The Importance of Knowing What’s Unimportant

Being a counterculture for the common good begins with what we choose to focus on—and to overlook.

This article originally appeared in Christianity Today December 2006, p. 36-39.

The Christian Vision Project begins each year with a big question. In 2006, we asked, How can followers of Christ be a counterculture for the common good?

We knew from the start that any set of articles, no matter how compelling, would provide an inadequate answer. Every how eventually has to be lived out by a who. Making sense of our moment in history, in other words, requires us to make a wise choice of heroes. Fortunately, over the course of 2006, we found one.

Only because of his daily diet of vegetables and prayer in front of an open window could Daniel grasp that God would eventually supplant Babylon with an everlasting kingdom.

I’m not thinking primarily of the Christian leaders who contributed articles to these pages, nor of the remarkable artists, activists, churches, and families who allowed us to peek into their lives for the five films on our intersect|culture DVD. I’m thinking rather of a character from one of the shorter books in the Hebrew Bible, a book you can easily miss among the monumental histories, prayers, and prophecies.

Christians have always chosen biblical models for engaging the culture, and Scripture offers plenty of options. African Americans have emphasized Moses, leading his people out of bondage into the Promised Land. For many white evangelicals, though, Moses’ story seems distant—or perhaps it comes uncomfortably close to likening our American ancestors to slave-holding Pharaoh. Some of us gravitate toward David and the other “good kings” in Israel’s history, who fought for theocratic power amidst the threat of godless foreigners and the decay of a formerly faithful establishment. Others, especially those formed by the Anabaptist tradition, choose Jesus of Nazareth: nonviolent, alternately apolitical and subversive, diffident at best toward Jerusalem (let alone Rome), and at home among the poor.

Yet a different hero emerged during countless hours of conversation, writing, filming, and editing. I found myself talking with Sam Andreades, pastor of the Village Church, a small congregation whose size belies its significance as a fertile community for Christian artists and performers in lower Manhattan. “We see our model as Daniel,” he told me. “When Daniel goes to Babylon, what do we find? He becomes more Babylonian than the Babylonians. He becomes the model Babylonian, while being no less a model for the people of God.”

Canadian pastor Mark Buchanan wrote for CT’s sister publication Leadership about the challenges of being a counterculture for the common good in the charged arena of sexual ethics. He observed that Daniel, “like Esther, lived in a time of exile—Babylonian, then Persian. … He had to sort out his place within that culture: What could he, without violating his conscience, say yes to? What must he, regardless of the personal risk, say no to?”

And then I ran across this piquant phrase in Nathan Bierma’s book Bringing Heaven Down to Earth, in which he quotes a play by (coincidentally) Daniel Jurman: “In every way that is unimportant, let them make us Chaldeans.”

The speaker, of course, is Daniel.

Acts of Reorientation

Like the Chaldeans, in all the unimportant ways. It’s a compelling idea, but also, on further thought, a strange interpretation of the book of Daniel. For Daniel had some unlikely ideas about what was important and what was unimportant. Upon arriving in Babylon, the capital city not far from modern Baghdad, his first recorded decision was to ask for a diet of vegetables instead of the king’s meat and wine. Commentators observe that the meat might have been offered to Babylonian gods, yet a Jew would have had a thousand encounters every day with all manner of uncleanness and idolatry in the city of Babylon. How did Daniel conclude that the king’s table was worth making a fuss over, while enrolling with his friends in a comprehensive course on Chaldean language and literature? Surely avoiding a thorough cultural indoctrination would be more important than choosing the king’s asparagus over the king’s lamb.

Yet from all appearances, Daniel was indeed the “model Babylonian.” There is no love lost in Scripture for the empire of Babylon, yet somehow Daniel intuited that he could immerse himself in Babylon’s foreign culture without losing his distinct identity. The psalmist lamented, “By the waters of Babylon we lay down and wept. … How can we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land?” (Ps. 137:1). But that was a question, not an answer. Daniel answered the question while praying in front of an open window every day: It is possible to sing the Lord’s song, if you manage to discern the important ways that you still belong to the Lord.

It seems that for Daniel and his comrades, being a counterculture consisted of surprisingly small decisions—small acts of reorientation to remind them daily that in spite of their privileged status in the capital city of the world’s most powerful empire, they belonged to another King and another kingdom. The Book of Daniel also records, like the Book of Esther, dramatic decisions to serve God rather than the foreign king. But it is unique in giving us a glimpse into the daily choices, such as eating vegetables and praying in Hebrew, that prepared the exiles for those moments of courage.

Daniel is also unique in how vividly it shows the exiles devoting themselves, as Jeremiah had instructed them, to the welfare of the city of their exile. At one point, Daniel is called into Nebuchadnezzar’s presence to interpret a dream with fateful implications for the king’s legacy. He begins, “My lord, if only the dream applied to your enemies!” And he ends, “Renounce your sins by doing what is right, and your wickedness by being kind to the oppressed. It may be then that your prosperity will continue” (Dan. 4:19–27). Even in the midst of pronouncing God’s decisive judgment, Daniel sought the prosperity of Nebuchadnezzar and his people.

Later, Daniel is granted a sweeping vision of God’s intentions for history, a vision that leaves Babylon in the dust of future empires. “I, Daniel, was worn out,” he says. “I lay exhausted for several days.” And then this astonishing report: “Then I got up and went about the king’s business” (Dan. 8:27).

A Multicultural Exercise

To live as an exile, following Daniel’s example, requires us to ask of every feature of our culture, “Is this important?” It requires us to ask that question as searchingly of our daily habits as of institutions and philosophies. I fear that American Christians have too little practice in posing these questions.

