Keyes does not shun the word “transformation,” but does see a danger of being simplistic in approaching cultural transformation, particularly in believing that political success will be decisive, since transforming a culture is extremely complex. But, he said, “if we are salt and light, we can’t avoid being transformative.”
The transformation of society to become more like the Kingdom of God, identified in an earlier article concerning alternative Christian approaches to life in a secular world, was further elaborated on by Dick Keyes, Director of the L’Abri Fellowship in Southborough, Massachusetts, at the annual L’Abri conference on Feb. 3-4 in Rochester Minnesota.
The New Testament, Keyes said, has led Christians “through every conceivable political [and] economic arrangement that you could imagine.” He used two metaphors to refer to contemporary Christian approaches to the world, that of chameleons, and musk oxen. Chameleons change their appearance in different situations, and thus resemble Christians who choose accommodation to, and even assimilation by, the secular world, while musk oxen, whose behavior resembles that of separatists, form a defensive circle when they feel threatened. In terms of Jesus’ metaphor of salt and light, chameleons have lost their saltiness – they are no longer a preservative for society – while musk oxen give no light – they hide the gospel from the wider world, at least as it pertains to social relations. Neither transforms society to righteousness. In a sense, Keyes said, both approaches are ways of being “conformed to the pattern of the world” (Rom 12:2). Christians should be a “dissident minority … pulling against society,” not a “resonant minority” which is simply part of the status quo.
A good example of the “chameleon syndrome,” he said, is the World Council of Churches and its slogan: “the world sets the agenda for the church.” This does make the church relevant, but unnecessary, and, it should be added, it makes Christians increasingly like the world in their beliefs and actions. The other alternative, separatism, results in what Keyes called “tribal Christians,” who “speak in a tribal Christian dialect, so that … some Christians are not even understood by non-Christians … [they] read only tribal Christian books, listen to only tribal Christian music, but feel very right, good, spiritual, and safe.” Such separatist groups will need many more rules than the New Testament provides, since, “within a tribe, you need an answer for everything.” A “tribal Christian subculture” is a place where legalism flourishes, because rules are needed for a measure of self-sufficiency. The aim of such a subculture is security from the world, but it does not give security from God, who requires Christians to be salt and light, Keyes said.
Keyes noted that it is possible to inadvertently become part of one type of Christian group by objecting to the other. Those who find “chameleon Christianity” objectionable may gravitate to become insular, defensive Christians, while those who are offended by defensive, protective, legalistic environments may become “chameleons,” taking their cue from the world.
“Transformation” is a word shunned by some, because it is understood as “arrogant and triumphalist.” Keyes does not shun the word “transformation,” but does see a danger of being simplistic in approaching cultural transformation, particularly in believing that political success will be decisive, since transforming a culture is extremely complex. But, he said, “if we are salt and light, we can’t avoid being transformative.” Referring to the often quote admonition of Jeremiah to the Jewish exiles of Babylon, true disciples should “ seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare,” (Jer. 29:7). Keyes noted that the exiles in Babylon were “a kind of prefigurement of the church age.” Christians in this age are referred to in Scripture as “exiles and strangers on the earth” (Heb. 11:13).