A Countercultural Faith: Why We Should Fight for Community in a Culture that Idolizes Independence

Nearing the end of my time in Russia in 2014, I sat with a close friend trying to puzzle out my next steps. I was going to be in grad school part-time, which would make a full-time job difficult, but I had to find a way to support myself. I was convinced, absolutely convinced, that it was imperative for me to set out on my own. I couldn’t return to my parents’ house if I wanted to wear the title of true adult; going back home would be to regress into immaturity and an unhealthy dependence. It would definitely be something to be ashamed of.

But my Russian friend didn’t see it that way.

“Why don’t you just live with your family, Hope?” she asked. “It would be good for you and good for them. You could help to support each other.”

The way she said it made it sound so easy-too easy, when as a young adult I should be paving my own way, not relying on others, being self-sufficient and independent. But something about her words made my perspective ring hollow. And as I let her words linger, I began to realize that my perspective wasn’t necessarily right, it was just…American.

The Role of Culture in Our Worldview

Although I thought that my viewpoint was one built by morality and maturity, I see now that it was actually a perspective built largely by my culture. It took seeing through the lens of another culture to realize that my view did not have the moral high ground.

The more I interact with my international friends and students, the clearer it becomes that as humans, we often place moral judgment on other cultures’ viewpoints and behaviors when in reality, our way of doing things isn’t necessarily better than theirs.

A great example of this is the typical American’s reaction upon entering Russia and being met with unsmiling, seemingly harsh faces. Americans tend to interpret a lack of a constant smile through their cultural lens: in America, smiling equals politeness and goodwill, so these unsmiling Russians must be rude, cold, surly people. What most don’t know though, is that a smile has a different definition in Russia. Russians generally smile when they are truly happy, and it is not seen as necessary to smile in public. In fact, it may even come across as disingenuous. So smiling, something we assign moral value to without even realizing it, is actually more neutral than we realize.

I believe it is much the same with the American ideal of independence. Many of us were taught the value of hard work and being able to support oneself from a young age, and there is much to be said in favor of this. However, I’ve learned that when this principle is taken to the extreme of I don’t need anyone else, the effects can be devastating. Since that conversation with my friend back in 2014, I’ve gotten to explore the issues of American independence and individualism through conversations with my international students and friends, in my grad work, and in my experience living both sides of the story. And the conclusion I’ve come to is that the belief that independence from others equals maturity and freedom is a lie that has had costly effects on our culture.

Dissecting American Individualism

The Geert-Hofstede model of cultural dimensions is a fascinating way to see how American culture’s individualism stacks up to that of other countries. For those of you who like Myers Briggs (INFJ anyone?), it’s basically the Myers Briggs for countries and their cultures. Geert Hofstede analyzed different cultures by 6 orientations: Masculinity, Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, Indulgence, Future-Orientation, and of course, Individualism. All are fascinating, but what stands out especially when you see America is how much higher it is on the individualism scale than that of the cultures of many of my friends and students. Geert Hofstede defines individualism as “the degree of interdependence a society maintains among its members.” It has to do with whether people’s self-image is defined in terms of “I” or “We”. In Individualist societies, people are only supposed to look after themselves and their direct family. In Collectivist societies, people belong to “in groups” that take care of them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty.” (https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/the-usa/)

What this means for American culture in general is that, “The society is loosely-knit in which the expectation is that people look after themselves and their immediate families only and should not rely (too much) on authorities for support. There is also a high degree of geographical mobility in the United States. Americans are the best joiners in the world; however it is often difficult, especially among men, to develop deep friendships.” (https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/the-usa/)

This “loosely-knit” geographically mobile culture is in stark contrast to the more collectivist cultures I am familiar with. Take Russia and China for example. Russia comes in at 39 on the individualism scale, while China scores a mere 20.

picture1

Chart: https://www.hofstede-insights.com/country-comparison/

Collectivist culture manifests itself in different ways, both negative and positive. One thing that I have found in cultures that are more collectivist is that a.) moving out of the house is not a rite of passage into adulthood, but families often live together, and b.) there are tightly knit communities that are not only based around the nuclear family. Whereas in collectivist culture, community is almost a given, in American culture, it is relatively foreign. There are certainly pros and cons to both individualistic and collectivist cultures, but what I want to highlight is that pursuing community certainly doesn’t come naturally to Americans.

