The Dangerous Allure of Reactive Externalism
This post is about the dangerous allure of reactive externalism. It’s about patriarchy, beards, weight-lifting, modesty, head-coverings, etc…
American Christianity has long been dominated by gnostic tendencies. Gnosticism is a false religion that troubled the church in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. It revisits every generation to some degree. This go around its come back with a vengeance.
They basically believe that the physical realm (consisting of matter) was created and ruled by a lesser evil god they called the demiurge. They identify the God of Abraham as this demiurge. According to Gnosticism, the material world, being the creation of an evil deity, is considered bad. In Gnosticism, people are seen as divine souls trapped in a physical world. The body is viewed as a prison for the individual, and the created realm is seen as a prison for the entire race. Therefore, salvation in Gnosticism means escaping the limitations of the physical realm through acquiring special knowledge and attaining pure spirit.
I understand that no one is claiming that the Trinity is the demiurge, but all the other major tenets of Gnosticism are becoming increasingly commonplace in American Christianity. These include having a disregard for the body and physical things (including culture) and emphasizing spiritual knowledge and experience in all aspects of life.
Now, this is easily refuted by a plain reading of Genesis 1-2. Creation is declared to be good. Matter is good. Plants are good. Animals are good. Bodies are good. Mankind is created as a composite of body and spirit. And God affirms it. Therefore, the idea that matter is evil is unfounded. The Bible declares the opposite.
You cannot divorce mankind’s physicality from his spiritual nature or vice versa. In Romans 6:1-14, Paul connects the inward spiritual reality (the fact that we are dead to sin and alive in Christ) to the outer physical reality of what we do with our bodies.
Slaves obey their masters. In the past, sin was our master, and we served it with our bodies. Within us were evil desires, and we used our physical members to fulfill those desires. We lusted with our eyes, lied with our tongues, and stole with our hands. Our bodies became instruments of unrighteousness and lawlessness. However, we have been freed from sin. Christ is now our Lord and Master. Therefore, Paul says, "So present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and present your members as instruments of righteousness to God."
The benefits of our union with Christ are like a seed planted within us that grows and manifests itself outwardly through the works accomplished by our bodies. Our tongues now proclaim the truth, sing praises, and taste food to the glory of God. Our eyes study the creation and learn to appreciate its beauty, and our hands emulate it in our art, architecture, and even coding. We work diligently with our backs to provide for ourselves, our families, and to contribute to others. What was once a tool of evil has now become an instrument of righteousness.
Consider how contrary this is to Gnosticism... Not only is the body inherently good, but it also produces and brings more good into the world.
Therefore, a sincere devotion to the heart inevitably leads to a devotion to the body. The Puritans understood this well. They emphasized the importance of good works and sought to create a holy culture. However, somewhere along the way, a sound doctrine became distorted and reduced to a monstrous belief that only the inner world matters.
A younger generation of Christians are discovering that gnosticism—including its ugly twin sister feminism—is a destructive lie. Our sex matters. Our bodies matter. Beauty matters. Strength matters. Our appearance matters. Sexual distinctions matter. They, of course, were told the exact opposite, and believing the lies of Gnosticism led to bad fruit in their lives. As a result, it is understandable that they are mad.
In the fervor of their righteous anger, they seek to root out Gnosticism from their lives and reclaim the goodness of God's creation. This is commendable, but it's important to note that strong emotions can often cloud one's vision. Clouded vision is particularly dangerous in an age characterized by a tendency to seek hasty shortcuts and internet exhibitionism.
This brings me to the allure of reactive externalism.
I've known many women who, in their desire to reject the markers of feminism, have chosen to grow their hair out long, replace tight pants with modest dresses, and start wearing head-coverings during worship. However, many of these women still are brassy loud women. While they may adorn themselves in a way that aligns with the “tradwife” archetype portrayed on Instagram, they still lack the enduring beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit as described in 1 Peter 3:4.
I’ve known many men who, in their desires to reject the markers of effeminacy, have chosen to grow a beard, hit the weights, and start doing family devotions around the dinner table. However, many of these men still are emotionally undisciplined men lacking gravitas. While they adopt a masculine appearance and busy themselves with masculine activities, they still lack the internal character of a mature man as described in 1 Timothy 3:1-7.
Godly femininity and masculinity are not obtained easily; they come at a cost. There are no shortcuts. They require a significant amount of time and effort. They are the result of ongoing sanctification, which is achieved through discipline. Discipline can be painful for a time, but it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness. But pain is hard. It’s much easier to dress up than it is to grow up.
Our desire to appear as if we have everything figured out is further intensified by the exhibitionism of social media. Unlike toned muscles and flowing dresses, qualities such as gravitas and a quiet spirit are not visually captivating. They do not generate the instant gratification of notifications, shares, and retweets. Consequently, the immediate rewards associated with external appearances can hinder the long-term benefits of character development that come from embracing the pain and hardships of disciplined growth.
That's the allure of reactive externalism: it provides a quick way to portray oneself as a masculine man or a feminine woman. However, this is significant because most shortcuts actually are detours. Ultimately, our children will remember us not for the image we presented online, but for who we truly were in reality.
Now, at this juncture, many evangelicals will proclaim, "See, only the spiritual matters." They argue that any concern for beauty, strength, and appearance amounts to vanity. However, I disagree. We must keep "heart religion" and "body religion" interconnected. We cannot let the intensity and darkness of our day tempt to us to pull them apart.
Let us reject shortcuts, exhibitionism, and externalism. Instead, let us embrace discipline. Discipline your body. Discipline your spirit. Live a disciplined life, even when the only one who sees you is the Almighty.