The reality, however, is that our national identity is nothing like this anyway. New Zealand, while still kidding ourselves that we are ‘people of the land’, are far more cosmopolitan, far more hip and far more commercially steered than we would like to admit. If our media consumption is anything to go by, we would rather switch on TV to learn from a kitchen guru about sea salt quantities and seasoning, how many times you can fold your muffin mix before its ‘overdone’, or how much mushroom to put in a perfect omelette than we would like to discuss social injustice. Not many of us would feel at home in a swanny or camping without a powered fridge or being in any location outside of a hundred metre proximity to coffee.
In the words of journalist Gordon McLauchlan, us Kiwis are a “passionless people”, we are “frowning zombies” who “have lapsed into a lack of passion bordering on inertness.” We just don’t care. In the last general election there were about a million of us who chose not to vote. Our “She’ll be right” attitude has helped to mould us into apathetic consumers downplaying passion, ignoring what we see as annoying, disruptive rhetoric, and marching on to serve the gods of lifestyle - chai lattes in hand.
This ‘zombification’ has not developed without its consequences. When meaning has been sucked out of life, and people follow the consumer script, there arises a certain helplessness and despair. It can appear that there is nothing beyond the morbid predictability of the good life. In a country that has it as good as ours we still have a suicide rate much higher than our road deaths and the highest youth suicide rate of the OECD countries. Something is wrong with the story of reality that we are telling ourselves.
Ideas from a Danish philosopher
Writing near the beginning of the 19th century, Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard found himself in a similar culture in his own land. Frustrated by what he perceived as lack of conviction by the Christians around him to take the gospel seriously, he began writing in an effort to point people to the radical message of Jesus. In a letter to a friend he writes “What matters is to find my purpose, to see what it really is that God wills that I should do; the crucial thing is to find a truth that is true for me, to find the idea for which I am willing to live or die.”
I think Kierkegaard’s thinking still sticks a sharp knife into 21st Century New Zealand. Could the church’s job be to rustle the feathers of Kiwi culture? To wake people again to the miracle of life? To lead people beyond the trivial? To lift the gaze beyond comfortable living? To suggest that perhaps some ideas are worth fighting for? Could this be what being a prophetic people means?
What is the message of the gospel, and are we willing to live and die for it?
If the church is to take its identity seriously then we need to examine what shapes us and take notice of our history. We stand in a long line of people who have taken a look at the cross of Jesus, understood that He is Lord and decided that there are things that don’t belong in a world that belongs to Him. This line of people includes the early church subverting the greatest superpower the world had ever seen by undermining its class system. It includes William Wilberforce and his friends changing the face of Britain by creative engagement in social action, abolishing slavery and standing up for those who couldn’t stand up for themselves. It includes story upon story of compassion and charity inspired by the love of God, always pointing to something bigger than the ideals we have conjured ourselves.
A good kick in the pants
So perhaps our real mission isn’t simply name dropping Jesus. Perhaps what New Zealand needs is a good kick in the pants. Perhaps what Christians need to be doing is embodying a story that represents life in all its weightiness. To remind people that they are only alive once. That their relationships are important. That life is a great opportunity designed for much more than new furniture, lifestyle blocks, company cars and road trips. Perhaps before we introduce people to the one that brings us into true, full humanity, we need to dismantle the ideas that so easily steal the attention first.
Perhaps what Christians need to do for New Zealand is to take life seriously. To love well while we still can. To not just settle for a good night out and a few brews with the boys.
Maybe we could fight for a new cultural identity, beyond the stoic Southern Man myth that we still hold on to so tightly despite its odd fit.
Or not. Whatever.
Sam Burrows is an ex-Middle School teacher (he made it out alive) who is currently working in Young Adult ministry while completing a Graduate Diploma in Theology at Laidlaw College. In his spare time he likes to pretend to be a rock star and writes for enjoyment and in order to impress a potential wife.