Many of my ESL students have expressed bewilderment and a sense of sadness at the way Americans act as individuals rather than as part of the community, for example, moving across the country on one’s own for a job. Whereas Americans take pride in their self-sufficiency and view isolation as a necessary cost of success, many I know from other cultures would argue that the toll that loneliness takes on a person far outweighs any benefits.

An Afghani friend who studied psychology hypothesized that the current mental health crisis in the U.S. is strongly related to loneliness and isolation. My own experience supports my friend’s thoughts. During my 9 months in Russia, I had no church community and was an outsider in a closely-knit foreign culture. By four months in, my mental health weakened to a point where I didn’t know if I could wait it out. God gave me the grace to push through to the end of my grant, but I came back a shell of myself.

Then, 3 years later, I became one of those Americans who moved across the country for a job. It seemed like the perfect opportunity at the time, but it soon became clear that what the job required of me would leave no margin for the type of deep Christian community I longed for, one that was woven into the fabric of my daily life. I felt myself wilting by the day, so I decided to make a choice that seemed strange from an American perspective and leave it all behind. I left a stable job with a fancy title for a place where I had no job lined up, but I knew that I would be living life with my best friend.

When I arrived in Burnt Hills, I didn’t think that I would find a true Christian community. I had become cynical of the possibilities for community that the American church structure provided, and I hadn’t seen many people who thirsted for community like I did, who had been so deprived of it that they wanted to find it and never let go. But God surprised me by placing me in the midst a diverse group of people united in their love for Jesus Christ and a desire to do life together.

This, I found, was the body of Christ in action. Imperfect, but beautiful. Human, but miraculous.

Called to Be Countercultural

As Americans steeped in an individualistic culture, it may feel natural to approach our faith as a solely personal thing: me and God and maybe my family, but nobody else. But if we approach our faith like this, we disobey the Lord and we lose something precious.

In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul calls us the body of Christ, in which God lives and works and ministers. As the body of Christ, each of us has a specific function given for the common good (1 Cor. 12). God has given each of us spiritual gifts, but we can’t live solely off of our own gift. God may have given me the gift of discernment, for example, but it’s arrogant to think that I can live my Christian life without others encouraging me, teaching me, and loving me. It is also selfish to not contribute what God has given me to the common good. We are not meant to function alone, but we “are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.” (Romans 12:5)

During my short time being a part of this community, I can attest to the way that I have seen the body of Christ work together toward the common good and for the purposes of God’s kingdom. One thing that has been special to me is the way the Lord surrounds us and provides for us through His people.

Recently, we had a worship and prayer night with a visual that powerfully illustrated this reality. We stood in a circle while different struggles and sins were named. We were encouraged to step in the circle to receive prayer for those struggles and sins and to be reminded that we were not in this alone.

It was what happened after the service that was the most powerful though. Friends laid hands on me and prayed for me that evening. One checked in on me during the weeks after, talking through my tangled emotions and offering the blunt truth I needed to hear. And when God freed me from my struggle in an unexpected miracle, this friend was there to praise the Lord with me. This is just one of the ways I’ve seen God work over these past 5 months through this body of believers. And as I reflect upon my time here, I’ve seen myself change in many ways:

  • Whereas once I thought that a romantic relationship was the only thing that would take the ache of loneliness away, deep-hearted friendships with other believers have replaced my frantic longing with a hopeful contentment.
  • I feel empowered to use my gifts for the common good. Now that I’ve been poured into, I have energy to pour out, and I have the desire and opportunity to minister to others with the gifts that God has given me.
  • And most importantly, I’m growing leaps and bounds in my love for Jesus and in the knowledge of His love for me.

Aggressively Pursue Community

It is not easy to pursue Christian community in our culture. Many of us are raised and conditioned to solve our problems on our own and to approach our faith in isolation. But now that I have seen, experienced, and participated in a community that is committed to God’s kingdom and committed to each other, I can earnestly say that any sacrifice it takes to pursue this type of community pales in comparison to the beauty, grace, and power that you’ll receive from it.

