Complaint, Critique, and Prophetic Engagement

Since entering the vast wonderland of “blogging” some few years ago, I have had the privilege of electronic correspondence with people whose thoughts and ideas mirror, refine, and challenge my own. It has been a joy to read, and to be read; to challenge and to be challenged by people who I likely would never have met otherwise, and by some whom it is unlikely I shall ever meet. It is always a surprise when I find the circle of acquaintanceship somewhat larger than I had otherwise supposed. It is a small world after all.

One thing that has me pondering, however, as I return from overseas mission into the bubbling cauldron of U.S. presidential election year politicking and the ongoing self analysis done by me and like minded bloggers is the extent to which our commentary, well intended though it is, is often nothing more than complaint dressed in the acceptable clothing of critique or even prophetic engagement.

I think of this because I’ve just spent weeks with students who I taught and stressed the value and virtue, nay the command of scripture not to complain based on the well know Philippians passage. I stressed to them the importance of engaging the culture as servants and learners, and encouraged them to have a posture of openness as they encountered a different culture and worldview, and sought to have them learn from that culture and to allow themselves to be shaped by it. As we did so, I observed that much of the critique leveled by our hosts at the problems in their churches and in their culture more broadly were based almost exclusively in scripture. These were Christians who took very seriously their calling to be salt and light in the world, and who saw an urgent need for the gospel to be preached and practiced to and in society. Much of the worldview they inhabit is more similar to that of the Bible than our own, so for these believers, adherence to scripture and its radical call to discipleship is the prevailing challenge. To be people of integrity in a system that rewards bribery and corruption; to be people of holy devotion to the true and living God in a society where many openly practice false religion: these are the important things.

To the contrary, when I survey the scene in my part of the world, the picture is much different. There isn’t much emphasis, certainly not in the blogosphere, but not in churches either, on living holy and as aliens and strangers. Rather most criticism is ranged against the church itself with the charge that it is irrelevant to the culture it is to reach. The culture itself is rarely critiqued, at least not in blogging circles, and it is commonplace for Christian believers to be so immersed in the surrounding culture (from our dress to our music to our spending to our divorce patterns) as to be virtually indistinguishable. And when the critique comes, it rarely comes based on scripture, but rather based on sociology, psychology, or whatever other prevailing winds happen to be blowing at the time.

What is the difference between valid critique, prophetic engagement, and just plain old sinful complaining? The line is probably not as fine as I would like to make it. If I am honest, I am much given to complaint rather than to honest critique. It really isn’t even about what I say as much as the heart attitude behind it. It is very easy to judge “the church” for all its shortcomings, failings, errors, and misdeeds as though I were not myself the product and a full participant in the same church. “Dissent is the highest form of patriotism,” may or may not be true for nations, but it is definitely not true of church. What right do I have, and by what authority do I stand apart from this sacred institution and judge it? Indeed the fact that I esteem myself to have such a right is rooted not in scripture, but in American cultural values of self expression. This tension underlies much of the challenge faced in ethnic immigrant churches because one group chafes at the cultural constraints imposed by another without recognizing that the values in whose name they protest are not at all Christian, but neo-Enlightenment and in some cases anti-Christian.

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