Against Relevance

In Philosophy, Theology
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This past Advent was one of the saddest for me in recent memory. It had little to do with being extraordinarily busy or any sort of nostalgic incompleteness related to the season (we didn’t have time to decorate this year!).

Rather, it had everything to do with Star Wars.

Now, dear reader might suspect that I didn’t enjoy the movie. Nothing could be further from the truth, as I haven’t yet seen it and as of yet have little to no opinion about it. Once it arrives on Netflix I’m sure I’ll find a couple hours to kill and see it it then.

Rather, Star Wars killed Advent not because of what it is, but rather because it seemed to somehow overnight become the sine qua non of Advent as celebrated within the church.

Granted, I am probably entirely to blame for this perception. I am a member of numerous online groups related to church ministry, which no doubt skews the sample. Nevertheless, I was inundated with churches licking their chops to somehow incorporate what had quickly become a cultural phenomenon into their worship services, whether for Advent or following. Set designs, poorly made promo videos that had no point for being except “OMG, STAR WARS!,” rip-off series, Star Wars-esque liturgies and processionals, worship lyrics badly done as the iconic Star Wars scrolling text…

It seemed to have no end. I even watched a priest take time out of a homily to show the congregation his Star Wars socks.

Now, I employ Star Wars as a foil only because it is still fresh in the cultural memory. This critique may even seem initially overwrought; after all, in a few weeks everyone will have forgotten and moved on.

Which, the discerning reader might suspect, is entirely my point.

Relevance, in all its various iterations, has become the clarion call of the modern western church.

  • We devote a lot of time to talking about it.
  • We spend a lot of time listening to purported experts on relevance talk to us about it.
  • We drop lots of money to travel to other places that we think are more relevant than us so we can figure out how to be relevant like we think they are.
  • We write books and articles and blogs about how we need to be relevant.
  • We then follow up the same books and articles and blogs talking about how we still aren’t relevant enough.

The intention from which this desire for relevance arises is perhaps noble enough; we wish to reach a world with the gospel that is increasingly uninterested in or hostile to it. As Christendom wheezes out its last dying gasps of breath in the twilight of the western church, it can of course be tempting to think that we simply haven’t kept up. We watch as the world seems to move on, leaving the church behind, and thus the natural inclination is to do something to get back into its good graces, to show it that the church still has something to offer.

Thus relevance often becomes a way of the church trying to find its voice in the culture again, to try and regain the influence it once enjoyed.

And relevance, of course, is manifested in myriad ways. Some can be seemingly innocuous, like trying to speak the language of the culture (read: popular culture) by means of its idioms. Some can be more soul-emptying, like shaping the teachings, doctrines and beliefs of a church in a way that is more in line with what is culturally appropriate- the ways things are, the reality of the world in which we live.

My thesis is that relevance is ultimately a misguided goal at best, a way of propelling the church into the gaping maw of dissolution at worst.

The seminal justification/rationalization for the pursuit of relevance comes from Acts 17 and Paul’s encounter with the Epicureans and Stoics at the Aeropagus, often termed Mars Hill. The rationale goes more or less like this:

At Athens, Paul found himself in the midst of a pluralistic city, full of competing philosophies and religions. When he was asked to speak at the Aeropagus, he choose the tactic of speaking to the pagan philosophers in ways that they would find relevant; thus, he took a less markedly Jewish approach to his exposition and instead spoke of God more generically and philosophically. Starting with their monument to the unknown God, he proceeded to quote even their own poets as part of his exposition; thus, in this way he tried to speak to them on their terms and by means of their idioms in a way that would be relevant to them.

The application of this interpretation is that since Paul approached the Athenians in this manner, we should seek a similar sort of relevance in the way we engage our culture.

Of course, a major difficulty with this interpretation of this encounter is that it gets a lot of it wrong. As I have written elsewhere, Paul’s exposition here at the Aeropagus is not one steeped in relevance, but rather in confrontation. Nearly every statement of his is either in contradiction to one of the Epicureans’ or Stoics’ philosophy or a backhanded reproach thereof.

After all, it should be noted that the very reason he was asked to speak is that he was in the marketplace arguing with them in the first place. But what is fascinating in this story- and fatal for the aforementioned interpretation- is that the reason they wanted him to speak was not that they necessarily cared too much about what he was saying (since they thought his teaching on the resurrection of the dead was in reference to a deity), but rather because they really just liked to listen to new ideas.

