enough confidence in my wit to think that I could hold your attention as I attempt to expound what I think might pass as anything ressembling a significant insight into what might be considered an even remotely useful solution. However, I will say that I think it would be nice if churches and church people would embrace honesty and authenticity instead of just morality and dogma.