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.
You know, mainstream culture – it’s things that “most people” like. The stuff that everybody agrees is cool or desirable or good. The stuff that wins the cultural rat-race of the West.
When I say that, you might imagine that I have in mind suburban neighborhoods, trendy baby accessories, Gap clothing, or the latest Apple gadgets. And you would not necessarily be wrong.
As I said, I do not identify with “mainstream” in this way. And if you happen to like those things there’s a good possibility that a conversation with me that includes the word “mainstream” might make you 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! 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-peircing hurt when it went in (that’s a legitimate question,) 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).
But what if “mainstream culture” is more than just the neighborhoods, baby accessories, clothes, and gadgets? What if it goes a bit deeper than that? And what if God is calling all of us to “opt-out.”?
What does “Mainstream” really mean, anyway?
So far, I’ve really only described one very superficial layer of meaning to that idea but 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! ” (That’s why it can be annoying to see someone else’s piercings or hair that 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.
You may point out that alternative or ‘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. 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.
The Deepest Level of Mainstream
If our first layer of this conversation was about style and our second layer was social identity, the third is quite a bit deeper. I’m going to call this level “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 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.
We buy into ideas like I am more valuable than you because I have an M.A. from a top university. Or, I am less valuable than you because I barely make enough money to scrape by and probably always will. Or this guy over here 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 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. We all want to be the most valuable by whatever measure we use.
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 or an iPhone because I picked them to make me feel like I am measuring up better than the people around me, just like everybody else.
At this level, the alternative to “mainstream” isn’t “alt.” The alternative to “mainstream” is “loser.”
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.
And for the first two levels, style and social identity, there’s an argument to be made that not being mainstream DOES 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.
Opting Out of Mainstream at the Deepest Level
In my work, 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.
But the reality is quite different. Because 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.
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. But what does that mean?
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? 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, 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. My finger is pointing at me first.
The question we are all asking is this: how do we opt out?
How do we become anything but mainstream, in this third, destructive sense? Do we need to become homeless or dysfunctional? How do we choose to be losers when everything in our makeup is screaming to win?
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 as we do.
In exchange for not trying to win at life anymore, he offers us a whole new life.
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 complete 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.