Recently, I watched a documentary about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Many documentaries are devoted to the unsolved mysteries of this historic event, but The History Channel series was unique in that it featured very little commentary and used a wealth of seldom viewed clips from media coverage of the time.
One such clip was an interview with the former classmates at Lee Harvey Oswald’s junior high school in New Orleans. The reporter set up his interview with the comment that went something like, “Lee Harvey Oswald was a poor student whose best grades were in Art. We know artists are often non-conformists, dressing and acting in a way that is often outside the norms of society, was this the Lee Harvey Oswald you knew?”
Three young ladies (former high school classmates), offered their views on the future assassin, “He seemed bookish and to himself.” “He was nice enough back then.” “He was kind of quirky. Like a know it all.”
Thanks to the Lee Harvey Oswald’s of this world, non-conformists have always been suspect. The horrific massacre at Columbine High School revealed a plot hatched by bullied social misfits.
Even those who are able to channel their non-conforming ways into something of societal value are often kept at arms length. An uncomfortable position that breeds insecurity. For the non-conformist, daily living offers a thousand little reminders they see things differently.
Yes, the non-conformist has occupied both ends of the social spectrum; the very best and very worst of humanity. Society tends to institutionalize the non-conformist who is found at either end.
If judged insane, commitment to a mental institution so the rest of the world might remain safe.
If judged genius, the formation of a social institution. Perhaps a University, Academy, a Church, or even an entire denomination…devoted to preserving and promoting the accomplishments of our most revered non-conformists. All doomed to failure at one level or another:
“Those who think like we do, UNITE!”
Can the non-conformist ever be fully replicated in an environment of conformity? Yet conformity is exactly what institutions require to survive. This has been the great conundrum of leadership. How do we teach the value of following another without stripping people of their individuality?
Moreover, how do we work together in unity while yet protecting the unconventional and innovative?
I began to grasp the challenge of cultivating spirituality among artistic communities when I watched this news reporter from the mid-1960’s search for a connection between someone who does well in an Art class and someone who would shoot the president.
I won’t bore you with my life story. I will say that I was born into a family of thinkers. We were encouraged to question authority. To do the hard work of digging for the truth ourselves, instead of letting someone else hand it to us for unquestioned consumption. We were musicians, artists, teachers, and yes, we had all the hallmarks of a rebel tribe.
We could also be assholes.
My tribe, and there are many like us, pose a challenge for the faith community. In my case, I was smart enough to excel in certain areas of my life, while troubled enough to become a drug addict. The mess I got myself into led me to the conclusion I needed the help of someone greater than myself.
Imagine then the irony in my mind between the life of Jesus Christ we read in the Bible, and the role organized religion plays today in conveying his life to an unbelieving world.
Jesus Christ of the Bible: The ultimate non-conformist. Misunderstood, misinterpreted, but clearly viewed by religious leaders of the time as a very present danger to their hallowed institutions. Someone who must be eliminated.
Jesus Christ today: The flagship of organized religion. The icon of our hallowed social institution, the church. Jesus Christ: Whose emblems we wear like a badge of honor: The fish. The cross. The WWJD bracelet.
On the surface, it would appear the Jesus Christ of today stands as a symbol of the status quo. A threat to the non-conformist.
However, for the non-conformist brave enough to examine the life of Christ for himself, he becomes a fresh call to question the conventional wisdom of the day.
Friends, the church fails when it becomes the persecutor instead of the persecuted. The persecuted church is Christ’s closest companion. Persecution comes when you threaten the status-quo, when you question either religious authority OR cultural conventional wisdom. This form of radical Christianity always has, and always will be, attractive to those hungry for creative cultural transformation. This is the brand of Christianity an artistic community will listen to.