Recently, I had the opportunity to talk to Brett McCracken about his new book Gray Matters: Navigating the Space Between Legalism and Liberty, which examines the complex interaction between Christianity and culture.
In our previous discussion, Brett gave his thoughts on the varying ways Christians respond to culture, our need to be better consumers of it, along with other facets of the interaction between our faith and our culture. Today, we will conclude our conversation.
Trevin: Your chapter on being better film-watchers includes discussion on language, nudity, violence, etc. You don’t believe it’s helpful to do movie reviews that only focus on offensive elements and not the film as a work of art. At the same time, there doesn’t seem to be too many films that you would decide not to watch, especially if they are meant to be artistic. John Piper has warned young people to not allow a disconnect between our passion for God and our seemingly indiscriminate film-watching. Your thoughts?
Brett: I think there is definitely a need to be discriminating in our film-watching. For me, there are plenty of films I won’t watch, simply because I know they will not be edifying in any way. And if I’m watching a film, even a strongly artistic or critically acclaimed film by a director I like, and it ends up being mostly irredeemable, exploitative or overly explicit, I will turn it off or walk out of the theater. I think we as Christians need to recognize that there is a line of too-far, and we need to think seriously about where that line is.
As I write in Gray Matters:
“There’s value in leaving some things unwatched, some music unlistened to, some beverages unconsumed. We mustn’t be afraid of saying no. We mustn’t worry about being labeled prudes, cultural philistines, or legalists. Rather, we must focus on being more thoughtful, discerning consumers, willing to go deeper in our engagement and appreciation of the gray areas of culture, while also knowing our own limits and keeping our compass pointed in the direction of holiness.”
As with each of the genres of culture that I cover in the book, we have to approach film in a balanced way. I don’t think the “curse-counting” approach is helpful if it’s the only criteria we apply in evaluating a film’s merit.
Likewise, it’s not enough to only evaluate a film based on its artistry or storytelling brilliance. If it’s a beautifully made piece of art, and yet is morally depraved and full of needlessly explicit content, I think we have to think twice about whether we watch it or commend it to others. Likewise if it’s a family-friendly or “Christian” film and yet is horribly made and woefully absent of any aesthetic sensibility, I think we should also think twice about whether it’s worth our time or something we want to support.
Trevin: I’ve written about truth and beauty and the need for artistic presentations of Christian truth. So, I resonate with people who are encouraging us to become better consumers and creators of art, music, movies, etc. Part of me says “yes, yes, yes.” And yet, I have the nagging sense that the idea of “cultured Christianity” is just a high brow way of feeling good about being worldly. How can we ensure that our consumption of cultural goods is based in a desire to interpret and analyze these things from a Christian worldview (and thus become better creators), and not just a desire to distance ourselves from Lee the Legalist types?
Brett: That’s a fantastic point and excellent question. Part of what I was critiquing in Hipster Christianity was this sort of “cultured Christianity” that was primarily a reaction against the pop-evangelical subculture of Thomas Kinkade and Left Behind. Our rationale for engaging culture must be more than a reactionary thing where we are trying to prove that we aren’t one of those legalistic evangelicals.
Our theology of culture has to go deeper than that, and it has to be grounded in a belief that God created culture and said it was good. He created human beings in his image to be culture-makers. At it’s best, there’s something inherently God-glorifying in culture, and we should take that into account by critically and thoughtfully consuming it.
Our approach to culture must be less about us and what culture can do for us (whether it be drinking away our sorrows with alcohol, positioning ourselves as “cool” through our music choices, or whatever) and more about how it glorifies God—how it points our gaze toward him and helps us understand his mysteries in a deeper way and long after him more profoundly. Our comprehension of some of the hard-to-capture-in-words theologies and ideas in Christianity (e.g. the Trinity or the Incarnation, etc.) can be clarified and illuminated through art, for example.
In the book I talk about a pastor who wanted to describe the mystery of the Incarnation during a Christmas sermon, yet found that the music of Bach’s “Credo”—with its two voices woven together, an alto and a soprano, singing over and through and around each other—communicated it better. That art can communicate goodness, truth, and beauty that might otherwise be hard to find in the world, is one of the reasons why Christians should take seriously their consumption of it.
Trevin: I disagree with your stance on alcohol, primarily for missiological reasons and the injustice of an industry that is inherently deceptive in its approach. I’ve also heard cases where Christians in churches where alcohol is regularly consumed actually felt pressured to give up their teetotalism. Is there a danger of a warped reverse legalism in some circles of young evangelicals? I wonder if this is potentially a problem when it comes to other areas too (food snob, movie-watching, etc.).
Brett: There is absolutely the threat of a reverse legalism, and it concerns me greatly. I recently wrote a blog post on this topic, asking the question:
“Are we so embracing our Christian liberty to partake of alcohol that it threatens to become less a ‘liberty’ and more a shackling legalism-something we can’t, or won’t, go without? Are we as free to abstain from alcohol as we are free to enjoy it?”
I think it’s important that we are able to answer that last question in the affirmative. If we are not able to go without alcohol, or any other area of culture, it’s a problem. And if we hold it against other people that they don’t drink, or aren’t foodies, or don’t like art films, or whatever, that is also a problem. It’s legalism masquerading as liberty, and it’s something I address in each of the sections of Gray Matters (food, music, movies, alcohol).
Alcohol, like food or any number of things in God’s created world, is a good thing that can become a bad thing if we consume it recklessly, excessively or selfishly. It’s good insofar as we consume it not as something we must have but as something we can have, as a special delight of God’s glorious creation. But the minute it becomes a problem for us, or a problem for our community, or an obstacle for mission, I think the wise thing is to abstain, even if there is no biblical mandate that says “don’t drink.”
I like John Piper’s take on why he’s a teetotaler, for example. In a video for Desiring God he says, “Of course you can’t defend, in any absolute way, teetotalism from the Bible. It’s clear that wine is a blessing in the Bible.” But even so, Piper has chosen to be a teetotaler; not because he thinks alcohol is evil or forbidden, but because “it’s a context in which I live. It’s my children and my grandchildren. It’s my addictive personality.”
We must all aim to be careful and wise consumers, aware of our weaknesses and proclivities, and those of our community. Whether we’re talking about drinking, or eating, or watching or listening, we must think about our habits of consumption critically. How are they shaping our desires? Are they drawing us closer to God or to self? To holiness or to worldliness?
Culture is a wonderful thing. A gift. But we must be good stewards of it.