Editor’s Note: Throughout the month of June our writers will explore the way that God, grace, and the gospel show up in pop culture.
But as for you, man of God, shun all this; pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, gentleness. Fight the good fight of the faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called and for which you were made, the good confession in the presence of many witnesses… As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.
— 1 Timothy 6:11-12, 17-19 (NRSV)
This week, as I drafted a graduation letter for my sister who just completed high school, I was reminded of my own college graduation six years ago. One of Boston College’s most beloved theology professors, in one of the events leading up to commencement, offered this toast:
This is the real world. Where people come together committed to helping one another become as fully formed human beings as they can possibly be. If that’s not reality, I don’t know what is… it’s not about having or possessing or earning… those are all facets of a good thing…. But that’s not what makes a world real.
What makes a world real, is when all the members of that world, commit themselves to one another, that’s part of what happens, I hope, here at Boston College and it makes this world very real. So you’re not going from an unreal world, a world where you’ve been protected and coddled; you’re leaving a world that is very real and going to a world that has yet to learn a lot about reality… So go set that unreal world afire.
(To be clear, B.C. has not achieved some higher metaphysical state… unless that higher metaphysical state is accessible only by some threshold of beer consumption.)
It was one of the greatest insights that I had ever gleaned from college: that aspects of the Kingdom of God–where people help one another become fully formed, that is, to be kind, and hospitable, and generous, and forgiving, without judgment but with gracious and gentle correction, and who laugh, sing, dance, paint, write, and play–are a higher plane. Everything else is less real.
The perspective provided a revelatory context for me, considering this admonition at the end of the first letter to Timothy. The epistle is largely about church conduct and what it means to live in a community of believers which leads Paul, toward the end of the letter, to mention “the life that really is life.” The Kingdom of God doesn’t happen accidentally, and God actively and continually invites our participation in it. N.T. Wright, in his book Simply Christian, puts it this way:
The rules are to be understood, not as arbitrary laws thought up by a distant God to stop us from having fun (or to set us some ethical hoops to jump through as a kind of moral examination), but as the signposts to a way of life in which heaven and earth overlap, in which God’s future breaks into the present, in which we discover what genuine humanness looks and feels like in practice. When we start to glimpse that, we discover that the echoes… have indeed turned into a voice. It is, of course, the voice of Jesus, calling us to follow him into God’s new world–the world in which the hints, signposts, and echoes of the present world turn into the reality of the next one.
In Christ, we get to help God make the unreal parts of the world–the violent, envious, greedy, angry, sick, sorrowful, contemptuous, oppressive, intolerant, lustful–more real, both out there and in our own hearts.
How beautiful is that?
Invariably, our culture can expose us to all different forms of “less-than-genuine-humanness.” But as Stephanie wrote last week, disengaging wholly from pop culture and modern society is counterproductive. Instead, Christians have opportunities not just to consume or critique culture, but to participate and contribute to it–the art, the music, the sports, the everyday life of it–with our gifts in a very real way. With godliness, faithfulness, love, gentleness. To do good and to be rich in good works. To be generous and ready to share.
Last fall, Marilynne Robinson, whose best-selling novel Gilead is one of President Obama’s favorites, was interviewed by the President for the New York Review of Books in a fascinating discussion on Christianity, faith, democracy, political divisiveness, and middle-America. But it was prior to the interview, almost exactly a year ago today, in the wake of a jarring national tragedy, that President Obama tipped his hand to how he much was influenced by the Pulitzer Prize Award winning author and devout Christian:
A roadway toward a better world. [The Rev. Pinckney] knew that the path of grace involves an open mind — but, more importantly, an open heart. That’s what I’ve felt this week — an open heart. That, more than any particular policy or analysis, is what’s called upon right now, I think — what a friend of mine, the writer Marilynne Robinson, calls ‘that reservoir of goodness, beyond, and of another kind, that we are able to do each other in the ordinary cause of things.’
That reservoir of goodness. If we can find that grace, anything is possible. If we can tap that grace, everything can change. Amazing grace. Amazing grace.
Amazing grace — we will certainly need it if we’re to follow God to that better world, to that new world, to that real world, to that life that is really life.