At this moment in our cultural history, the dominant images and icons are those positioned as “against.” Against what? Everything, it seems. Yet the notion of freedom is an issue that requires serious thinking.
The image is imprinted on all of our minds. He sits astride a motorcycle and dares any who come to get in his way. The sleek young man, in his early 20s, is clad in a black leather jacket, blue jeans, cowboy boots, and a white T-shirt. His hair is greased back with a cigarette behind his ear, and he comes with an attitude and a sneer on his lip. Meet the rebel.
Carrying hefty pounds of attitude, style, and image, he is a force to be reckoned with. Whether in the form of Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront
or James Dean as the iconic figure in the 1955 movie Rebel Without a Cause
, the values and the vision of the rebel spread like wildfire in the culture and as something uniquely American: the dream of endless liberation. From Bill Haley and the Comets who wanted to “rock around the clock” to Elvis who insisted no one step on his “blue suede shoes,” a new vision was born that took hold in the consciousness of the West but has since spread globally.
It began with the young and the restless and it had a message. All inherited life, all social structures, were seen as limiting or restricting. Parents, society, the school, the “Man,” they all stood for inhibition and holding people back from real life. It was not cool. Non-conformity became the new conformity and it was addictive. The age-old repressive structures of obedience to parents, hard work at school, civility and honor in society, and marriage and family life were subject to constant attack and exposure as agents of repression. These repressive structures, beliefs, and values had to change or go. Nothing, it was believed, should impede the free expression of the individual in his or her quest for life.
I remember well the feelings I had as a youth growing up in Scotland. My father was part of the generation that fought in World War II. His icons, which he shared with us, were Frank Sinatra, Matt Monroe, Dean Martin, Perry Como, and the Big Band sounds of Glenn Miller. I grew up listening to this as what I thought was our music, until a visiting cousin from South Africa introduced us to the new sounds of Simon and Garfunkel, then the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and so it went.
As a teenager in the late 60s and early 70s, I found myself, for many reasons, angry and wanting to be free. I found in the music, movies, and mood of my time, a language, a feeling, a rage against what was. I would sit in my room and listen to Deep Purple in Rock and Black Sabbath and feel the pulsating rhythm of rage and power. I wanted to be free—and by “free” I meant free to do whatever I wanted, wherever I wanted, in any way I wanted. I was working out an age-old rebellion from the beginning of time. Of course, I did not know that then, but years later I could see meaning in what at the time was little more than raging emotions.
My friends and I loved the rock singer Alice Cooper and his song “School’s Out,” which climaxes in the chorus with the cry “School’s been blown to pieces.” What kid did not want that? I never stopped to question any of this. I never gave it all much thought. I just knew instinctively that non-conformity was the new conformity. Somehow, in some way, so-called society conspired to create morality and to impose controls on all those who were duped by custom, which then led them to surrender to the rules. As part of the young and the restless, I was not going to submit or bow to the restrictions of others. I would resist, fight, struggle. I’d be a rebel without a pause. I took every opportunity to live this out, flaunting conventions, mocking those who followed the system, seeking my own pleasure and desires as number one, all the time feeling superior, above morality, not bound by the limits of lesser mortals.
Many years on, I note how Western culture has made a fortune in the marketing of the concept of the rebel. It has also paid a huge cost. The deep sense of meaninglessness that characterizes what historian Paul Johnson calls “modern times,” which is taught as the science of life in our education system and often embraced in our arts, is having an untold effect in the lives of many. Albert Camus, himself a product of and witness to the modern era, studied the issue of the rebel in depth and wrote, “Rebellion is born of the spectacle of irrationality, confronted with an unjust and incomprehensible condition. But its blind impulse is to demand order in the midst of chaos, and unity in the very heart of the ephemeral.”
The rebels (who came in many forms and types) resisted inherited order. They rejected God or the gods; they resisted inherited values. They struggled for life in a world that seemed absurd and found older so-called “proven truths”
as empty and vacuous. Life was, for them, a journey and a struggle for liberation in which each sought to find the truth that worked for them in their generation. Each life, each individual became its own project of self-definition and self-authentication.
What began as a fringe movement amongst thinkers, artists, and political agitators, over time turned mainstream as business execs and wise producers began to see how much money could be made in marketing this lifestyle and its products. Rebellion could make good business sense!
