On Not Being Conformed to This World

Somewhere in the distant past, I discovered the “Lake Wobegon” monologues of Garrison Keillor. Despite the fact that my personal background includes no connections to Norwegian bachelor farmers or lutefisk, over the years I’ve found resonance with some of Keillor’s tales of fictional Lake Wobegon.

Aside from the fact that Keillor is a gifted story-teller, the reason his autobiographical stories intrigue me is that he obviously knows American evangelicalism as an insider. Born into an exclusivist Brethren family, Keillor’s descriptions of his family and of Lake Wobegon’s Lutherans have a certain ring of truth for anyone who has spent time going around in evangelical circles.

In his book Lake Wobegon Days, Keillor recounts a time when his family decided to affiliate with another group of Brethren in St. Cloud, several miles from his home. His parents made the move out of fear that their children would marry outside the faith – the handful of Cox Brethren in his town were all relatives. Keillor relates his surprise on discovering that although the Cox Brethren of St. Cloud held to the same doctrines as his family, they were allowed to have television sets:

I ate a few Sunday dinners at their houses, and the first time I saw a television set in a Brethren house, I was dumbfounded. None of the Wobegonian Brethren had one; we were told that watching television was the same as going to the movies – no, in other words. I wondered why the St. Cloud people were unaware of the danger. You start getting entangled in things of the world, and one thing leads to another. First it’s television, then it’s worldly books, and the next thing you know, God’s people are sitting around drinking whisky sours in dim smoky bars with waitresses in skimpy black outfits….Dancing was out, even the Virginia reel: it led to carnal desires. Card-playing was out, which led to gambling, though we did have Rook and Flinch – why those and not pinochle? “Because. They’re different.” No novels, which tended to glamorize iniquity….Rock ‘n’ roll, jazz, swing, dance music, nightclub singing: all worldly. “How about Beethoven?” I asked, having heard something of his in school. “That depends,” [Mother] said. “Was he a Christian?” I wasn’t sure. I doubted he was.

Elsewhere in Lake Wobegone Days, he relates the laments of a frustrated Wobegonian Lutheran whose unpublished “95 Theses” included the complaint that:

Your theology wasn’t happy about the idea of mercy and forgiveness, which only gave comfort to enemies, and so, although you recited the Lord’s Prayer every Sunday, you remembered your debtors and managed to not speak to certain people – a major feat when you live in a town so small and attend the same church as they; an act of true dedication.

Keillor’s subtext is clear: among Lake Wobegone evangelicals, television, dancing and cards were worldly; holding grudges against your neighbors was not.

Keillor’s comments on worldliness came to mind a while back, stirred to the fore by an occasion when I introduced a Christian friend of mine to a young woman from our church. In the course of conversation, the younger woman shared the fact that she had an interest in ballet dancing. My other friend replied, “That’s so wonderful. I think I would have enjoyed learning to dance, but I grew up in a very legalistic church where all forms of dancing were forbidden.” I remember feeling two emotions: first, a sense of loss for my friend who had been needlessly forbidden from dancing, and then, a wave of relief that the children of our church had not been similarly mis-taught about the nature of worldliness.

Canadian psychiatrist John White, in his book Flirting with the World, tells an interesting story of how he inadvertantly got into trouble in a church he and his wife wanted to join:

Years ago, after some months of attending a church in Winnipeg, Lorrie and I applied for membership. To our suprise and chagrin, we were informed that on the basis of our faulty doctrine we were being turned down….

The real issue (I am now convinced) had to do with worldliness rather than with Bible doctrine. Shortly before the storm erupted I had been asked to give a Sunday evening address (now long-forgotten, I am sure) on the subject. Something vague had been said to me about “our young people,” that is to say, the young people in our church. I had only been half listening at the time and had not grasped that the parents of teenagers in the church were worried about the behavior of their adolescent and young adult sons and daughters. So in my naivete I gave a heart-felt address on 1 John 2:15-17, “Do not love the world nor the things that are in the world….” I pointed out that worldliness, in John’s view, seems to go much deeper than contemporary evangelical views and to emphasize something different from worldliness as we commonly use the word. One can avoid the movies and beer parties and still harbor worldly bitterness and pride. We can be cigarette-free – but untruthful; total abstainers – but gossipers; modest in dress – but acquisitive.

While I had no intention of promoting dancing, drinking, lurid make-up, card-playing, gambling, smoking, or R-rated movie-going, I was careful to point out that the heart of worldliness has more to do with carnality, possessiveness, jealousy, pursuit of beautiful material objects, pride, and snobbery than with the more traditional evangelical taboos. But (and this is where I got myself into hot water) without my being aware of it, my words were seen as sword thrusts at the values of the middle-class parents rather than at the habits of their movie-going children. I doubt that the parents would now admit this, though I discovered (years later) that the address had aroused indignation and resentment in the very people who had asked me to give it, including church leaders, who from then on viewed me as dangerously unsound in my doctrine.

Jesus once warned about the Pharisees because they were “blind leaders of the blind” (Matt. 15:16), pointing out that leader and follower alike would fall into the ditch. The moral blindness which afflicts the church today is in part the result of church leaders such as these who condemn sins their hearers never commit while ignoring other sins that they and their congregations alike are guilty of.

Although I believe Reformed churches do a better job than fundamentalist churches when it comes to steering clear of Pharisaic definitions of worldliness, once in a while I run across evidence that we’re not entirely immune to this malady.

A Reformed pastor once told me of a congregation he’d pastored in which, on several occasions, newcomers who seemed interested in the church would stop coming after a while. When he ‘d inquire why, a common reason emerged: they’d all felt a certain air of pharisaism that made them uncomfortable. In particular, new families discovered that there were a number of people in the church who held strongly dogmatic, arbitrary views on how Christians ought to educate their children; they seemed to judge anyone whose thinking differed from theirs to be spiritually inferior. Rather than live and worship in such an environment, the newcomers moved on.

Another friend once told me years ago of her time in a Reformed congregation where there was an almost-oppressive belief among many of the women that a good Christian mother should never have a baby by any means other than natural childbirth. Young women who didn’t share this view were made to feel uncomfortable there.

There is a natural human tendency to define worldliness in terms of what one already does (or perhaps more precisely: what other people do that I don’t do).

The Pharisees were masters at looking down on anyone whose outward behavior did not meet their meticulously-crafted standards. But Christ taught that worldliness is about what is inside the heart (Mark 7:1-23). Ironically, it seems that when we make arbitrary spiritual rules that God has not commanded, we’re actually being worldly.

Many years ago, a dear older saint told me about a church she visited while on vacation. She noticed that in the church’s vestibule there was a prominent chalk line marked on the inner door, about nine inches above the floor. After worship, she struck up a conversation with the woman next to her and eventually inquired about the mark. She was told that the line was put there as a convenience for women: ladies whose hemlines were at least as low as the chalk mark could be confident that they were modestly dressed.

My friend told this story in the context of a discussion about legalism in fundamentalist churches, of which that church was an example. But the story comes to mind when I hear of Reformed people maintaining arbitrary rules for life and godliness.

It makes me wonder: are there “chalk lines” in our churches – ones that we’ve perhaps grown blind to, but that others can still notice?

Even if we don’t forbid the Virginia reel or movie-going, are we careful not to apply our own arbitrary rules to other people’s behavior? If even the apostles needed to be warned to beware of the leaven of the Pharisees (Mark 8:15), then surely we are not above such an admonition.

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