Let’s talk about the mainstream – you know, mainstream culture. Things that “most people” like, stuff that almost everybody agrees is cool or desirable or good. The stuff that wins the cultural rat-race of the West.
If we were talking in person and I said the word “mainstream,” I’m willing to bet that my facial piercings, blue hair, and anarchist T-shirt would give you a pretty definite sense of how I look at the subject. The short version: I don’t really identify with the mainstream.
When I say that, you might imagine that I have in mind suburban neighborhoods, trendy baby accessories, Gap clothing or cool new Apple (or Google, depending on which way you swing) gadgets. You would not necessarily be wrong.
This sort of definition certainly fits my statement above: I do not identify with the mainstream in this way. Maybe you do (though, obviously you have your own unique, individual twist — your signature color or talent or interest. We all do.)
If so, I’d be willing to bet that a conversation with me (attired as above) that includes the word “mainstream” would immediately feel a little bit uncomfortable. You might feel judged. You might feel like judging me (and possibly then feel bad about that).
Those are fairly normal reactions. Don’t be alarmed. I’m not here to tell you to respect blue-haired people (if we wanted to be respectable we wouldn’t have dyed our hair blue), or to make you feel bad for wondering how bad my eyebrow-bar hurt when it went in (that’s a legitimate question in my book), or to tell you that you’re a sellout for liking Mumford and Sons (I’ve been known to listen to them on occasion when nobody’s looking).
I like who I am. I hope you do too. So let’s just be clear: if all we mean by “mainstream culture” is the neighborhoods, baby accessories, clothes and gadgets, that’s just not a very interesting topic of conversation. We all have to live somewhere, wear something, care for our children (if we have them) and navigate our increasingly technological world. Some options for meeting those needs are more popular, more comfortable and more widely appealing than others. I have no beef with that.
Please also rest assured that this is not a grand arraignment of materialism. I may not shop at the Gap, but I like clothes just as much as the next girl; and just because mine are a little harder to track down, don’t assume they’re any more ethically made or that I unethically covet them any less. There are plenty of materialists in all-black and full-sleeve tattoos. Materialism and consumerism are problems for all of us, and sins that all of us need to repent of — but they’re not my subject today.
So why am I talking about the “mainstream”? Let’s begin with understanding it. I’ve described one very superficial layer of meaning to that idea; I’m still talking because I believe there are others. So what do we find if we look a layer deeper than the clothes, gadgets, and accessories? We find a layer that I’m going to call social identity.
My blue hair and piercings are more than just style choices – they are statements about who I am and what I value. They say things like I like bending classical definitions of beauty and I am happy with putting people a bit on edge and (let’s be honest) I AM DIFFERENT THAN YOU! (whoever you are). That’s why it annoys me if someone else’s piercings or hair look too similar to mine.
I, like others in what we loosely term “alternative cultures,” have an identity constructed in opposition to the “mainstream.” Here, when I say “mainstream” I mean the set of values, customs and identity markers considered acceptable and appropriate by the wider culture around me (wherever that is).
You may point out that alternative (‘alt’) cultures are increasingly welcome in the community at large – that piercings and unnatural hair colors are becoming increasingly fashionable – and you would not be wrong. I’m not the only one who has noticed this trend with growing concern.
Acceptable as we may be these days, however, we are still a deviation from the norm, not a part of it. Which is more or less the point.
At this level you should consider yourself “mainstream” to the degree that your fashion and lifestyle choices – the options that you consider viable for yourself, not just the things you can tolerate in others – are determined by the opinion of those around you. Please understand that this is still not a value judgment – humans are social beings and we naturally crave the acceptance and approval of our neighbors. This is just a way to figure out where you fit in this conversation.
No one is absolutely outside the social group, no one is completely different from those around them and nobody really doesn’t care what others think. At this point in our conversation “mainstream” just means the fashion and lifestyle choices* that most people view as okay.
At this level, I still do not identify as “mainstream.” Perhaps you do. If so, that probably makes your life feel more manageable and, so long as you are happy with it, I have nothing to say about that. We’re still not talking on the right level yet.