Christian community is certainly not perfect; in our sinful state we still hurt each other, in our differences we frustrate each other, and in our limited perspectives we misunderstand each other. A quick glance at Paul’s letters tells us the story has been the same from the earliest of churches. But the miraculous thing is that though on our own we are sinful and petty and weak, Jesus Christ has blessed us with the honor of being His body and whose power in us overcomes our shortcomings. “[We] are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that [we] may declare the praises of him who called [us] out of darkness into his wonderful light.” (1 Peter 2:9)

So my charge to believers who are reading is this: aggressively pursue community. This will look different depending on your season of life, but the principle is the same: seek out a group of likeminded people who desire a community that goes beyond crossing paths once a week, who are committed to using their gifts and keeping you accountable and spurring you onward in this journey of becoming more like Christ. It may take time. It may take sacrifice. But it is so, so worth it.

Meeting Dostoevsky

Every time I open that last book of his, he tells me that before I go any further, I must submit to the lens of the only beautiful type of suicide, the kind that brings life. The epigraph to The Brothers Karamazov  frames what’s to come in the words spoken and incarnated by Christ: that only when a seed sacrifices by burying itself to break and bloom will there ever be the longed-for fruit. However robust it is in its current form, the kernel cuts itself in half, confident that its death will bring a more glorious, more far-reaching new life.

It’s both the horror and the hope of these words that draw me back again and again. As a Christ-follower, I know that they apply to my few decades on earth. And Dostoevsky reaches out, telling me to un-tense my muscles and submit. Listen, Hope, and pray toward a better living of the truth. I read him again and again because his theology is a breath of fresh air to a mind grown in Western thought. This theology is lived in his characters: no 3 point application to take home and stick to my refrigerator, just the uncomfortable realization that I am the worst of these characters, and that in spite of it, there is the inexplicable presence of grace.

My relationship with Dostoevsky didn’t start with fireworks though, but with indifference and even a little dislike. One of the readings for my semester abroad was the Grand Inquisitor. I read it before I left the States without any context and hated it. Then, when we arrived in Petersburg, I strode right through Fyodor’s ghost in his apartment, passing by the roped off desk where some man wrote some novel about three brothers, then died in the next room over.

Our first true encounter is landmarked by a shady oak in a Russian quiet place, whose knobs massaged the back of a girl with a book in her hands. It was against that tree, away from my loud, bustling tribe of Americans, that I first met Dostoevsky.

For some reason, I had chosen the same book that had gotten my old professor reamed out by his uncle as he hid among the corn stalks of his Amish childhood, because what good could come from his reading about crime and punishment!?

But good would come from Dostoevsky’s words because they revealed the chilling truth of my human heart: hadn’t I thought, somewhere in my subconscious, that it was perfectly all right to crack someone’s head in half with a rusty axe?  That Raskolnikov, raskol’, schism, splitting-in-half man, the opposition of good and evil all bound up in one soul- he took shape while I wasn’t looking. But then, hadn’t he been there all along? Words had simply taken shape over a nebulous, but firm belief I already had. Dostoevsky put words and a face to this universal condition that I saw people striving, unknowingly, to ignore every day.

I wouldn’t say I continued to read him; it was he who read me, read my tangled thoughts and wordless angsts and translated them into a wild symmetry, a reckless precision. Explanations I’d never seen anyone dare approach he rushed with the passion of a bull at a matador. I learned that I was not the only one who groaned because to be too conscious is a disease, and that two plus two equals five sounds truer, most of the time, than Euclidian geometry.

But it wasn’t until I read about those brothers painted black that my voice was poured into more than words, but into flesh and blood. Ka-ra, two sounds signifying black, and ma-zov, denoting smear and paint, still taste like melted honey on my lips. The truth of the nations, poured into a name.

The raskol’ in Dmitri, heels up, having dove into depravity in the middle of a prayer, made me fall in ecstasy with him. (Ecstasy, one of Dostoevsky’s favorite words, is more intense than, but not as strong as love.)