From the 70s onward, by constant exposure and ever new expressions of the quest for freedom, our cultural norm would be shaped by the notion of permanent rebellion. A good example is seen in the movie world of cops and robbers, as we were introduced to “Dirty Harry.” He was a California homicide detective (played by Clint Eastwood) who did not play by the rules but who got the bad guy by any means possible, including torture. Many embraced this new image. If you can’t get results by playing fair and you see that the system is all corrupt anyway, then as Eastwood said, with his Magnum 44 Justice, “A man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do.”
The problem is that men doing what they gotta do is like a broken record. Going back to Genesis and the rebellion against God’s word in the garden (Genesis 3) and on to the building of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), the idea has been “Let’s make a name for ourselves.” Rebellion, however, is portrayed as cool, hip, and liberating. It means never bowing to anything or anyone other than the self, your desires, or your own will. The power and attraction is seen in always having a cause and in always fighting against the latest form of inhibition or oppression. The rebel is the heroic icon of our time.
The English writer and journalist G.K. Chesterton understood the deep destructive sense of what was being conveyed—and consequently damaged—by what was viewed in his time as modern. He wrote, “The modern world seems to have no notion of preserving things side by side, of allowing its proper and proportionate place to each, of saving the whole varied heritage of others. It has no notion except that of simplifying something by destroying nearly everything.”
The new narrative was one that seemed to despise all that was older, to sneer at inherited wisdom, and to glory in the replacement of the old with the new, no matter what the cost. This vision of creative destruction is one that took hold with vigor.
Recently, we have been introduced to the re-envisioned Star Trek.
Previously, it was Batman, Iron Man, and other earlier expressions of American folk mythologies that were revamped. In Gene Roddenberry’s original utopian vision, the explorers of the future were envisioned (by him) as more civilized, honorable, and wise. They were those who would seek to do that which is right. Starfleet’s dream was a civilizing, educational, and scientific mission that would open up the galaxies “of strange new worlds and new civilizations.”
The “new” Captain Kirk and his team, however, have had a good postmodern makeover. The character of Mr. Spock sheds his limiting logic (to some degree). Starfleet Prime Directives are ignored, and once again the “bad” good guy does what it takes to overcome the “bad, bad guy” with the help of, for a limited time, the “good” bad guy. (This is Khan, the genetically enhanced human warrior unfrozen from his cryogenic sleep for military aims who is, in fact, the bad
These makeovers are now common. We take an older text, inject a healthy dose of attitude, skepticism, sex, and whatever shock factor counts. And Presto!
We have the latest and trendy version that glorifies the rebel and heroic vision of rule breaking!
More of the Same
At this moment in our cultural history, the dominant images and icons are those positioned as “against.” Against what? Everything,
it seems. Camus sheds light for us: “Metaphysical rebellion is the movement by which man protests against his condition and against the whole of creation. It is metaphysical because it contests the ends of man and of creation.”
We are told constantly by experts and gifted authors that there is no God. We are told that we are the result of matter in motion, of random forces plus chance and necessity. We are told that there is no meaning in life and according to Richard Dawkins, “We dance to our DNA.”
Why then, do we not adapt? Why are we still rebelling? Instead of going with the flow and accepting what is as it is, humanity wrestles with grievances, feelings of injustice, a sense of injured fairness, loss, sorrow, anger, and a hunger for happiness but an inability to quench it.
Something, it seems, is wrong and our answers are inadequate. If our very freedoms, expressed today so often as carelessly and inconsiderately, contribute to much of our miseries, why do we continue to assume that more of the same is an answer? The endless call for greater liberation, more self-expression, more room for individual choice and action sounds like the weary cry of a jaded and fatigued culture.
The notion of freedom is an issue that we need to do some serious thinking about. I, as a teenager, was obsessed with the notion of freedom, but I also knew next to nothing about real life, or what it took to have one and sustain one. It was a vision of pure imagination that was fantasizing about unlimited free expression. It was childish in the extreme, as I genuinely believed that the goal of life was, or should be, my own happiness, no matter at what cost or in what way it was achieved.
What I have come to realize as an adult and now as a Christian is that what was my own internal and privatized vision and beliefs is now the mainstream cultural vision that many embrace as the norm or goal of their life. It is unsustainable and leads to moral and spiritual anarchy.
In his insightful book on freedom, colleague Os Guinness cites several voices from history. They should be heeded.
“Nothing brings more pain than too much pleasure; nothing more bondage than too much liberty.”
“Liberty may be endangered by the abuses of liberty as well as the abuses of power.”
“The greatness of a nation, its true civilization, is measured by the extent of its obedience to the unenforceable.”
