Cool Christians riding on The Wildside
Last time I griped about the profound uncoolness of the Christian Motorcyclists’ Association. If they want to achieve the goal of bringing Christ to the Peter Fondas and Dennis Hoppers of the open road (which is at least part of their mandate), then they need to lose their very uncool branding.
A friend of mine who read the post (a former undercover police officer who once worked with the Hells Angels) emailed me the following comment tying in the discussion to his own conversion to Christianity:
The “cool” factor was a big thing for me as I wrestled with who I would have to become to be a part of this new group I was joining [that is, the church]. The first Christian “party” I went to had Church people drinking beer and wine in moderation, laughing at good natured things, kibittzing etc. That was a big influence on me to decide whether or not I would join this group which inevitably led me to at first committing to the lifestyle of church and church people and then, of course, to God’s message and my conversion. Had they been uncool I’m not so sure I would have wanted to explore faith and the life of faith in a greater way.
What a relief that this weathered undercover cop’s first impression of Christianity was not a basement potluck of soggy macaroni salad, rice krispie squares and insipid, watered down punch. For him, Christianity was associated early on with young, engaging, educated thirty-somethings who didn’t mind having a glass of wine and a laugh. And it had a lasting impact.
My discussion of the Christian Motorcyclists’ Association is not really about that organization at all. Rather, that is merely symptomatic of the deeper problem that Christians make it that much harder to have a positive impact in the wider culture when they make Christianity seem so lame, insipid, and milquetoast.
So how can we reinvent the CMA to make it more relevant to the biker community it seeks to attract? First, as I said we must lose the name. “Association” has got to go as does the overly-formal ”Motorcyclists”. Another well established club has a much better logo and name: ”Bikers for Christ“. (Still, I’m not sure about the Christian praise and worship music that’s playing on their homepage.)
And there are other lesser known clubs which are worth a closer look. Another interesting group is the Australian Christian biker’s club “Balaam’s Ass” complete with a cartoon donkey logo. They make their specific target ministry reaching out to the “1%ers”, i.e. the outlaw biker gangs. Not only is the name appealing to the target audience, but as my friend pointed out, it is admirably self-deprecating as well (i.e. God can even use “Balaam’s Ass” Christian bikers to reach a lost world).
Must Harleys ride with Hondas?
The target focus of Balaam’s Ass raises a really important question: must Harleys ride with Hondas? Allow me to explain. I rode a Yamaha Virago and Suzuki Intruder for several years and one thing I learned: guys on American iron (Harleys and Victorys) rarely acknowledge guys riding Japanese bikes. Any Christian can see that this is a silly prejudice, but do we have to challenge those who hold it straight out of the gate? Or is there another way?
This brings me to missiologist Donald McGavran who faced the difficulty of making Christianity grow in the context of a highly stratified society like India. Christianity had traditionally been preached there as a direct affront to the caste system. The problem was that when the Brahmin converts to Christianity he is immediately obliged to sit beside an untouchable in church, thereby violating every social norm of the culture in which he’d been raised. In response to this dilemma McGavran proposed the very controversial “homogeneous unit principle” which seeks to minimize social obstacles to Christian conversion by proposing that churches be grown within rather than across different (economic, ethnic, social) homogeneous units in society. Thus, there could be a church for Brahmins and one for untouchables.
McGavran’s principle has been very controversial since (among other things) it would allow for segregated churches growing in a segregated society. Shouldn’t the church be challenging those racist and prejudicial notions by demanding that converts recognize but one body, bride, family and people of God? Isn’t the homogeneous unit principle a fundamental betrayal of the gospel?
It can be. But then an appetizer that is treated as the main meal can be a betrayal of a good dinner. That doesn’t oblige us to get rid of appetizers. Perhaps in some contexts there is a place for a modest recognition of this principle and an evangelistic working within its confines. Understood in its proper place, I think there is a place for sensitivity to the social baggage that people have when they come to belief.
The reality is that the 1%ers will not be reached by the typical Christian biker group which consists of a motley, rag tag group of aging Gold wings, flourescent sport bikes, enduros, and the occasional Harley. Your average hardened biker — including the occasional Hells Angel or Bandido — would consider the notion of riding with a flourescent green crotch rocket (with its rider wearing a matching green leather body suit) about as shocking as a Brahmin sharing a bowl of rice with an untouchable. Is there a way to accommodate this cultural starting point vis-a-vis an application of the homogeneous unit principle with the intent of bringing the baggaged biker beyond it?
I think the world needs more Balaam’s Ass chapters. But here is another idea for a 1% club so cool that I wouldn’t be allowed anywere near it (and I’m pretty cool so that must mean this hypothetical club is very cool!). In order to appreciate my proposed club identity, we first need to understand how Christianity has been domesticated.
Whenever Christianity has become an established cultural option people have started to think that the faith is boring and insipid like macaroni salad soaking into a paper plate at the church potluck. But the reality is that Christianity is a fire-breathing, world changing religion that is based on the death (and resurrection!) of a peaceable man who shook the foundations of the world with teachings and acts the likes of which the world has not seen since. He really is the ultimate rebel, maverick, desperado who challenged the establishment and championed the underclass. And we’ve domesticated him.
Time and again people have rediscovered the radical Jesus. As G.K. Chesterton put it so memorably as he described his long journey away from, and back to Christianity: ”I did try to found a heresy of my own; and when I had put the last touches to it, I discovered it was Orthodoxy.” In other words, Chesterton the rebel discovered that Christian orthodoxy is not a staid set of doctrines preached by wizened barely breathing bishops. Rather, it is a subversive gospel that should change the world from the barrios of South America to the rich office towers of New York and London.
This brings me to the biker community. Bikers are looking for freedom and a means to assert their own identity by rebelling against “the man”. Sadly, this protest is often futile as these “rebels” become the pawns of cynical corporate executives from Milwaukee.
Being a real rebel isn’t about buying into the corporate Harley and Hollywood image of a rebel. It is about identifying with a real rebel against the unjust social structures of this world. To communicate that effectively to the baddest boys on the highways, we need a special force. These are guys who really are tough. They come from a tough background. They ride Harley and Victory motorcycles. They’re comfortable going into a bar after a day on a dusty highway and having a cold beer. They know the culture from the inside. They’re not intimidated by Hells Angels and Bandidos, for they recognize that behind the posing are hurting people. And after a beer they can talk with these folk about the real rebel and the kingdom that he brings.
These riders would be riding with The Wildside, an effective contextualization of the radical call of Christian discipleship to a subculture of self-described rebels who pride themselves on walking on what they think is the wildside. An effective rider with The Wildside can effectively reveal that outlaw bikers are mere poseurs who are conforming to a stereotype of freedom which is as bland as macaroni salad soaking the paper plate. The real rebel rides with Jesus.
This brings me to the cool brand identity of The Wildside. I propose an image of Jesus riding a radical chopper like the one pictured above and decked out in leather chaps and aviator shades. Why not? Look at how unabashedly Renaissance painters place Jesus without a blush into a contemporary Florentine or Dutch scene. Nobody thought that was sacrilegious. Everybody recognized the appropriateness of placing Jesus within their time and place. (Check out Jaroslav Pelikan’s book Jesus Through the Centuries.) So why wouldn’t Jesus belong on a stylized cartoon chopper?
Whether you choose to ride with Balaam’s Ass or The Wildside, I offer these musings as just one more way that Christians can begin to remove unnecessary stumbling blocks to faith by being cool.