Is our culture’s celebration of individual freedom a liberating, creative force or does it erode our ability to love? Is Hollywood’s Oscar an achievement to be pursued or an image of gold to be defied? Is Burger King just fast food, or is it the king’s rations? The fundamentalists of 100 years ago had firm opinions on such questions; their grandchildren seem to have adopted a posture of nearly universal consumption of American culture at its best and worst.

Christians, unlike our Jewish forebears, are not an ethnicity. We are not devoted to the preservation of a single culture, but to incarnation and transformation within every culture. So we need one another to help determine the “important” and “unimportant” features of any given culture.

This will be an inherently multicultural exercise, because sorting out the important from the unimportant cannot happen in isolation or from a distance. Trying to discern the idolatries, the misplaced importances, of our culture is like trying to remove our own appendix. However vestigial it may appear, its removal will be painful; in any case, we can barely see it. On the other hand, to diagnose and treat another culture’s unique failings without active partnerships and relationships within it is violence, not surgery. Only together can we discern the deeper significance of any given cultural practice, its redemptive possibilities, and its tempting distortions of the life that really is life.

So we ask for help—across ethnicities, across church traditions, and even across time. This has been the logic behind posing the Christian Vision Project’s question not just to white evangelical Protestants in North America, but also to Catholics and Orthodox believers, and to Asians, African Americans, and Hispanics from inside and outside the United States. Next year, as our focus shifts to global mission, we will have to be even more attentive to international voices. The only way to be culturally discerning is to be multiculturally informed.

The Daniel Fast

We shot five short documentary films for intersect|culture, the last with author and speaker Frederica Mathewes-Green at her home in Linthicum, Maryland. Having recorded some extraordinary stories about cultural activists—people who seek their neighbors’ common good in distinctly Christian ways—we wanted to tell a story about practices that can sustain a culturally engaged life. We sensed that Frederica, a veteran of the culture wars who carries herself with grace and good humor and is perpetually delighted by life, had something to teach us. As it turned out, our short film on Frederica had a lot to do with Daniel.

Frederica and her family fast twice a week, a practice that goes back to the earliest Christian centuries and an ancient discipleship manual called the Didache. Along with Orthodox Christians around the world, the Mathewes-Greens observe this fast every Wednesday and Friday. It’s not total abstinence from all food, but rather avoidance of foods that come from animals, whether meat, eggs, or dairy products—what we now would call a vegan diet.

Long before anyone invented the word vegan, Christians called this diet the “Daniel fast”—because it essentially replicates the diet Daniel and his friends adopted upon arrival in Babylon. The Christian version of the Daniel fast does not require us to abstain permanently from meat, Frederica pointed out. But it is a twice-weekly reminder that we are in exile and that our use of animals for food is itself tainted with echoes of the Fall. The Daniel fast is not just a discipline to develop self-control and dependence on God; it is a reminder that the abundance we enjoy cannot, in this life, be entirely separated from the alienation we endure from God and from God’s creatures. It is a small act of reorientation, a small act of exilic consciousness in the middle of every week.

I didn’t expect that the most significant change in my own life from directing the Christian Vision Project would be a practice of fasting. But that is how it has turned out. Two days a week, from the moment I skip milk in my morning tea to the end of the day, I am reminded, sometimes by a grumbling stomach, that I am not quite at home. I am hungry for something more, and I risk missing that hunger if I am constantly sated with the rich food of history’s richest empire. “The greatest enemy of hunger for God is not poison, but apple pie,” John Piper writes. That is a subversive statement, and twice a week I remember it is true.

A Lasting Kingdom

Midway through, the Book of Daniel seems to take a sharp turn. It begins with vivid, concrete stories of the exiles’ faithfulness—eating vegetables, praying in public, remaining standing when everyone else bows down. But these give way in the final chapters to apocalyptic visions of beasts, horns, and shaggy goats, a whirlwind of geopolitical predictions, and the obscure statement that history will come to its climax after “a time, times, and half a time” (Dan. 12:7). At this point, the seer himself admits, “I heard, but did not understand.”

Yet I suspect that for the first readers of Daniel, this transition was not so abrupt. It was his life of practical faithfulness that made it possible for Daniel both to serve the common good of his culture and to discern, in however cloaked and coded a fashion, the wider purposes of God. Only because of his daily diet of vegetables and prayer in front of an open window, his small acts of reorientation, could Daniel grasp that God would eventually supplant Babylon, with all its affluence and all its atrocities, with an everlasting kingdom—a kingdom whose righteousness and perfect justice make it impossible to find oneself at home in any human kingdom, even if part of the king’s household. Daniel’s fast was a daily reminder of the temporary nature of the kingdom he served. Yet it was precisely his loyalty to something larger and more lasting that made him one of the king’s truly trustworthy advisers.

When our neighbors, poor and powerful alike, know that our loyalties are to a different and better kingdom; when they see that we are distinct, strangely untouched by the habits of our culture, yet well informed of its highest and best history as well as its deepest flaws and fallenness; then, perhaps, they will welcome us as partners in creating a culture whose prosperity, by God’s mercy, may continue a while longer.

They will no doubt be as perplexed as Nebuchadnezzar by our peculiar sense of the important and the unimportant, our upside-down sense of the ultimate. They may never share our conviction that our culture, like every other in human history, is surely destined to one day be as fine as the dust in the desert south of Baghdad. Yet they may sense our hope that like the long-ago kingdom of the Chaldeans, this empire will be remembered in part because the people of God found themselves as exiles in its midst and sought its welfare.

Perhaps this empire will even be remembered on that day when many who sleep in the dust awake. Sustained, though also laid low, by that vision, we too can rise and go about the king’s business.