A lot of people have asked me whether I experienced any culture shock while being back in the states on my recent 6 week road trip to raise funds, update our partners, and make some new ministry friends of Mission|Sicily. We had some “entertaining” conversations.
By the way, a resounding “yes, and how” would be the appropriate answer.
It had been two years since my last confession… er, rather my last critique of Americana. We’ve been on the field in Sicily now for over five years, but as a family we’ve only gone back “home” once during that time. That was two years ago. Sure, I experienced some similar emotions and bewilderment this time around, although I’d have to say that some things in particular were much more poignant for me on this trip.
Driving a friend’s car around a posh, “old money” Nashville neighbourhood brought the point home. There was an unsettling sensation of how bubble-like, encased in glass, the people around me seemed to be. Soccer moms ferrying their children, business men and women attending their busy-ness, and the occasional jogger with their snug ear-plugging apparatuses wistfully turning a blind eye to the world around them.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this is bad. It did seem awfully fragile though.
Sure, we’ve got our families, lives and routines over here in Sicily too, with lots of people running to and fro pursuing their various happinesses. But, that’s not really what I’m pointing at. There was something deeper that I felt, and it made me shudder. I think it was the way in which what I saw was both seductive and sinister, both pleasing and yet repulsive. I’m talking about the “comfort” bubble that lies to all of us.
It was evident and everywhere. Even in a post 2008 America (incidentally, the year that we returned from our work in Estonia), ghosts from the American Dream still haunt us. While still in Tennessee, I stood in the potato chip aisle of a well-known grocery store contemplating the hundreds of bags of every kind of crisp under heaven. They stared at me, and I at them… frozen… for about 20 minutes. I was deep in a choice-coma!
I finally “phoned a friend” who encouraged me to just walk away, empty handed. And so I did, only to find myself there again moments later (trying to make sense of all my various choices). I just wanted “plain” Sea Salt and Vinegar chips, but alas they were awash and drowned out in a sea of 100’s of other-worldly flavours. Who knew bacon could be metabolised in so many various forms and configurations?! I struggled to really put my finger on why all this was bothering me, after all I like tasty food like everyone else!
Maybe it was really more of a heart issue, or perhaps an inherent mentality that’s just part of the water we swim in, that kept gnawing at me. I wondered if all this comfort (and our seeking after it) was really a chasing after the wind, and worse yet, that it’s lying to us. Lying to us about what it offers us (once and/or if we can obtain it), and lying about us (who we are, who we are without it, and who we could be with it).
It all smacks of idolatry. It’s chasing after safety, security and… even salvation.
I can’t say things were any better in Dallas or California. I got more adept, and very quickly, at navigating the chips aisle, but I couldn’t really come to terms with why something seemingly so “normal” in our consumer-comfort, commuter-computer driven society should really be a negative thing. Shouldn’t we have more choice? Shouldn’t we be able to say no to this and yes to that? Shouldn’t we turn things on and off with the a flip of a switch? and why not?
A few days after getting back “home” to Sicily, I came across an article from the Gospel Coalition that pressed things a little further, about the risk we run with our comfort infused Christian experience. The writer mentions the usual battery of hyperbole in order to expound his theme, but this statement stabbed at my heart, and maybe it’ll stab at your heart too. Hopefully, it’ll expose the same comfort idols that it did in mine:
Widespread especially in affluent Western contexts, comfort idolatry is the product of a consumerist context that frames everything—including spiritual things—in terms of expressive individualism, self-fulfillment, and “bettering yourself.” In this context, going to church is just one among many other curated things … that can add something to one’s unique spiritual path toward wisdom and wellness and becoming a “better person.”
Because it is so widespread and subtle, this framing doesn’t often seem so deadly. But it turns Christianity into a product akin to a smartphone app: something the “user” can opt in or out of as is convenient, or appropriate as needed but only insofar as it suits them. If it is in any way uncomfortable or costly, the “app” is easily deleted.
A Christianity that’s accessed only as it suits us, only when it is comfortable and on our terms, is not really Christianity. To truly follow Jesus is to flip the cultural script on comfort.