So if our first layer of this conversation was style and our second layer was social identity, the third is quite a bit deeper. I’m going to call this level value or personal identity for now. This is the level – for me and, hopefully, for you – where things get uncomfortable.
On this level, if we’re honest, we’re all mainstream.
What I mean is that, deep down, we all buy into the same ideas about what makes us, as people, good, valuable and important – winners in this game of life. Or, to put it bluntly: we all buy the same lies.
In this version of mainstream we all have value relative to each other. This means things like: I am more valuable than you because I have an M.A. from a top university, which means that I am very intelligent. Or, I am less valuable than you because I barely make enough money to scrape by and probably always will. Or George is the most valuable of us all because he is handsome AND intelligent AND successful (and therefore we will listen to what he says about things).
These are stereotypes, obviously, because we all have our own little metric of who and what is valuable, but we do tend to agree on many or most points with our social group. And, what is absolutely universal, we are all measuring.
Whatever your metric of what gives people value may be, you are keeping track of who scores what. So am I. Even more importantly, we are all competing. We all want to be the most valuable by whatever measure we use (and we tend to pick our measurements to give us the best shot at achieving that). At the same time, we are almost all aware that we haven’t aced it yet. And no matter how well we think we are doing, we are all worried that someone will come along and do better at X than we can, and then we won’t be as valuable anymore.
At this level my blue hair and piercings are as mainstream as a Gap sweater and an iPhone because (you can bet any money you like) I picked them to make me feel like I am measuring up better than the people around me, just like everybody else. Because at this level, the alternative to “mainstream” isn’t “alt.” The alternative to “mainstream” is “loser.”
In the first two layers we talked about (style and social identity), there are plenty of people who will think that my weird hair and jewelry choices make me cool – like a rock star. In fact, most people think that’s the whole point of my having them.
For the first two levels, there’s an argument to be made (you may have instinctively feared that I was about to make it) that my being not mainstream makes me cooler than people who are mainstream. But once we get down to this level – if we’re honest – wanting to be cool, wanting to be different, wanting to be normal, wanting to fit in … they’re all the same.
We want to be those things because we think that people who are those things are more valuable than people who are not. On this level, nobody wants to be anything but mainstream. Me included. And this is where following Jesus really sucks, if we admit the truth. Because it is on this level, not the first two, where Jesus calls us not to be mainstream.
My husband and I talk a lot about the margins and the marginalized. Quite often we slip into thinking that being on the margins of society just means being not mainstream in the first two senses I described: living in a different sort of place, wearing different clothes, identifying with alternative culture. The reality is quite different. The margins are where homeless guys with mental health problems live.
Or kids from social housing who waste their money at betting shops. Or poor mums who feed their kids junk food because they don’t know better, or couldn’t afford better if they wanted to, or just don’t care. The margins are for victims of domestic abuse who can’t leave their partners and addicts who can’t get clean and drifters who can’t hold down a job.
The margins suck.
And, if you pay attention to the Gospel accounts, the margins are exactly where Jesus tended to hang out. You’ve heard that before, right?
If you’re reading this, I’m going to assume that it’s not news to you that Jesus calls us to follow him to the margins. There’s been a lot of talk about that recently. I hope you’ve been listening. I hope we all have. What I’m going to talk about is one aspect of what that means.
When Jesus calls us to follow him to the margins, he’s calling us to become not mainstream in that third, uncomfortable sense. He’s calling us to become losers in our own estimation, to fail at our own game, to give up our shot at justifying our existence to the rest of the world. When Jesus calls us to the margins, he’s calling us to become the scum of the earth.
I’ll give you a sec to let that sink in.
It should hurt.
I hope at this point you’re asking why? Why do we have to be losers? Can’t we just care for the people that already are? (You may also be asking: does that mean I have to be homeless? or abused? or otherwise dysfunctional? Put a pin in those questions for the moment.) Doesn’t Jesus just call us to care for the poor and marginalized? Why am I insisting that we have to join them?
