Sunday, October 27, 2013
GRAY MATTERS (2013) - by Brett McCracken (book review, Part I)
- Brett McCracken, pgs. 18-19
“The evidence of scripture, tradition, and experience all suggest that art can sometimes mediate not only a sense of life but also a sense of grace and of the mystery that we call God. And since art cannot mediate without the aid of aesthetic imagination, response, and judgment - without taste, in short - we must consider the perhaps surprising possibility that taste at its most encompassing is no less crucial to religious life and faith than is intellectual understanding and moral commitment.”
- Frank Burch Brown, pg. 125
The most striking thing that makes Brett McCracken’s second book, Gray Matters: Navigating The Space Between Legalism & Liberty, so interesting is his refreshingly creative approach to the question of legalism. The Modern Church doesn’t so much have a problem with legalism anymore (except in fringe corners). On the contrary, the Church now seems to have a much more serious problem of overreacting against it. No one likes the old positions of the legalist in our now unabashedly open and tolerant society. It is currently purely a matter of course for younger believers to despise, and marshal their arguments against, the close-minded and out-of-touch fundamentalist. Legalism just has all these rules, you see, and, well, they're unduly restrictive of liberty. Christianity isn’t, after all, about rules anymore; it’s all (so they tell us) about ... relationship.
Much rarer is the theologically grounded member of the Church who can still, with both a healthy confidence in the inerrancy of Scripture and a competent proficiency in the elementary rules of hermeneutics, demonstrate how erroneous are the Scriptural interpretations of the legalist. Such articulate advocates do exist. And, unless you happen to be anti-intellectual, conservatism does not equal legalism. After rudimentary study and consideration, any half-competent first-year Bible college student can show the obvious arguments against the basic prejudices of legalism. Scripture does not forbid the drinking of wine, beer or even of hard liquor. Scripture does not forbid the speaking of “uncouth” words. Scripture does not forbid listening to particular genres of musical notation. Scripture does not forbid the activity of dancing. Scripture does not forbid walking into a movie theater. Scripture does not forbid critical thinking. Etc. etc. etc.
That these arguments even have had to be made is informative, if not of the doctrines of Christianity itself, at least of a particular historically limited bias or waywardness in applied Scriptural interpretation. But Mr. McCracken has not here really marshaled the Scriptural evidence against the more embarrassing errors American fundamentalist legalism. Others have already done this before. This is not the book in which to find those ever so exhaustive lists of Scripture passages in favor of drinking or giving examples of the cussing habits of King David, the prophet Elijah or the apostle Paul. To our benefit, McCracken has taken an entirely different and rather more provocative approach.
His approach is, I think, superior to those who merely argue against the common fundamentalist misinterpretations of Scripture. It is, instead, a focus upon the question of culture - a healthy focus that many in the modern church still avoid (even if they reject legalism). Ultimately, the legalist/libertine debates are really about culture, and McCracken understands this. The consequence is that Gray Matters is a uniquely curious book in that it could only have been written by one who was raised within American Evangelicalism. Yet that itself is not a criticism. I also was raised in the world of American Evangelicalism. I understand that it is not easy to divest oneself of naturally resulting overreactions. “Will we,” asks McCracken, “be apathetic separatists who cede appreciation of culture to ‘the world’? Will we, as another extreme, be uncritical and careless in our accepting of any and every bit of culture at our disposal?” (pg. 129)
Many in our generation completely reject Evangelicalism and live a lifestyle single-mindedly devoted to not being Evangelical. And then there are still others I know who accept the bubble-like strictures of their historically limited upbringing. The former way reacts against how we’ve been taught. The latter reacts against those who react against how we’ve been taught. McCracken’s book offers something different. “Christians have for too long been motivated by reactions to the errors and excesses of the generations before ... Let’s grow up. Let’s stop compensating for the wrong-headed approaches to culture that our Christian forebears might have had.” (pg. 240)
1 - ON SEPARATION FROM CULTURE
Indeed, I have personally heard so many sermons contrasting “the gospel” as something inherently distinct from “the culture” or “the world” that I now could, mindlessly and without any preparation whatsoever, get up and preach this sermon, simply listing and repeating all the clichés and warnings against culture with which Evangelical and Post-Evangelical churches are now so familiar. (Some churchgoers have speculated as to whether it is actually possible for a pastor to preach a sermon and to take a nap simultaneously. If it is possible, the sermon that distinguishes the gospel from the culture and the world is probably the perfect naptime sermon.) The result, as McCracken discusses while using jazz and rock music as examples, is rather embarrassing.