In other words, they were bored, and Paul and his message was something new.

Thus, Paul, knowing the Athenians’ penchant for the new and probably suspecting that many of them aren’t entirely serious about what he is saying (as we will see later), comes out swinging with a backhanded insult. He “compliments” them on how religious they are because of how many idols are in the city, which as an insult is only apparent by knowing that Epicureans were functionally atheists and the Stoics understood the gods the idols represented (if they represented gods at all) to be unconcerned with humanity or that all events were governed by fate.

As such, Paul’s opening line is meant to mock; they are sooooooo religious because of all the idols they have that they don’t believe in, and yet their philosophy is so shallow that they cover their bases and hedge their bets with an altar to a God they claim they don’t know and probably would claim to not believe in.

Paul then ups the ante by telling them he’ll declare this unknown God to them; in doing so, he speaks in a manner that uses their own philosophy against them. Everything he describes about this “unknown God” are things that they actually would profess about God; he made everything, he doesn’t live in idols or shrines, he is the source of all being. These are things the Epicureans and Stoics would know and presumably believe about the source of all being, but in the greatest of ironies they went ahead and made an idol for the God whom they know cannot inhabit something made by human hands.

Paul certainly didn’t seem to be very subtle.

As should be clear, Paul’s strategy is not of cultural accommodation or trying to find sort of relevance; rather, every touch point of relevance is precisely for the effect of demonstrating his case against them and showing the shallowness of their philosophy, if not in actuality then in practice.

However, the end result is that the bored Athenians will only take so much of Paul’s babbling. When he finally gets to the thing that divides them, to the one point that they cannot brook, they finally have enough. He talks about the resurrection of the dead, which for both parties was a conceptual non-starter. In the end the actual substance of the Gospel- that God commands everyone to repent and will judge the world by means of a man (Jesus) who has risen from the dead- is at loggerheads with the groups at the Aeropagus, and they scoff at him. Even though he could hang with them in an argument and speak in their language, in the end relevance had little to no purchase.

The problem with relevance is that it requires one to shift the frame of reference away from the message to be proclaimed to the medium through which it is communicated. We spend a lot of time talking about how the message doesn’t change, just the way we communicate it, but do we actually believe this is the case? Are we really so naive to expect that the ways in which we communicate things have some sort of moral or communicative neutrality?

The term relevant itself has an interesting etymology. The Middle French relevant comes from the Latin relevare which has the sense of “to raise.” This term came to be employed for the art form known as “relief,” wherein the background (negative space) is cut out to give the appearance that the foreground rises from the far background.

If we stretch the linguistics just a bit, we might legitimately say that relevance is meant to raise things up in this manner, to pull things out from the background and give them shape and coherence and meaning. As we communicate the gospel, we asset that the truths therein are transcendent, that they rise above the mundane and have universal applicability. We speak of a God who is the source of all being, the one who gives all things life, who is far beyond everything we can think or imagine.

And all of these things are true. Why, then, do we so often find the need to be “relevant” by means of flattening it all out? Why do we feel compelled to latch on to the current cultural phenomenon and flatten out the gospel by subsuming it to such ephemeral strictures and idioms?

It is a philosophical axiom that one cannot give what one does not possess. If this is the case, then we are doubly damned. For either we have so emptied our message of any power or efficacy in the cause of relevance that we are effectively selling something that cannot deliver, or we are so niggardly as to withhold the very thing that we profess is life-giving and life-transforming. The most pathetic aspect of the whole project of relevance is that it is all too often because we want the me-too of cultural approbation, the sense that now we finally have a voice again that the world will listen to because we look and sound like we think they want us to look and sound like.

And even though we fully know it’s all so ephemeral, it becomes the sine qua non of our mission and evangelistic strategy; we thus get put into the position of the being the tail trying to wag the dog.

Eventually we can even get used to smell.

The problem with relevance isn’t in the things themselves that we use to try and be relevant, but it’s rather in this flattening out. After enough time we tend to present the Gospel as another cool thing among cool things; after all, many of the things we do in worship seem far more about demonstrating our coolness bona fides than pulling the gospel out from background din of the cultural milieu.

In the end, the worst thing about being relevant is that we start to become just as flat as the background we try to imitate and appropriate. The parts that stick out from the background and give the relief shape we eventually seem to grind down into the background, even though they have the intention of reaching the background by doing so.

