Barna Group president David Kinnaman recently noted that we live in a complicated, accelerated culture. The culture in which most of us were raised could best be described as a modern day “Jerusalem”- with faith at the center of culture, Christianity as culturally- acceptable, if not preferred; monotheistic in nature, a Judeo-Christian society. A slower-paced society, it had its own idols, but those idols were a kind of false piety or moralism. Information was and could be controlled by those in power. It was a simpler life.
Kinnaman contrasts this former generational context to the one in which we are raising and educating kids now, what he calls “Digital Babylon”- instead of being at the center of culture, faith is at the margins of society. Culture is pluralistic, with many different faith traditions, religious, political, and sexual perspectives speaking in the public forum, rather than a monolithic voice. Technology has hastened life, rendered it frenetic at times. In the age of social media and open-sourced information, our idol is fitting in, being informed and up to speed. At a time when we are more connected to what others are doing than ever before, we are also lonelier than ever.
We feel more like exiles, foreigners in a strange land. Many of us are angry about it, frustrated that we have been taken from our home, as I’m sure the Israelites felt when the Babylonians came. We sometimes argue that the solution is to take back power, to get enough of our people in positions of authority to “take back the culture” for “Jerusalem.”
There are a couple of problems with this train of thought. First, “Jerusalem” might not really be worth taking back. After all, wasn’t Jesus’ strongest criticism of “Jerusalem”- her false piety, her moralism, her belief that through right actions and being “good enough,” she could dictate what kind of life God would give her? I mean, he didn’t really criticize Rome that much, did he? It was those who used their faith as a club to beat others into submission, who, in the midst of fighting for their own self-righteousness, led others into their same, corrupt system, who earned our Lord’s opprobrium. Do we really want to go back there?
Secondly, the sooner we accept the opportunities that “Babylon” provides, the ability to bring the life-giving message of hope and love to people who have never even heard it, the better off we are, and the more effective we’ll be for Christ’s Kingdom.
Since we’re in Babylon, now is the time to raise up Daniels.
You know the story. Daniel, like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, were identified from the crowd of Jewish captives. They stood out, Daniel 1 tells us, because they were quick learners, well informed, and understood language and literature. They were excellent. These men didn’t shy away from the culture in which they found themselves- “exiled” for them did not mean “segregated,” or “walled off.” Rather, they were fully engaged in Nebuchadnezzar’s court. They immersed themselves in the culture, taking on Chaldean names and customs. If you saw them walking in the palace halls, you would not recognize them as Jews.
And, yet, they remained pure. They wouldn’t defile themselves by eating ceremonially unclean food. They refused to bow down to the culture’s idols, literally, even when not doing so meant death. Each time they were threatened, they trusted God, whether or not He chose to save them. He did save them, and Scripture says God also gave them knowledge that was unequaled. Nebuchadnezzar found them ten times better than anyone else in his court. He elevated them in his kingdom, where they exerted tremendous cultural influence.
Kinnaman’s research reveals that students from Christian schools are more likely than their peers to want to be Christian without separating themselves from the world; more likely to want more from a faith community than a once-a-week experience; less likely to say that their faith is irrelevant to their career; and more likely to struggle with faith issues than other students. At least according to the research, Christian schools offer the best hope of training up Daniels in exile.
But, Daniels have to be taught what meaningful relationship with Christ and others looks like, in a world of virtual connectedness where image management has us connecting only to each other’s highlight reels, rather than to them. Daniels have to be taught to be connoisseurs of culture, rather than gluttons, to discriminate and discern what is good and noble and worthy of cultivating and improving upon, and what should be rejected. They must be taught how to engage the culture around them, to love deeply, with a deep theology of God, and life, and man, and sex, and work, and what God calls good.
Daniels have to be taught to lead, but that to lead in Christ is to serve and to suffer for the people you love; as N.T. Wright says, every Christ-shaped calling is a cross-shaped one, as well. Someone must teach Daniels that God has created them for work that glorifies Him. There is no secular/sacred divide here; God’s calling, and all work to which he calls us must be sacred, because He is calling His holy saints to do it. Daniels have to learn God’s calling on their lives, and to engage in their vocations in such a way that it promotes flourishing in the world around them. Most importantly, Daniels must be shown and have modeled for them a profound, passionate, first-hand relationship with Jesus Christ.
Raising exiles is tough work for first-generation natives of “Jerusalem”, with one foot in the old world, and one foot in the new. But, Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had mamas and daddies, too. I’m sure they were tempted to weep for what they’d lost. But, I’ll bet they were faithful people who loved their Lord and who prayed for strength and wisdom to raise kids who were equipped for the opportunities they’d gained. And, God was faithful. And, their children humbled the kings of the age.