Against conformity

Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. —Romans 12:2, NIV

Don’t let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould, but let God re-mould your minds from within,… —Romans 12:2, JB Phillips

runnerIn 1983, reeling from the failure of Lisa, their next-generation computer, Apple Computer had to reinvent itself, or die. IBM had just entered the fledgling personal computer market and Wall Street was betting the farm on Big Blue.

Apple’s money was on Macintosh, a sexy, technologically advanced computer that had “wow” written all over it. But a cool product wasn’t enough—Apple needed hype. They got it, and then some, by hiring director Ridley Scott to create a TV commercial. It aired only once, during the 1984 Superbowl. The product itself appeared in the ad by name only. But the message was the pure gospel of Silicon Valley Salvation, and it became the company’s mantra:

Apple has broken the chains of mediocrity and conformity. Join us.

(View the Apple “1984” commercial here. If you’ve never seen it, you really should. Be aware that the file is 14 Mb and comes only in Apple Quicktime format.)

What should Christian non-conformity look like? The Apple ad came to mind while I was pondering this question. It portrays non-conformity as a lone, brave woman, an athlete, hotly pursued by the thought-police, risking everything to “speak truth to power,” to resist “group-think.”

That’s one take. Examples of non-conformity can be found in the ground-breaking work of artists like Vincent Van Gogh, Pablo Picasso and Jackson Pollock. Social movements like the sixties flower children or the modern anarchists make it a badge of honor to show contempt for authority and flout social norms. Joyous non-conformity drives much of present-day GLBT politics.

But what about Christian non-conformity? Is it militant? Anti-authoritative? In your face?

When you look at the people in your average church on an average Sunday, does the word “non-conformity” pop into your mind?

George Barna has spent decades comparing Christians to society at large, and what he’s found isn’t very encouraging. Barna’s September, 2004 survey of 3,600 adults concluded that Christians have exactly the same divorce rate as non-Christians. And among divorced Christians, nearly one-quarter have been divorced two or more times.

In April, 2004, Barna found that only one in ten teenagers consider music piracy to be morally wrong, with the numbers nearly identical for Christian teens. Two-thirds of all teens, no matter what their religious beliefs, didn’t see music piracy as a moral issue at all.

Barna has found refreshing evidence of non-conformity in some areas of Christianity, notably among evangelicals. He writes, “[The collection of core evangelical] beliefs—and the worldview it represents—has produced a distinct way of living in an increasingly postmodern culture—a lifestyle that is increasingly at odds with the accepted norms.”

The Greek verb used in Romans 12:2 is suschematizo, a word that appears in only one other place in the New Testament, 1 Peter 1:14, where Peter lays out a very similar challenge:

As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do… —1 Peter 1:14,15, NIV

Suschematizo means “to take on the appearance of something else.” Think copycat. In the context of Paul’s warning, suschematizo refers to the danger of acquiescing to the power-centers of our postmodern age, of letting group-think determine how we shall live.

Both Paul and Peter agree—non-conformity means pushing back. It means resisting, exerting yourself against cultural forces that are contrary to the teachings of Scripture. It means paddling upstream, against the current. Christianity is not for those who want to float with the tide. It’s about swimming, not drifting.

In Ridley Scott’s Apple commercial, the heroic young woman races into an enormous hall full of dazed and docile men, all seated, all staring unblinking at a massive video screen. She is dressed in red and white running clothes and carries a huge hammer. They are dressed in baggy, gray prison garb. Up on the screen, the gaunt face of their leader harangues them with lies about the glories of conformity:

We have created, for the first time in all history, a garden of pure ideology. Where each worker may bloom secure from the pests of contradictory and confusing truths. Our Unification of Thoughts is more powerful a weapon than any fleet or army on earth. We are one people, with one will, one resolve, one cause.

Before her pursuers can catch her, our hero hurls the hammer at the face on the screen. It explodes in a blinding flash of light and his lies are silenced.

By comparison, Paul’s non-conformity has nothing to do with speaking truth to power. He contrasts suschematizo with metamorphoo. Don’t copy what you see going on all around you. Be transformed. Let God into the core of your being. Let him make you altogether new—new goals, new dreams, new desires. Let yourself be led by a new kind of hero: Jesus Christ.

I’m wearing a shirt that gets to the heart of this non-conformity thing. On the front it says (Un)orthodox Christian. Not that I’m really all that unorthodox, but I wear it as a reminder to myself, kind of like tying a string on my finger. It reminds me to have the integrity to live out the things that I claim to believe. Here’s what the shirt says on the back:

God is truth.
Faith and reason are fused in Him.
I question. I listen. I use my mind.

Jesus gave his life for sinners.
I won’t spend my life in a Christian ghetto.
I care. I pray. I use my heart.

I won’t speak Christian, dress Christian, or act Christian.
I’ll just be Christian.

The non-conformity of Jesus is something like that. Not what we say, but what we live.

Owning a Mac will not change your life. I don’t care what the Apple zealots say.

On the other hand, neither will dipping your toes in Christianity. You have to dive in deep and start swimming for all you’re worth, upstream.

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  1. Being a thinking human who loves truth and wisdom means choosing The Best even if it isn’t socially acceptable, even if it does not conform to what society or my church says is normal or OK. Which is primarily why 1) I am a follower of Jesus, 2) I don’t always vote Republican, 3) I’m prolife, 4) I believe the universe is old, and 5) I own a Mac.

    (BTW, owning a Mac might not change your life in the Big Picture sort of way, but being a slave to Windows can ruin it.)


  2. This is great. You have gone to the heart of the issue – not the external semblance but the conscience. You’ve got me thinking here.

  3. In II John 2, John describes conformity as “ALL” lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes and pride of life.

    By “all” This makes it 3 parts.

    We are born – again to become Christians. Physically when born we come into the world naked.

    Likewise, Jesus is asking us to give up our conformity to the world, and like the young ruler, it requires our willingness to appear naked before God – in the case of the young ruler, it was sell all his possessions – note: he could not do it. The more you have or are in conformity to the world, the harder it is and as Jesus pointed out, with the rich, it is all but impossible.

    Our suffering as Christian begins when are we naked before the Lord and find our humility and put aside the pride of life.

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