Freedom, for many, has become an end in itself. We fight against any and all restrictions. We rail against any and all limits and limitations. We fuss against any and all inhibitions as all that matters. It is supposed that real life, real joy, real living is found in the unlimited expression of free will. In contrast to this is the Christian diagnosis of life: what is wrong is in me as well as around me, and I do indeed need freedom, but it is freedom specifically defined and dependent on God’s resources, not mine.
A Workable Structure for Life
provides one of the most descriptive insights into the struggles of a moral conscience with real evil and with the desire to be free from tormenting weaknesses. Here we see a conflict between a desire for the good but an inability to do it. The author sees the tension. He wants one thing and does another because he lacks the power of change. Yet at the end of the chapter, he sees that deliverance and power can come in and through Christ: “Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (verses 24-25
The new life in Christ (John 1:4
) is the down payment of the Spirit (Ephesians 1:13-14
), what C.S. Lewis called “the good infection.” The key to real freedom, the key to actual liberation, is found in the power of a new kind of life imparted to the soul, which begins a journey of transformation.
When we repent of our independence, when we seek the Living God, when we surrender to his kind of life, something new begins in us. 2 Corinthians 5:17
speaks of becoming a new creation. Romans 12:1-2
speaks of “presenting our bodies as living sacrifices” and of being “transformed by the renewing of our mind.” In this process, and it is a process, we are not to be “conformed to this world.” A principle of resistance is established. The power of change is imparted and the provision of grace calls us to a new way of doing life. This is indeed a good infection!
Dallas Willard and Don Simpson write, “Spiritual formation for the Christian refers to the Holy Spirit-driven process of forming the inner world of the human self in such a way that it becomes like the inner being of Christ himself.”
The Christian way is a call to another life, another way, another lifestyle. It lives and functions in contrast to, and as an alternative to, what is paraded before us daily by PR companies for the world and its fashions, fads, and successes. In this new life, we are rebels—but rebels with a cause!
We participate in a spiritual resistance movement.
It begins with a clear sense of ultimacy and authority. There is a God, a higher power—and it is not me. Surrender is, therefore, step one. The acknowledgement and confession that “Jesus is Lord” is not merely a phrase I employ but a ruler to whom I must bow. By saying “Yes” to Jesus, I am saying “No” to many other things. Worship is the starting point, for it shifts my focus from self, emotions, and needs to that which is external and outer and to One who alone deserves worship. Eugene Peterson reminds us that “Worship gives us a workable structure for life; worship nurtures our need to be in relationship with God; worship centers our attention on the decisions of God.”
Our modern world claims that life is all about me. It invites us to indulge, consume, experience, and experiment. The Word of our King invites us to follow Him, to worship Him, to obey and serve. I well remember one young man who came to the mission field to serve while I was living in Austria. He had a background in drugs and careless living. He had lived by the beach most of his life and had embraced what was peddled there as the “good life.” In his early twenties, he had a crisis and came to know Christ. However, as one old preacher used to say, “It is one thing to get the people of God out of Egypt and another to get Egypt out of them.”
This young man (I’ll call him Jim, not his real name) believed that now that he was in “full time service” that meant he could work less, take it easy, and not be burdened by 9 AM to 6 PM schedules. The “rules” were for others, and as he saw them, were legalism. He used his understanding of freedom to imply that normal etiquette and rule-keeping did not apply to him unless he felt like it. Unknowingly, he was still a “rebel without a pause,” though now he sought a sanctified version. I wish I could write that it ended well for him, but as far as I heard, it did not.
Rebels with a cause, what does that mean? In Matthew 6:33
Jesus commands us to “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.” Maybe it is a result of aging or perhaps I have limited vision these days, but I truly marvel at the way our contemporary church seems so enamored with culture and relevance as a kind of fixation, even in the church. The latest, the newest, the best is in, and we have a cadre of ready voices to berate the existing church and conservative Christianity for its many failings, irrelevancies, and old fashioned views. Yet all that twitters is not gold! In a sincere desire to grow, some adjustment is necessary. However, many good, rich, and valuable things are ignored simply because they are not new or fashionable. We bow to what C.S. Lewis calls “chronological snobbery,” implying that only the most up-to-date is valuable or relevant. It should be remembered that good things often take time to nurture and don’t always yield to speed and taste.
Let me illustrate. When I became a Christian, knowing the Bible was considered essential for a serious Christian life. I was encouraged to read, to attend Bible studies, and to become conversant with the main themes of scripture. I remember as a young believer hearing a visiting speaker explain about the Tabernacle in the Old Testament. He not only shared on its beauty, purpose, materials, and aims, but also showed us how all of it connected to Christ and how it was a kind of visual theology pointing forward to what was to come. My imagination was gripped and my heart was stirred even as my mind was stretched and renewed.
