There are supposedly only six degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon. Whether this is so is open to debate, but there’s little debate that scripture describes only three degrees of separation. And they’re not from Kevin Bacon.
In January of 1994, Kevin Bacon made an off-the-cuff comment. Directly or indirectly, he’d worked with everybody in Hollywood. A newsgroup thread sprang up: “Kevin Bacon is the Center of the Universe.” College students followed it, including Craig Fass, Brian Turtle, and Mike Ginelli. One night while watching Footloose, they came up with a stupid party trick. People would throw names at them and they’d connect them to Kevin Bacon, suggesting that everyone on earth is six or fewer acquaintance links apart from the famous actor. From this came a parlor game – Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
Scripture cites not six but three degrees of separation. They’re called exile. The first degree of exile denotes God’s people. The second designates a particular place. The third demarcates a select few who “understand the times,” who are perceptive.
In Hebrews 11:13, God’s people are called “exiles on the earth.” This is the first degree of separation. Believers are called to be in the world but not of it (Jn. 17:14-15). It’s a paradox, which, by definition, holds two seemingly contradictory truths in tension. However, in today’s therapeutic age, not many folks, including Christians, are drawn to tensions. This is why many turn paradoxes into dichotomies – be in the world or of it. That sort of thinking incurs God’s judgment.
For many years the Jews failed to sustain the tension of being in the world but not of it. God sent them to a place called Babylon. This is the second degree of separation. Tragically, only a select group of Judeans, the sons of Judah, recognized exile. They were perceptive. This is the third degree of separation. Jewish religious leaders didn’t feel this exile so the sons of Judah felt like outsiders in the faith community.
We observe this in Jeremiah 29. God, through the prophet Jeremiah, addressed “the exiles whom I have sent into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon.” He wasn’t addressing the religious leaders (29:8-9). With reputations at stake, they had rejected the indictment associated with exile. God was addressing those who recognized exile, the sons of Judah. “You hear the word of the Lord, all you exiles, whom I have sent away from Jerusalem to Babylon” (29:20). They alone felt the three degrees of separation.
These three degrees are ancient history but many cultural analysts see them in play today. The late Richard John Neuhaus’ final book, American Babylon, places the Western church in exile. Walter Brueggemann, author of Cadences of Home: Preaching Among Exiles, describes the church as in the same place as “the Old Testament Jewish exiles in Babylon.” Similarly, Michael Frost of Morling College in Sydney, Australia, writes these words in his book, Exiles: Living Missionally in a Post-Christian Culture: “The biblical metaphor that best suits our current times is that of exile.” This resonates with James Davison Hunter’s assessment. In To Change The World he writes, “Ours is now, emphatically, a post-Christian culture, and the community of Christian believers are now, more than ever – spiritually speaking – exiles in a land of exile.”
If the Babylonian exile of 2,500 years ago is the best precedent for our times, then only a small cadre of Christians is likely to recognize the church is in exile. With reputations to defend, few established church leaders will. This will leave exiles feeling like outsiders in their church. They alone will feel the three degrees of separation. They alone will face a decision, writes Hunter. They “must come to terms with this exile.”
For several years I have helped exiles come to terms with this exile. I believe the Babylonian exile of 2,500 years ago is the best precedent for our times. It serves as a template for what exiles can accomplish. If you are an exile, similar to the sons of Judah, you might be capable of achieving what they achieved long ago. This is why you might enjoy a workshop I’ll be facilitating on Saturday, May 10th. It will be held at the Hunt Valley Marriott in Hunt Valley, Maryland. During our morning together, I will outline how the sons of Judah came to terms with exile. I’ll invite you to pursue what they pursued. If this appeals to you, please register at:
At the end of the day, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon is a parlor game. Three degrees of exile isn’t. It’s a problem. I hope you’ll join us on May 10th as we begin to solve this problem.