Pursue irrelevance, because irrelevance reveals the limits of relevance.
Consider this image of a glass of cola.
The background is irrelevant. But without it we would not be able to visualise the subject – think of children’s drawings, which have lines around things, where those lines do not exist in reality. We would have no depth of vision, necessary for navigating a three-dimensional world - to pick up the glass and drink - as well as to see a three-dimensional object in a two-dimensional image.
Marshall McLuhan noted that:
“Today we live invested with an electronic information environment that is quite as imperceptible to us as water is to a fish”
“the role of the artist is to create an Anti-environment as a means of perception and adjustment”
“Without an anti-environment, all environments are invisible”
We might equally say:
“Today [indeed, in every age] we live invested with an ideological environment that is quite as imperceptible to us as water is to a fish”
A shared worldview ˗ an agreed set labelled ‘relevance’ – that we are not able to question, without the contribution of the artist who pursues irrelevance.
It is not that what is considered relevant is entirely mistaken, by any means; but that it is routinely mistaken for being without limit.
It is the ship’s crew that is prepared to undertake the irrelevant voyage west to the east that reveals the limit of the relevance of the day – not only moving us towards the realization that the world is not flat, but also rediscovering a forgotten continent on the way...
It bothers me deeply that churches invest so much time and energy in the attempt to be relevant to people who declare that the church is irrelevant to their lives. It is a council of despair: a choosing to conform to, to exist within the status quo rather than question and disturb.
The more relevant the church becomes, the more invisible it will be.
By actually seeking to be relevant we choose to condemn society to having less depth-of-vision, to being increasingly two-dimensional in its experience of life. For in the absence of irrelevance there is no means to interrogate the value of those things we deem relevant: does this relevant belief or activity heal us or harm us as a society?
Instead, we must commit ourselves to engaged irrelevance.
That is, active involvement in the world as artists, creating an anti-environment to every environment.
The world (certainly, as revealed in Scripture) is not black and white. It is full of colour (or, paradoxes). But the relevance of black needs the irrelevance of white...
the relevance of white needs the irrelevance of black...
the relevance of red needs the irrelevance of green...
the relevance of green needs the irrelevance of red...
the relevance of yellow needs the irrelevance of blue...
the relevance of blue needs the irrelevance of yellow.
Whatever the environment, we must create an anti-environment, as a gift to the world, to help our society perceive and adjust its limits.
In environments where children or those with dark skin or women are commodities, tools for profit, Christians have played and still play key roles in creating anti-environments. Men and women of ‘great promise’ (i.e. could have been incredibly relevant) gave everything up and give everything up for the sake of irrelevance.
In an aggressively atheistic environment, belief in God provides the contrast by which atheism can discover itself, and be discovered: its positives, its negatives, its limits.
In a sexually disoriented environment, the church paints an anti-environment (and generates much internal debate as to whether the church ought to pursue relevance or irrelevance - debate which is considered nonsensical, immoral even, by a wider society that can only see relevance, which has no value for irrelevance).
Irrelevance has no recognition in its day, but changes the world in its time.
Ask Vincent van Gogh (a brilliant, passionate preacher-turned-painter – o that God had more like him).
Pursue irrelevance, though you are called mad by all; though, indeed, mad you may be, or may become.
It is not that irrelevance is better than relevance: just that it is in far shorter supply, an undervalued but essential requirement. In pursuing irrelevance we ought not to forget that today’s irrelevance may very well (almost inevitably) become tomorrow’s relevance; will require, in turn, another irrelevance to reveal its limits. That is why the call to abandon ourselves to a thoroughly engaged thoroughly irrelevant irrelevance will always be the call on the Church, through every generation and culture. Pursue irrelevance.