What does countercultural Christianity look like in America today?
First, let’s be clear on what it doesn’t necessarily look like. Countercultural Christianity today isn’t defined by tattoos, craft beer, beards, and pour-over coffee. These are fine things, but they are in no way subversive, whether inside or outside Christianity. If they ever were countercultural, they aren’t anymore. They are mainstream, the majority, the megachurch, the Man.
Countercultural Christianity is also not defined by embracing brokenness, “authenticity,” doubt, and skepticism. These things are as pervasive and acceptable (even celebrated) in American suburbia as are iPhones and ESPN.
Nor is countercultural Christianity defined by spiritual mysticism, liberal (or conservative) activism, LGBT-inclusion or worship that sounds like Coldplay. Whatever else you think of such things, they are certainly inoffensive. Lucrative industries and entire television channels (not to mention churches in every city) are devoted to them. In Gramsci’s terms, these things are the “ideological apparatus” of the hegemony—certainly not underminers of it.
So what would define truly countercultural Christianity in today’s world?
Countercultures are, by definition, subcultures that develop in opposition to prevailing norms of mainstream, bourgeois, “polite” society—whatever those may be in a certain time or place. The freewheeling “mad ones” of the Kerouac/Ginsberg generation were countercultural in the midst of the Howdy Doody suburbia of 1950s America. Martin Luther’s questioning of the norm of indulgences was countercultural in 16th-century Europe. Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s refusal to join the throngs of “patriotic German Christians” in Nazi Germany was too. And of course, Jesus of Nazareth, the rebellious rabbi who scandalized the Jewish religious establishment of his day, was the epitome of countercultural.
But not every countercultural figure is a hero. ISIS is countercultural. Rogue and retrograde leaders like Kim Jong-Un and Vladimir Putin are countercultural in their own ways. Politically incorrect (and proud of it) Donald Trump is too.
Countercultural behavior isn’t inherently good. The one who goes against the grain isn’t always more valiant than the grain. Similarly, many who consider themselves subverters of bourgeois society are actually just reinforcers of it. This is why Vice Magazine, Pitchfork (recently purchased by Condé Nast), and Rob Bell (recently acquired by Oprah) are boundary-pushers only in the safe, Urban Outfitters sense. They are simply speciality products in a much bigger store.
Countercultural Christianity in America
“If cool Christianity exists,” I posited in Hipster Christianity, “it will not be because that is how we have packaged it and sold it. . . . It will be an outgrowth of the nature of the gospel itself—which is certainly counter to the prevailing mainstream values of the world.”
This brings us back to the original question: What defines countercultural Christianity today? What are the “prevailing mainstream values” Christianity subverts?
I’d suggest a truly countercultural Christianity in America undermines the idols of consumerism, comfort, freedom, and individualism. But really these four are all offshoots of one umbrella value: the autonomy of the self. It’s the sin that’s plagued humanity ever since Adam and Eve refused to bow to the good rules God established. And never has autonomy been more widely celebrated as a virtue than it is today.
America loves the autonomy of the self. We are a DIY nation; self-made; unregulated; FREEDOM fries! Our mantras are “be who you want to be,” “follow your dreams,” and “find yourself.” We celebrate not only individualism but “expressive individualism,” to use sociologist Robert Bellah’s term. This is no-constraints individualism, bound only by the frontiers of emotion and imagination. This is a world whose models of “courage” are men who decide they are women.
If you can dream it, you have every right to be it. Indeed, this ethos is perpetuated by every young girl who belts out Elsa’s anthem:
It’s time to see what I can do, to test the limits and break through. No right, no wrong, no rules for me. I’m free!
‘Value’ as Old as Eden
Self-autonomy and expressive individualism are everywhere in our culture: in the rising divorce rates among older couples who call it quits because their marriages are “no longer satisfying”; in Planned Parenthood’s defense of the right to end a life because its timing might be “unplanned” or inconvenient; in the government’s protection of an adolescent boy’s right to shower with girls because he identifies as a girl; in college students’ demands that offensive people or traumatic ideas be scrubbed from campus; in the political right’s refusal to accept any government regulations on pollution or guns because the freedom of individuals to burn fossil fuels or buy assault rifles is too sacred.
All of this is simply the outworking of the same autonomous impulse expressed in Walt Whitman’s “Song of Myself” (1855) or Robert Frost’s “The Road Not Taken” (1916); the same values that inspired Thoreau to escape to Walden and 1960s hippies to “turn on, tune in, and drop out” into LSD-fueled escapist utopias. It’s the value of “no one can tell me what to do, who to be, or how to act.” It’s the value our first parents championed in an ancient garden.
Sadly, self-autonomy is a deeply inculcated value within American Christianity too. Many churches today talk about authenticity, brokenness, and “meeting you where you’re at” far more than repentance, sanctification, and the cost of discipleship. They may not bless same-sex unions, but they happily perform weddings for cohabiting couples and lack the courage to decry divorce, lest they offend. Small groups are “safe places” for affirming each other’s unique “stories” rather than seeking to align with God’s. This fear of offending perpetuates the “church shopping” approach, turning churchgoers into consumers and worship into therapy—easily discarded when the novelty wears off and a more appealing alternative comes along.
How to Be Countercultural Today
So how can Christians be countercultural in today’s world? We can start by combating self-autonomy within our own churches. We can begin by being honest about the “seeker-insensitive” cost of a religion centered on a cross. We can be countercultural in a world of “do whatever makes you happy” by embracing the path of losing life to gain it (John 12:25), putting others first (Phil. 2:3–4), denying ourselves (Matt. 16:24), and carrying an execution device (Luke 14:27). We can be countercultural in a world that hates authority by gladly submitting to the authority of our Maker, his Word, and his church—even if it costs us our comfort. We can be countercultural by inviting our congregations to do hard things: commit to the church in all its mess, serve in a ministry, give generously, share the good news, embrace and learn from single people, worship even if you hate the song, repent even if you love the sin.
In today’s world, pastors who preach a feel-good message of Moralistic Therapeutic Deism are about as subversive as a Hallmark Channel rom-com. Far more countercultural are those who unabashedly preach the gospel and its implications, including self-denying discipleship. As Dustin Messer recently noted, “The real adventurers are those who set sail for the risky land of Christian orthodoxy. . . . In an age of autonomy, it’s those who subject their thoughts, behaviors, and passions to an exclusive Sovereign that are the brave few.”
And this sort of countercultural embrace of God’s authority is counterintuitively freeing. “Gimme more” consumerism and “be you!” individualism is a crushing burden. Quiet contentment in Christ is a gift.
Enslaved to Freedom
Four hundred years ago, the Puritan Jeremiah Burroughs observed:
Christian contentment is that sweet, inward, quiet, gracious frame of spirit, which freely submits to and delights in God’s wise and fatherly disposal in every condition.
Submitting to the “wise and fatherly disposal” of God “in every condition” is distasteful in our secular age, where the prevailing bourgeois ideal is the right of the sovereign self to determine its identity and destiny, free from any “rules” or requirements.
Denying yourself and submitting to King Jesus, then, is true countercultural living. And though it may look like legalism to the world, submitting to his authority is in fact liberty—shocking, unexpected, subversive liberty.