Jesus strikingly mentions how we are supposed to be the salt of the earth, but then follows by asking what good salt that has lost its flavor is. The short answer is: absolutely nothing. We throw it out and trample it under our feet.

Unfortunately, much of the modern church’s project seems to be precisely in extracting as much flavor out of our salt as possible. We tend to downplay or even apologize for the things that make us salty, that make us stand out from the flatness of the background, while simultaneously striving to taste as much like the world around us as we possibly can. The ostensible reason for this is that we imagine the world’s palate to be averse to salty food- if they ever have to pucker at the intensity of the flavor, they might spit us out and walk away. And so we seek to make our worship and our messaging and our marketing as bland as we can to appeal to as many palates as possible, to not risk driving anyone away because of what makes us stand out.

Now, we certainly don’t self-critique ourselves in this manner. We imagine that a soft entry into the faith is a winning strategy; perhaps we can wean the world on blander fare and eventually move them into something more robust. We naturally are immune to how bait-and-switch this is, not because it isn’t apparent but rather because our strategy both works too well and not well enough.

It works so well in that we ourselves become accustomed to not sticking out, acclimated to the blandness of what we serve up. We can even delude ourselves into thinking that we’re finally starting to do things right by means of our project in chasing relevance, since we come more and more to look and taste like the world around us.

But the dividends that we we reap are both too great and too small. After all, in chasing relevance we are able to keep things simple and mostly on the surface. We don’t have to stick out, and the more we become relevant, the more we judge our success by means of how flattened out and palatable we have become. Very rarely are we forced to actually come face to face with the transcendent, and in like manner the ones we seek to reach are never forced to either.

In this manner we are able to base the criterion of the flavor of our salt not on how salty it is, but rather on things like programs and productions and all the relevant things that are easy to measure and increase our cultural bona fides, or at least allow us to speak its shibboleths.

But it doesn’t work well enough in that it simply hasn’t worked. 

It is actually somewhat amusing that the crisis of the supposed decline in faith in the West is such a source of surprise and chagrin, since our tilting at relevance is simply part and parcel of the whole descent. Why are we shocked that the faith we present is a matter of indifference, when nearly everything we do in our worship and its ilk displays our own ultimate indifference to it? Why would anyone desire to take up their cross and follow Jesus when the faith we present is often more about preference marketing than real, costly discipleship?

The sad truth is that our worship and our faith tends to cost us nothing, and the more we flatten out what sets us apart in order to be relevant, the more and more effortless it becomes.

At the end of the day, it is perhaps merely sloth that keeps many of us in the faith.

Now, it may be objected that these are are such little insignificant things. After all, using Star Wars (or whatever other cultural icon is in view) is surely harmless. And the various styles and techniques that we apply to worship in our attempts to be relevant are surely not wrong. Why make so much out of trifles?

I would suggest that the answer is insidiously buried in the question. After all, we pretend to worship a transcendent God who created everything, is Lord of all creation and sustainer of every breath we take. Yet in our worship we are content to bring trifles, either because of our misguided attempts at relevance or because we have some pathological need to be as flat the culture around us and have them like us.

If these things are so unimportant, what business do they have in our worship? Should not our purported experiences with God be nothing less than us offering the fulness of who we are to God- as Jesus said, to love God with all our heart, mind, soul and strength? If this is the case, why are we so eager to bring the ephemeral into our worship, things that we admit are here today and gone tomorrow? If we are supposed to be a city on hill, why do we insist on grinding it down until it’s level with the ground below?

In an interesting twist, the Aeropagus was originally a tribunal of sorts where religious trials and the like would take place. The judges were shrouded in darkness so that the defendant could not see them as they passed judgment. By Paul’s time it had lost this function and become merely the haunt of Athenians who were bored to tears and eager to hear whatever was new simply because it was new.

Fortunately, Paul didn’t fall for chasing after this sort of relevance. Instead, he knew that he had to rise above the background, to stand out from the flatness even though it meant his edges were exposed.

The church is intended to be a sign of contradiction, a living reproach to the world and its worldview. The city of God and the city of the world will always be at odds; to be a city on a hill means that one is not hidden, but it also means one cannot hide.

I wonder if we are still willing (or even able) to forego relevance and suffer the scoffs so that we can proclaim a gospel that stands out from the background and still has enough taste to be edible.

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