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Our Duty: Build Christian Counterculture

We have a duty, as 21st century Christians, to build a counterculture. 1,500 years ago, a young nobleman was appalled by the moral chaos of Rome. He left the world behind and retreated to the wilderness. He set up an altar in the woods, he prayed, and formed communities based on order, stability, beauty, and worship. St. Benedict exiled himself from mainstream culture and built a new culture anchored on Jesus Christ. We share the same vocation. Here and now, in this little parish, we have a duty to be counterculture.

“Every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life” (Matthew 19:29).

He saw, he fled, and he built. Three actions sum up St. Benedict’s legacy. First, he recognized the problem. He looked around at Rome: “Something ain’t working.” In Alcoholics Anonymous, the first step to recovery is admitting the problem. The AA website states: “We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable.” This is also the first step of an authentic Christian. We are broken and powerless. Our culture is broken and powerless.

Here is the challenge: when dysfunction is normal, you stop noticing it.

Our grandparents talked about worldliness. They saw it creeping in, in new fashions, new music, the dating scene, the television shows… But the world moved too fast. We Christians were so eager to be contemporary, hip, and cutting edge. The caution of older generations got swallowed up in the buzz of modernity. It became comical, embarrassing, and finally, forgotten. St. Paul says of the world: “They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18). Our hearts get darkened, and the darkness becomes normal. We have to wake up.

We get tangled up in the wrong problems.

Nowadays, all the talk is about racism. Racism is a problem in America, in the same way that it is a problem in Africa, China, Europe, and everywhere else. I have trouble understanding why, if racism is so egregious here, over 20,000 Africans a year are moving to the United States. There were no Jews moving to Germany in the 1930’s. Our country is not drowning in systemic racism. It is drowning in systemic worldliness.

Looming 98 feet above the city of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is a colossal statue of Jesus Christ. Christ the Redeemer, one of the most impressive testimonies of faith in the world, stands with open arms high over the city. On May 17, this year, the people of the city projected lights onto the statue. Bold letters were projected on top of Christ, saying…wait for it…”Vaccines save.” What is wrong with the world? There is only one guarantee about the Covid-19 vaccine, and all medical care. Everyone who takes it is going to die, eventually, in old age, or whenever the time comes. Vaccines do not save. Jesus Christ saves. Science, social justice, government programs, ideologies…these do not save souls. The world does not have answers. God is the answer.

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

We need to recognize the real problem, and get busy with the real solution.

Second, St. Benedict fled. Enough is enough. Why do we still identify with the culture around us? As Dorothy famously put it: “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore.” A hundred years ago, Christians could largely identify with American culture. That is no longer an option

The Book of Proverbs gives this advice: “Can a man scoop fire into his lap without his clothes being burned? Can a man walk on hot coals without his feet being scorched” (Proverbs 6:27-35). This is a scripture about adultery, literal and metaphorical. We are God’s bride. Why are we sleeping in the arms of the world? Can you scoop fire into your lap without getting burned? I would rather not try. As Christians, we have to flee the culture.

“Every one that hath forsaken houses, or brethren, or sisters, or father, or mother, or wife, or children, or lands, for my name’s sake, shall receive an hundredfold, and shall inherit everlasting life” (Matthew 19:29).

Third, St. Benedict pursued Kingdom living. There is nothing virtuous about fleeing worldliness. It is only a virtue, when it means pursuing holiness. God requires us to forsake the world for Jesus’ sake. Why are we Orthodox Christians? Are we Orthodox because we are running from something or running towards something? Are we just talking about the problems in our culture, or are we actively building a healthier culture?

Carl R. Trueman, a spokesperson on the LGBTQ+ movement, gives this warning to Christians: “Lamentation can too often become just another form of worldliness, and polemic simply a means of making ourselves feel righteous. There is an odd masochistic pleasure to always decrying the times and the customs of the day.” It feels good to complain. It feels good to point out the problems in the world. So what are we going to do about it?

We are here to build a counterculture. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul urged the Church: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2). To the Thessalonians he wrote: “Stand firm and hold to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by our spoken word or by our letter” (2 Thessalonians 2:15).

First of all, this advice was not given to individual Christians. It was given to the Church. It is not enough to work on your own soul alone. Our work has to be shared. It is our duty, as a parish, as a culture, to share this work — building counterculture.

Second, there is nothing sophisticated about St. Paul’s words. He is talking about our day-to-day life. Here’s a modern translation of his words: “Brethren, stop living your life based on the American status-quo. Stop justifying your habits, the TV you watch, the books you read, the community you associate with, because, well, everyone else does it. Radicalize your life. Cut out every trace of worldliness and conform your life to the life of Holy Church. Be counterculture.”

What does Christian culture look like?

“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable--if anything is excellent or praiseworthy--think about such things” (Philippians 4:8).

This says enough. Is it true? Is it good? Is it beautiful?

Today, on our parish feast day, we are reminded once again of our duty: to build a counterculture. St. Benedict was fearless in his legacy — to flee the world and nurture holy community. We too have this wonderful opportunity, to take up his vision and get to work.

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