Ivan, though, was love in the opposites attract way. I carried his heart around in my pocket; it beat to the drum of shuffling paper clippings about the suffering of children that un-deified God.

Alyosha and I had long conversations. He understood me. I found a filter to life in his eyes, which always seemed to say “brother, your mind has cannibalized your heart; my ideals have been shattered too, but Christ remains in love and certainty.”

Then he, that moon to the sun, told me if it was proven that Christ was apart from the truth, he would rather remain with Christ. I knew these words, written in a letter to his brother, weren’t empty, because he had lived and almost died through it all. Sentenced to death for revolutionary activities at age 28, he stood before a firing squad, awaiting the trigger and death.  At the last moment, he heard “stop!” The tsar had shown mercy.

That “stop” was Fyodor’s unexpected seed. Those syllables, os-tan-o-vi-tye in throaty Russian, burrowed in his skin and were watered by the pages of a tattered New Testament while he sat in shackles and exile.  From the fertile soil sprouted a pen that incarnated our schisms and His grace. And now, in books like letters strewn about my room, he continues to proclaim the truth, that I should prepare to die, because unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground in humble suicide, the longed for fruit will never be.

A version of this was originally published in Windhover: A Journal of Christian Literature

A Psalm of Life

Earlier this morning, I was paging through an old copy of Longfellow poems my grandmother had given me. I had always treasured the old volume from 1896, embossed with silver etchings and delicate roses. I thought that I might bring it with me to share with my students in Russia; after all, Longfellow was from Maine and it would be a unique thing to share with them. While scanning the yellowed pages, I happened upon a perspective-giving poem that is a must read for any Christ-follower who gets a little too focused on the “meaningless” cries of Ecclesiastes, who forgets that for us, mortality is truly of little significance,  that trials of this life pale in comparison to the hope to which we are called. Thank you Longfellow, for reminding me of who I am, of who we are.

A Psalm of Life

by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

What the heart of the young man said to the psalmist.

Tell me not, in mournful numbers,

“Life is but an empty dream!”

For the soul is dead that slumbers,

And things are not what they seem.

Life is real! Life is earnest!

And the grave is not its goal;

“Dust thou art, to dust returnest,”

Was not spoken of the soul.

Not enjoyment, and not sorrow,

Is our destined end or way;

But to act, that each to-morrow

Find us farther than today.

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,

And our hearts, though stout and brave,

Still, like muffled drums, are beating

Funeral marches to the grave.

In the world’s broad field of battle,

In the bivouac of Life,

Be not like dumb, driven cattle!

Be a hero in the strife!

Trust no Future, howe’er pleasant!

Let the dead Past bury its dead!

Act,— act in the living Present!

Heart within and God o’erhead!

Lives of great men all remind us

We can make our lives sublime,

And, departing, leave behind us

Footprints on the sands of time;—

Footprints, that perhaps another,

Sailing o’er life’s solemn main,

A forlorn and shipwrecked brother,

Seeing, shall take heart again.

Let us then, be up and doing,

With a heart for any fate;

Still achieving, still pursuing,

Learn to labor and to wait.

The Heart I Want to Have

Prayer has always been a battle for me, an enigmatic pursuit that I often am lazy in pursuing. I confess that I have often avoided prayer simply because articulating my heart before the unseen Creator seemed so elusive and vast. Vague words would waddle around in distracted circles, coming out more like a laundry list of complaints and centerless generalizations:

“God, please help so and so.”

“Lord, thank you for who you are.”

It is not that these types of prayers are somehow wrong; it is not as if God judges based on the articulateness of our words. But I had become lazy in the pursuit of communing with God. Instead of running first to Him with a broken heart or overwhelming anxiety or even blossoming joy, I would first run to my friends, to my family, overwhelming them with problems and dilemmas that were meant for Him to carry. In the center of this “praying” to humans around me festered the core of unbelief. Unbelief in the freeing, peace-bringing power of exposing the heart to the One who created it. And because of this perpetual unbelief, I had become complacent in repeating half-hearted Christianese collocations, and I knew that I needed to rise from this lethargic daze and trade passiveness for activeness. To begin believing that opening up to the Creator and laying all on him would infuse joy and purpose and precise perspective into my life.

