Anyone who has ever grown up in or around evangelical Christian youth groups or has been to Christian concerts and youth rallies is familiar with this catch phrase, being counter cultural. I remember it as one of the several most tossed around words within the younger Christian community.
What it is supposed to mean is that being Christian meant loving God and others while being distinct from the common, secular culture of the larger world. This often translated into not doing many of the activities that non-Christians did; drinking, premarital sex, swearing, and so on. All this was for the sake of keeping spiritually clean and staying away from sin as one could do without becoming a monk.
In recent years though, I have found that being counter cultural is not a uniquely Christian mentality, and overall, I am not entirely sure if it is the correct one to begin with. Being among the different religious communities in Rochester, I have found that they all seem to have their own version of being counter cultural, and their takes on it are very similar to the Christian use of of the word.
Many of these communities are from other countries like India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and etc, and are either first, second, or even third generation immigrants. While they came in hopes of finding a better life and raising families, they also brought over their native cultural religious values that they wished to hold on to and pass down.
Yet one of the difficulties that these communities have had being in America is that it is a foreign culture to them, and secular at that. Many aspects of secularism conflict with their traditional values, so like Christian youth groups, these communities have developed a countercultural mindset of their own. Like Christians, traditional values are held as paramount but the communities also realize that they cannot hide from society either. So many work and interact with the larger society only as much as they need to. Their goal is to preserve and if possible expand their native beliefs in a foreign land by either families or if any outsiders are interested, converts.
My concerns about being counter cultural are these. First, it seems to produce a mentality that those within the group are the only ones being counter cultural. There is no real solid or objective information about what goes on in other communities. This lays the groundwork for stereotypes to grow.
Second is the issue of cultural relevance. I have said before that one of religion’s main duties has been to maintain the status quo of whom and what they are; what makes them exclusive from other communities. However, Human societies in general continue to evolve regardless of tradition. New elements are introduced that the religion previously did not have to contend with and thus there is no written instruction on how to deal with them. Communities trying to be countercultural run the risk of being regarded as antiquated and having no voice, people who have nothing to offer the welfare of the larger world because they are trying to abstain from it.
My last concern is that being counter cultural can allow the community to fall behind new social and technical information and developments. This lack of current information can also lead to misjudging outsiders, creating tension and a sense of mistrust, further isolating the religious community.
Knowing who you are, individually or within a group, is important. At the same time, if that person or group wants to continue to have a voice in society and be seen as being able to bring something worthwhile to the table, then their countercultural lifestyle has to be in balance with being able to live in harmony with that which is different.