WATCHING YOU WATCHING ME
We copy one another all the time. How well we do discipleship today hinges above all else on this unexamined truth.
Figuring out how to be a credible disciple of Christ in the first part of the twenty-first century is proving challenging.
The Christian faith is not overly prescriptive. Many discipleship courses give a good grounding – helping people to understand the work of the cross and resurrection, the role of prayer, the place of the Church in the coming kingdom of God – but people often struggle to know how to apply this. Those experiencing a binary existence of a complicated, insecure, secular workplace and end of the day exhaustion which leaves them slumped in front of a box set, if they have the energy, sometimes wonder where God fits in.
The New Testament exhorts us to work out our own salvation. This is a bold, unsettling, liberating statement. We do not live by rules. Instead, God says to his people: ‘here is grace, now go and live it out’. But our instinct is to work it out only for ourselves, if we come from a culture which privileges the individual over the community where the assumption is we must make our own way in life and success or failure is our own responsibility.
By contrast, the authors of the New Testament would have seen this as a joint venture. St Paul courageously said: ‘be imitators of me, as I am of Christ’. It is likely that the determining factor in every person’s discipleship is the extent to which they copy others who embody it well. This does not sit comfortably with the neoliberal concept of the heroic individual who, unhindered by others, pursues their own goals in life rather than follows the practice of others. While Christians may not wish to identify with this myth, it still has a huge gravitational pull in western culture.
In spite of this, all the evidence suggests otherwise. Why else would the advertising industry continue to rely so heavily on celebrity endorsement? We are instinctive, unembarrassed copiers of others. Far better to identify this habit and consciously to co-opt it than to pretend we are the only authors of our story.
Today’s culture muddies waters we wish were clearer. Where once there would have been a narrow range of people to copy – those who lived in our neighbourhood – there are unlimited numbers of people to imitate today. A huge part of our existence is mediated through screens, which give us global access to others lives. It opens us to their judgments, too. A critical development of social media has been to shape and police social norms. People also identify what are known as success cues that lead them to follow the right people if they want to get on themselves. In our culture, signs of wealth and marks of celebrity are pored over.
These three developments – lots of people to follow; the enforcement of norms via social media; the venerating of wealth and celebrity – are not altogether helpful in following Christ and confuse the picture for us. They reinforce the value of shared discipleship, where we identify those who embody Christ and copy them and, more importantly still, recognise our own capacity to influence others for good in God.
It is the individualist in us which is most at risk of stunting Christian growth. Adopting society’s creed that no-one has the right to tell us how to live, we imagine no-one is interested in, or affected by, how we do so. St Paul spent some time in his letter to the Romans advising Christians not to use their liberty in a way which might undermine other followers of Christ. This is not an arcane debate, but one which speaks profoundly into our culture of self.
We are copying one another all the time. Others are watching and learning. How well we do discipleship today hinges above all else on this unexamined truth.
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