jerusalem or babylon

(This post is related to the most recent episode of the Every Thought Captive Podcast where we talked about some of these issues.)

I was recently at a conference where David Kinnaman, the president of Barna Research, was leading a session on Millennials and their relationship with biblical higher education. He shared a lot of very interesting insights – some helpful and some terrifying. He began the session by making the observation that increasingly students and their professors/staff are living in two different places. Students are living in Babylon while those who would recruit them, teach them, and train them are still living in Jerusalem.

As soon as I heard it, I knew he was right. And traditional Christian institutions like churches and colleges must acknowledge and address this scary new reality with its threats and opportunities. Living in denial helps no one, and it certainly doesn’t help the kingdom to advance.

At the risk of destroying the metaphor, let me explain it. Jerusalem is of course God’s holy city. It is a place where God’s people live integrated lives which are centered on the reality of God’s presence in their midst. In fact, in Jerusalem all society, culture, and institutions are integrated around this centering reality. God’s people enjoy the privileges and the responsibilities of being at home in Jerusalem.

Babylon, by contrast, represents God’s people in exile. Babylon is a place of alienation and dis-integration. God is pushed to the margins in Babylon and is placed in competition with other, competing voices and authorities. God’s people in Babylon are challenged by the forces of cultural seduction. It is no longer a given that our identity will be shaped by the centering reality of God in our midst.

The comparison between Jerusalem and Babylon might be framed up this way:

Monotheism is assumed. Idolatry is fought. Idolatry is assumed. Monotheism is fought.
Integrated (life and society oriented around God) Dis-integrated (life and society oriented around desire)
God’s people must be holy. (emphasis on behavior) God’s people must be faithful. (emphasis on identity)
Scripture is the authoritative voice interpreting all other voices. Scripture offers one perspective which is interpreted by all other voices.
God’s people are culturally privileged God’s people are culturally alienated
Traditional Progressive
Provincial Cosmopolitan

I don’t think there’s any question that America has undergone a massive culture shift. It’s debatable just how authentically “Jerusalem” we ever were, but there’s no doubt that most of us are living in the heart of Babylon today – even if we aren’t always aware of it. Consider the google “doodle” from today, March 31. It was created by a 15-year-old student from Connecticut (it is pictured at the top of this post). Notice that religious identities are placed side-by-side with gender identity. So, either being trans-gendered is the same as being religious, or, what is more likely, being religious is the same as being trans-gendered. There’s not even a consideration that a person’s religion might be a completely different thing than their sexuality or their race or their gender. Everything including religion is now just about marking out a person’s unique identity. It’s unclear whether the person on the left side of the doodle is wearing a shirt celebrating gay pride or google, but in Babylon it doesn’t really matter. We can identify and orient ourselves just as easily around our sexuality as we can around our technology and consumerism.

This shift has been happening for some time, but has only accelerated in recent years. Books like the recent Benedict Option have diagnosed the problem and proposed a cure (or at least a response). It’s a good book so far (I’m about halfway through), but there also isn’t a whole lot that is brand new about its cultural observations. Yes, things seem to be spiraling downward at an accelerated rate recently, but Resident Aliens came out in 1989 and made similar observations. And Resident Aliens was hardly a new in its cultural observations. Augustine wrote The City of God to a panicked church undergoing radical cultural change in the fifth century. And Peter wrote his letter to Christian “aliens and exiles” in the first century (1 Peter 2:11) – a letter he says he wrote “from Babylon.” Even though it is true that God’s people have been waiting in exile ever since Pentecost, there are some of us who because of factors like geography, age, lifestyle, or worldview are living closer to Jerusalem than others.

Where do you live? Do you live closer to Jerusalem or closer to Babylon? Do you think that you live safely in Jerusalem when really you have been whisked away to exile? Have you ever thought about it? Where do you suppose your kids live?

I put together a little survey where I’m collecting some information on the question of Jerusalem versus Babylon. Please take some time and complete the survey here. It’s not a perfect or scientific survey, but it may help you to think more deeply about where you are living.

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