By contrast, in many recent encounters with what I’d call angry or disappointed believers, when biblical truth was being discussed, I found myself besought by questions and doubts about God that had little or no bearing on scripture or on what the Bible actually taught. The scripture itself seemed irrelevant to the discussion; rather, it was more the offense that an idea or a shocking concept might even be there that was really the concern. The questioner, clearly emotionally stirred, had not taken the time to explore what the scriptures actually “say” but was debating intensely what they did not “mean.”
It seems that deconstruction, doubt, and debate are now ingrained habits and nothing can slide past the doors of skepticism that is not both appealing and critically self-approved. This may not seem to be a problem if such involved serious study and some measure of consultation, but in many cases it becomes just another expression of self-definition, self-absorption, and self-fulfillment. Conversely, a rebel with a cause sees through the deceits of culture, sees past the allure of emotion, and sees beyond the limits of the immediate and self-gratification.
Eugene Peterson writes, “Christian consciousness begins in the painful realization that what we had assumed was the truth is in fact a lie. It is an ‘aha’ moment when we wake up. Prayer is immediate: ‘Deliver me from the liars, God! They smile so sweetly but lie through their teeth. Rescue me from the lies of advertisers who claim to know what I need and what I desire, from the lies of entertainers who promise a cheap way to joy, from the lies of politicians who pretend to instruct me in power and morality, from the lies of psychologists who offer to shape my behavior and my morals so that I will live long, happily and successfully.’”
The French pastor and ex-resistance fighter Jacques Ellul called Christians to “spiritual subversion.” It reminds me of what Richard John Neuhaus proposed: that we be “in the world, not of the world, but for the world.” This is no easy task and it invites us to a life of focused living and of costly resistance. We do not withdraw from life or culture in such a way that we remove ourselves from contact, engagement, connections, and ministry. We nurture and cultivate habits of the heart and committed community in order to model and embody a true alternative to our world’s ways and means.
Camus asks, “Is it possible to find a rule of conduct outside the realm of religion and its absolute values? That is the question raised by rebellion.”
Many a young person has struggled with the life and lifestyle encouraged by their parents and church, only to reject it in an act of frustration and in pursuit of freedom. As many discover, we reject one structure for another, one code of conduct for another, one set of limits and limitations for another. Not all roads claiming to lead to freedom actually go there.
Perhaps instead of privileging our doubts and deconstructing our faith, we should consider privileging our faith and deconstructing our doubts? Perhaps instead of buying the latest round of anger-inducing analysis, we should read more scripture, consult more history, and get involved with more serious people and practitioners? Perhaps instead of rushing to condemn those we feel represent the system, we should spend more time in service and working for change, thereby learning what real life demands and what real change costs?
The cultural air that we breathe—the mood of our times—makes it hard not to embrace and deploy rebellion in the wrong sense. We react against authority; we question every policy. We second-guess every decision. We mock every expression of sincerity, and we come to doubt every call to integrity. Such a model is unlivable, and if this is our experience, then perhaps we are indeed rebels without a pause.
The alternative is to focus our minds (Colossians 3:1-3
), to fix our intent, and to choose daily self-denial as the way of life (Luke 9:23-26
). We choose to say “Yes” to our King and his kingdom, to explore ways and means to follow Him more faithfully, love Him more intently, and serve Him more intentionally. The “world” and its many allures is acknowledged but resisted, and our vision (I Peter 5:8-10
) is to be rebels with a cause.
Let me give you an example. During the Second World War, the courageous Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer recognized that his German culture and society were turning against everything valuable and sacred he believed in. The so-called “German Church” sought to embrace Nazi ideology and policy and to reject much that was central to the gospel. Bonhoeffer had a choice: Would he follow the many who counseled compromise and obedience to the state, or would he follow scripture and conscience? His choice was scripture, his path resistance, and its outcome his death.
The issues that face us today are huge; they are costly and they are demanding. To be a faithful and focused Christian is increasingly a major challenge in our times. It is time, therefore, for a more serious expression of the Christian faith in modern America, and I pray we will all personally count the cost, embrace God’s vision, and take up our cross. We must resist the world and live as rebels with a cause! May his kingdom come, may his will be done, on earth as it is in Heaven!
Stuart McAllister is Regional Director, Americas at RZIM.
Os Guinness, A Free People’s Suicide: Sustainable Freedom and the American Future
(Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2012), epigraph.