Over the next year, Leadership, along with sister publications Christianity Today and Books & Culture, will feature articles that explore the relationship between church and culture, specifically the question: How can the church be a counterculture for the common good? This effort, funded in part by the Pew Charitable Trust, is called The Christian Vision Project. Mark Buchanan provides the first article in this series.
Jonah is my favorite prophet, and for no better reason than our uncanny resemblance. I'm bald and I figure him baldwhy else his emotional tumult over how shade-dappled or sun-scorched his head? I'm short and I imagine him short: a stumpy, wiry guy, all that peevishness compacted tight as a nail bomb. He loved comfort and resented interruption, and that runs pretty close to my own bias. He was possessive, evasive, defensive, obsessive. Things not unknown to me.
Jonah is my least favorite prophet, and for exactly the same reason. He reminds me too much of me. I long to be Daniel-like in wisdom, Isaiah-like in righteousness, Ezekiel-like in faithfulness. I want the courage of Elijah, the endurance of Jeremiah, the long-view of Zechariah. I dream of standing down kings and outrunning horses, commanding drought and deluge with a word, calling down woe like thunderbolts and blessing like manna.
But I'm plagued with Jonah-likeness.
And here's a deeper worry: so is the church. Not just my church, but the churchespecially the church in North America. We're evasive with God, resentful toward outsiders, smug about our own goodness. Prudish, hawkish, lovers of comfort, and nursing a giant grudge against anyone and anything that threatens it.
Just like Jonah.
That's half the story, anyhow.
The other half is that the church is Esther, Esther prior to her awakening: assuming an insider status and willing to disguise her true identity for the sake of it, fearful of confronting her culture. We want to be like everyone else, only more so. We're a people terrified of being peculiar. We'll do almost anything to win a pagan king's affections.
Jonah wants just to be left alone, and would happily let everyone else go to hell. Esther wants just to fit in, and willingly forsakes her distinctiveness to achieve that.
Between these two impulses, the kingdom always goes begging.
But this is about sex
And that's exactly where I find these two stories so compelling, and so disturbing. Jonah and, implicitly, his community are threatened by Assyrian exile. Jonah is called as a missionary to the very people who bear that threat. Esther and, explicitly, her community are in the clutches of Persian exile. Esther is called to take a stand against the very people in whose land she and her people dwell but who now threaten to destroy them.
Neither story is about sex per se (though that's a subtext in Esther: the things we do for love), but both are about God's people living amidst pagan culturea culture that is pervasive, seductive, potentially coercive, and often at deep odds with what God thinks. Both are about the ways God's people try to negotiate their place toward or within that culture. And so both help us think through spiritual and ethical issues, including sexual ethics, for such a time as this.
How then shall we live?
Jonah chooses the way of condemnation. He hates the culture that threatens his own. His attitude is leave-us-alone and damn if you don't. He is prideful of his distinctiveness ("I am a Hebrew and I worship the Lord, the God of heaven, who made the sea and the land," he smugly tells the sailors whose ship he's boarded, even though he's using these men to escape this God), but he's not the least bit inclined to invite others to share in it.