But where was I to begin? How was I to break myself from these shallow and vague habitual mutterings? For me, the answer lay in discovering a little red book filled with recorded prayers of Christians throughout the centuries.

I grew up in a very non-liturgical tradition, and although liturgy was never outright condemned, there was always the sense that to repeat or memorize prayers from a book was somehow inauthentic and mechanical, the harbinger of legalism. And for this reason, I think I always felt that I had to “make up my own prayers” in order for them to be genuine.

But as I began to read this little red book filled with prayers, I began to realize how small this view of prayer was. One of the joys of reading for me has always been when the author has articulated something in my heart that I could never put into words. In the same way, I found myself savoring the words of Christians before me because they articulated precisely and powerfully the heart I want to have and the heart I know that God desires for his children to have. The following prayer by Thomas Aquinas has given focus to my prayers and I am so thankful that I can learn from the heart and examples of Christ-followers before me.

“Grant me, I beseech Thee, Almighty and most merciful God, fervently to desire, wisely to search out, and perfectly to fulfill, all that is well-pleasing unto Thee. Order Thou my worldly condition to the glory of Thy name; and, of all Thou requirest me to do, grant me the knowledge, the desire, and the ability, that I may fulfill it as I ought, and may my path to Thee, I pray, be safe, straightforward, and perfect to the end.

Give me, O Lord, a steadfast heart, which no unworthy affection may drag downwards;

give me an unconquered heart, which no tribulation can wear out; 

give me an upright heart, which no unworthy purpose may tempt aside.

Bestow upon me also, O Lord my God, understanding to know Thee, diligence to seek Thee, wisdom to find Thee, and a faithfulness that may finally embrace Thee. Amen.”

Jay Gatsby’s Unforgettable Sermon

I love going to movies that make me cringe.

I love going to movies whose themes reveal something ugly in my heart, that challenge me to shuffle my paradigm of perspective, that pierce me with the sin in my own life by making me identify so closely with a character that it hurts.

Jay Gatsby is one of those characters.

For anyone who hasn’t read the book or seen the movie, Jay Gatsby’s life is dominated by his pursuit of Daisy, a girl whom he loved and lost five years prior. Gatsby obsessively pursues the now-married Daisy through the passive means of moving close to her then throwing an array of extravagantly lavish parties in hopes that she will meander in one night. If he obtains Daisy, he sincerely believes, his life will be complete, a paradise of love and fulfillment.

What Gatsby doesn’t realize is that he has elevated Daisy to a level that no human being can live up to. To him, she is a symbol of the nostalgic perfection of the past that must be reclaimed to escape the drab, mundane present. She has no flaws. She is the one thing needed. She is a god. She is memory embodied.

No specific spoilers, but the pursuit of this idealized version of Daisy and the past precipitates an Anna Karenina size train wreck for Gatsby and all those around him.

And as I sat in the dark theater watching chaos and death and broken lives all set in motion by a selfishness fueled by putting hope in a mirage, I could not bring myself to judge. No, I could only sit still, breathe slowly, and feel the weight of the destruction humanity loves to pursue.

I could not judge, because I saw myself in Jay Gatsby.

I idealize the past and those people who shared it with me, walking a precarious line between reminiscence and idolatry every time I open a photo album.

I romanticize the past, replaying over and over the feeling-charged beautiful clips while discarding the shots of relational strains and conflicted feelings.

I idealize the far away, swallowing the age-old lie of greener grass and manmade perfection.

I saw myself in Jay Gatsby, and I cringed. Caught once again in the act of pursuing an idol mirage. Convicted once again of obsessively pursuing the creation rather than the Creator.My eyes are accustomed to turning both back and inward, searching for something that is both forward and outward. But unlike the hopelessness I observed on the screen, I am an heir to a hope that doesn’t need to construct wobbly, ephemeral ideals. My cringing turned to praise and perspective, to thankfulness for the vivid jolt that shook me to realize my eyes were on myself and not on Jesus Christ.

Yep, Jay Gatsby preached one of the best sermons that I’ve heard all year.