In 2 Kings 7, there is a story about the people of God in a spot of bother. Samaria has been under siege for a while and it’s taking its toll. Inflation is through the roof, women are eating their own babies, you know, standard Old Testament siege stuff.
Finally, four lepers decide they’ve had enough – they’re going to die anyway if they stay in the city, so they decide to surrender to the Aramean army. It can’t be any worse than eating overpriced donkey heads and living next to cannibal mothers.
So they go over to the Aramean camp – and find, to their surprise, that the enemy camp is deserted. There are tents; there are horses; there is food, and there is even plunder from previous battles. But the army has fled.
The lepers do a fair amount of revelry, eating and drinking and stashing away some gold and silver; but finally, they decide this is too good to just enjoy themselves. They go back into the city and report what they’ve found. As a result, the plunder is shared out to the people of Samaria. The famine is lifted. People stop eating babies (presumably). All is good.
Strangely, as I reflected on this year’s Catalyst Festival, and particularly the things we were involved with, I started thinking about this story. I wondered if it could be taken as a parable for the church, and how we can potentially relate more fruitfully to the culture around us. I imagine that it’s not immediately obvious what I mean, so I’ll explain.
I grew up in a context where I was encouraged to think of the church being in a similar position to Samaria in this passage: we were a people under siege. Inside the church community (and wider than that, the Christian sub-culture) we were God’s holy people, set apart and distinct. Outside, ‘in the world’, everyone was out to get us. The culture at large was populated by godless heathen, trying to attack the church with every weapon at their disposal. Scientists conjuring up half baked theories to undermine the Bible, politicians passing laws to erode biblical values, and – the most devious of all – artists, trying to seduce innocent Christians with their libertine tendencies and coded satanic messages.
Every now and then, we might forage out on a bit of an offensive (picketing an abortion clinic or writing a strongly worded letter to our MP), but on the whole, we responded by shutting the city gates and getting on with life on our own.
And actually, we kind of liked this set up. I mean, wasn’t this what heaven was going to be like? Christians hanging out, thinking about Christian stuff, and not being bothered by annoying others who didn’t share our core beliefs.
But, over time, our isolation started to bite. We found out that we weren’t made to live in isolation, and the culture we created couldn’t sustain us. We became culturally impoverished. We were chewing on the bare bones of Amy Grant, Frank Peretti, Ken Ham and Thomas Kinkade and we were starving.
Eventually, some people in the city decided that they couldn’t take it any longer, so they decided to leave and take their chances with the barbarians at the door.
However, to their surprise, they found the situation outside the city was not quite what they’d expected it to be. The fearsome army they were expecting simply wasn’t there. In fact, there was much of benefit outside the camp. There were riches in almost every sphere of human learning that, while by no means perfect, bore the watermark of the same God we allied ourselves with. Ingenuity; creativity; wisdom; understanding.
Rather than getting mowed down by machine gun fire, or being waterboarded till we recanted, these happy adventurers found that, as they explored outside the city, their love for Jesus grew, and their joie de vivre was intensified.
What’s more, their identity as God’s people remained, so they realised that they couldn’t keep this to themselves. They wanted to bring these treasures back into the city and make a way for the people of God to share in the good things they had found.
For example, at the Catalyst Festival…
I think we saw a microcosm of this at the Catalyst Festival this year. On the Saturday evening, Strange Ghost and Mr Ekow skillfully channeled years spent neck-deep in the work of the likes of Lauryn Hill, Hiatus Kaiyote and Outkast. On Monday evening, Huw Evans reflected on his journey with cancer, drawing solace and inspiration from Plato, Thomas Browne and the proliferation of skulls in Renaissance portraiture. And throughout the festival, Alastair John Gordon’s Travels in Hyper-Reality exhibition was on display for all to see. The title of the exhibition is taken from an Umberto Eco book, and the write-up quotes French cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard.
Now, this may all sound pretty unexceptional, but it caught my attention because it was unusual in this specific context. In my experience, Christian conferences are events that are, in terms of the above parable, ‘for the city, by the city’ – celebrating the things of the city. Catalyst Festival has always veered from this model to a degree, but I think we went a bit further this year. We had a number of people contributing who seemed to have ventured out of the city gates and survived. More than that, they brought us back stuff that was of great benefit.
Treasure hunting outside the city
I’m sure my analogy is imperfect, and I’m not suggesting for a moment that this is what the author of 2 Kings was trying to communicate when he came to record this episode. However, I think this picture contains something helpful for those of us who are trying to think through the difficult question of how we, as God’s people, can relate to the world around us, in all its glory and corruption.
As Paul writes in Colossians 2:3, all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden in Jesus. I’m pretty sure that Jesus, in turn, has hidden quite a few of these treasures a little further afield than the church has reckoned on in recent years. My encouragement would be to keep your guard up and tread carefully, but to go and have a look outside the city to see what you can find.