The answer is pretty simple. As long as you think you have a shot at winning your own game, you are going to spend your energies building your own kingdom. Not God’s. As long as you think you can earn cool points and be better than (or as good as) the people around you, that is what you will dedicate your life to doing. We all do. That is human nature.
Whether we admit it or not, as long as we are still measuring, still competing, still keeping track of who scores what, we cannot look at each other with the love that God commands. As long as we still have something to prove (to ourselves, to Mom or Dad in our heads, to our peers), we are in this business of life for ourselves.
That sense of winning, of success, of cool is our master. And Jesus is pretty explicit that we can’t serve two masters.
More destructively still, as long as we are trying to win at our own game, to be the best by our own measures, we need everybody else to lose. And that makes us toxic. All of us. To everybody.
At this level I am going to come right out and say: the mainstream is not good. I hope you’ve heard all the inclusive language I’m using as we talk about this. My finger is pointing at me first. But I also hope that you are feeling very uncomfortable right now. That is the right response to this.
The question we are (hopefully) all asking is this: how to we opt out? How do we become anything but mainstream, in this third, destructive sense? Do we need to become homeless or dysfunctional? How to we choose to be losers when everything in our makeup is screaming to win?
You may have already caught this: what I’m describing is one way of looking at what theologians call sanctification. Or, simply, just following Jesus. If you are a disciple of Christ, then you’re already doing this to some degree, because the very first decision of the Christian life, the initial choice to follow Christ, is a decision that trying to win your own game isn’t working. It’s a decision to stop trying to earn your own value and to let Jesus give it to you freely instead. And in order to make that decision, we all had to accept, to some degree, that we fail at winning our value game, that we can’t be the best by our own standards – that we are losers.
That’s part of the secret, by the way. You don’t actually opt out of that third-level mainstream by becoming a loser. You already are one. You opt out by accepting that fact.
So let’s recap: there are a couple of superficial senses in which we can talk about mainstream and alternative, but at the deepest level we are all mainstream junkies. We all want to earn our own value by being the best at some standard we set for ourselves. Unfortunately (or not, depending on how you look at it), we all fail at the value-game, and eventually we bump into this fact. Our natural tendency is to react by trying harder, changing the rules or otherwise competing more. When we do that, we become toxic to everybody around us and a destructive force in the world.
Jesus calls us to accept that we are losers, to wear that title and to come follow him as he chases other losers who need his love like we do. In exchange for not trying to win at life anymore, he offers us a whole new life. I hope this sounds familiar to you. I hope you can flesh out my little outline by remembering what it was like to abandon the mainstream for Jesus that first time (or that first time and many others since).
So why am I writing all this?
I’m writing because we all fall off the wagon. We all slip back into competing. I wake up in the morning, stare at the pile of dirty dishes in my kitchen (which makes me feel like a loser) and then make myself feel better by looking at my piercings and believing that they earn me points on some cosmic scale. You have your own version of that. It feels small and insignificant and comforting. A little boost to the old self-esteem, a little reminder that those voices in you’re head aren’t completely right. A reassurance that you’re not a completely loser.
There’s a hard discipline to resisting those comforting little nudges back into the competition. Our gut tells us to compete, and it feels good to rack up a point here and there. Or, on the less pleasant side, it feels dishonest not to deduct points from yourself when you mess up in some way. Either way, though, every little thing that tells you to keep score – positive or negative – is a tug away from Jesus, back into the ‘mainstream.’ It actually doesn’t matter whether you’re a homeless guy or a suburbanite – you’re dangerous if you’re playing to win, because Jesus is calling you to be a loser – to live an identity that has nothing to do with those points you are (or are not) racking up.
Only you (and Jesus) know what being a loser looks like for you. That’s why I have no comment to make about your lifestyle or accessories or music or accommodation or anything like that. If I was really part of your life I might have something to say, because the community of Christ followers is supposed to help each other discern these things.
But for now I’ll just end with this: none of us wants to opt out of the mainstream, and all of us need to. I pray that Jesus shows you what that means for you. Pray the same for me. And may the Spirit give us all power to become the losers God calls us to be.
Photo design inspired by Andrew Neyer.