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Counter-culture, or over-the-counter culture? 5 January 2017

Posted by Dr Moose in Chaplaincy, Life, Ponderings, Theology.
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One of the challenges of following Jesus and living the Christian life lies in the fact that do so means to be counter-cultural. To many with only the vestigial, notional, faith that has been rolled in, part and parcel, with being ‘Western’, ‘British’ and also often ‘White’ this may seem an odd, or even contradictory stance. However, there are many elements of British culture and identity which have moved away from the moorings of Christian identity over the last couple of generations. In some cases this has probably been a pretty good thing, given the element of conformism and the expectation of it that marks the mainstream of any dominant culture. For many reasons the translation from movement to institution can suck the life out of what was once vibrant and engaging. The mission of Jesus, after all, was one firmly fixed on a different course from the Religious Authorities of his time. Instead his way was to question the orthodoxy (or often, more correctly the orthopraxy) and chart a different course, taking convention & twisting it, to head off in a direction unexpected.

There are, of course, variant understandings of what actually is counter-cultural, and these can come into conflict, even when coming from nearly identical starting points. I was reminded of all this today as an email dropped into the my inbox while I was on the way home. It came from an excellent charity with a good idea to turn a common enough cultural event, the consumption of pancakes on Shrove Tuesday into a fundraising event, The Big Pancake Party. And there’s nothing wrong about it, it’s a great idea.

And we won’t be doing it at the University Chaplaincy.

money-sort-of

(Image Copyright (c) TOSF, 2012)

This may seem  little mean-spirited, as we absolutely will be cooking pancakes this year, as we have done for more years than I can remember. We won’t be doing it because it goes against one of our core principles, that of offering all we do, whether in the provision of space for prayer & quiet, or space to cook, or hot drinks, or our free lunches, or in this case pancakes, as a gift, in a reflection of the boundless grace of God.

You might say that it doesn’t stop us from putting a collecting tin out, no one, you might say has to give anything. However the very act of accepting any offerings, no matter how selflessly meant, changes the nature of the action. Gift becomes exchange. A one-way process becomes a two-way one, a reciprocation. And that is not what we’re about.

One of the most satisfying, enjoyable and valuable parts of my week comes when I take our trolley and deploy the Pop-Up Coffee Stop (tea is also available). For two and a half hours free hot drinks are offered to anyone who doesn’t move past fast enough, with no strings attached (other than if you ask for more than six sugars that is!) It’s a wonderful community-builder, even if some students, staff and visitors seem to struggle with the concept.”What are you after?” “Is it really free?” “Can I pay you?” (To which the answers are “Your wellbeing”, “Yes” and “No, go and treat someone else or give the money to charity.”)

We belong to a culture where the marketers have led us to believe that “You’re worth it” means that you’re entitled to spend money on yourself, rather than you are so valuable that we want to spend our money on you.

There’s a fine line between the re-interpretation of something in a counter-cultural way, subtly twisting it to a better purpose and a greater good, and to the point where it becomes something different, something closer to an over-the-counter culture. While not denying the value of the initiative (and that’s one reason I’ve linked to it, because perhaps you might enjoy doing it), it does feel a little too much like so many charitable drives of late, all incredibly valuable and well-intentioned, yet still substituting exchange for grace, or to put it another way, enjoyment for sacrifice. Wear your silly jumper, your jeans. Even go without shaving. Somewhere along the way generosity has become a commodity. If something is good, an action that goes beyond self-gratification, that should be motivation in itself. When we introduce the element of exchange and reciprocation (however necessary that may be to sustain vital work) we have changed the terms and conditions.

As usual I’m raising questions without having any clear answers, but it never does any harm to be ponder. My dictionary gives the primary definition of charity as “the giving of money, help, food etc. to those in need.” (Collins English Dictionary, 3rd Edition) When the process of giving is replaced by one of exchange, are we truly giving at all?

Some of the recipients of what we offer day in and day out may have trouble accepting it. I suspect as a culture we also have a problem giving it. And I am part of that culture too..

 

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