“Anti-jazz magazine articles popped up with titles like ‘The Jazz Problem’ or ‘Unspeakable Jazz Must Go,’ the latter being a 1921 critique in Ladies’ Home Journal in which clergy and everyday citizens decried the perils of this popular new music form. Jazz is ‘worse than the saloon,’ one person remarked. It is ‘simply rotten. It belongs in the underworld.’ The instruments’ broken, jerky rhythms have a ‘sensual appeal’ that ‘call[s] out the low and rowdy instinct,’ making youth act ‘in a restless and rowdy manner.’” (pgs. 76-77)
“One of the charges against rock that got a lot of traction during the Cold War was the notion that rock ‘n’ roll was a communist weapon to undermine the character of America’s youth. Leading this charge was David A. Noebel, longtime Christian crusader against pop culture who kicked off a rather illustrious career with the 1965 pamphlet ‘Communism, Hypnotism and The Beatles,’ followed by the 1966 tome Rhythm, Riots and Revolution, a sizeable book in which dubious experts and ‘scientists’ (with names like ‘Dr. Freedom’) support the thesis that Communists used rock music to destroy the mental and emotional stability of America’s youth.” (pg. 78)
It is therefore a pleasure to read McCracken’s healthy opposition to this mindset in the church. For those of us uninterested in following legalistic forms of thought, “the” culture is not something to avoid or to be afraid of. It is not something opposed to the gospel. It is not something that ought to be removed from the order of Christian life and being. On the contrary, we ought ourselves to be “cultured.” Culture is a pursuit and endeavor worthy of the believer. It is a part of civilization, a necessary institution deriving from the nature of man, and therefore ultimately a part of general revelation. Thinking in this older and more traditional way results in a different kind of living. “Cultured Christians,” McCracken admonishes the reader, “don’t pit their Christianity in oppositions to culture or understand their faith as being uninformed or uninfluenced by culture. They avoid looking at things in terms of sacred/secular dichotomies, recognizing that common grace lends dignity to all manner of cultural activity ... Cultured Christians are not pendulum people. They aren’t always reacting against some bad iteration of the faith by going too far in the other direction.” (pg. 19)
Because McCracken is a film reviewer, he is uniquely suited to using cinema as an example in this discussion. In his experience within Evangelicalism, he has seen Christians reject films based upon their rejection of “the” culture. He argues, and I heartily agree with him, that intentional cultural illiteracy is a poor witness for Christianity. It’s not that we cannot reject things in our society. There is an appropriate time to reject particular films or popular trends, fashions or fads. But to do so based upon a rejection of the culture itself is merely ignorance. “One can be thoughtful, quiet, well-informed, and - if asked - articulate in their reasoning to not see a film. Or one can be legalistic, loud, defensive, and simpleminded in their abstinence. In the latter case - a Christian refusing to see Harry Potter because it ‘promotes witchcraft,’ perhaps - the witness is a bad one for Christianity.” (pg. 166) Such a lack of perspective presents a Christian faith unworthy of any nonbeliever’s consideration - a Christian faith that is, moreover, outside the bounds of traditional and historical Christian orthodoxy.
That these things are even necessary to explain is unfortunate. But in the context of much of modern church teaching, they are preliminaries required in order to pursue the topics of legalism and freedom with further depth.
2 - ON REFUSING TO THINK
“How many times have you heard something say, ‘Oh no, is this one of those thinking movies?’ I wince every time I hear it. Is having to think during a movie really such a bad thing? It doesn’t have to feel like going to the dentist. On the contrary, being able to think critically while watching a film can enhance rather than detract from the pleasures of the experience.” (pg. 177)
Thus, a second preliminary that it is refreshing to find a member of my generation actually articulate is the theologically grounded refutation of the anti-intellectual bias when it comes to Christians’ relation to culture. Again, film is an instructive example. Evangelicals’ abandonment of culture has, effectually, meant the abandonment of the Arts and Humanities. Regardless of what anyone else is doing, we ought not to be living shallow and mostly thoughtless lives. At very the heart of the Arts and Humanities is the idea that works of art and literature can reflect truths about our condition and, by showing us such truths, change us as persons for the better.
“So often we blaze through life, moving from temporary enjoyment to temporary enjoyment, haphazardly consuming things so that none of it ever grows us in any significant way. But I know we can be better. And I know that if we take the time to really dig in and do the work of being the best consumers of culture we can be, it will not only enhance our faith and witness but also glorify God. He’s the source of everything good, after all, and he makes everything good taste, sound, look, and feel all the more magnificent.” (pg. 23)
A proper Christian view of general revelation will include the necessary insight that the sacred and the divine can speak to us through art forms like film. Generally, it is far too easy even to attend church without being changed or genuinely spoken to. In church itself, we are subjected to floods of clichés and sentimentality. Many of us can count the times we were intellectually challenged in church on the fingers of one hand. This is not how we ought to live. Neither is it how we ought to approach the experience of church, cinema or anything else. “Like church, an experience in the movie theater can be as shallow or as meaningful as you make it,” argues McCracken. “Movies are sometimes (perhaps most of the time) merely an easy diversionary amusement. We leave the theater unchanged.” (pg. 172) But it doesn’t have to be this way. The problem is that when artists try to do something different with film, they are resisted and unpopular. Their films are often not given wide release. Their films are not noticed by a church preoccupied with either entertainment or evangelization.
“‘Film as art’ is an idea resisted by many, in part because from its inception film has been a ‘popular’ or ‘mass’ amusement - cheap and accessible to wider swaths of humanity than, say, the opera. In its relatively young history (barely a century old), cinema has been quite commercially lucrative and more associated with ‘fun’ diversions like amusement park rides ... than ‘serious’ activities like reading or visiting an art museum ...
“[A]udiences tend not to expect to be intellectually challenged by an experience in the movie theater. ‘It’s only a movie. Why should I have to think?’ is a fairly common sentiment. People go into a theater with a different frame of mind from the way they might go into a museum. In the latter case, they’re looking to be educated or challenged; in the former, to be entertained.” (pgs. 173-174)
But perhaps looking to be entertained is unhealthy. Maybe we shouldn’t be looking to be entertained. It could be that sitting back and being entertained is the opposite of thinking. It is a surrender to sensation, impulse and distraction. It crowds out the ability to view anyone or anything with depth or contemplation.
“People tend to want a film’s points made quickly and its pleasures immediate, observes [Justin] Chang. ‘The idea that you might sit in a movie and have a meditative or spiritual experience is seen as a little weird ...’” (pg. 176)
I sometimes fear that this desire for trivial entertainment may even be more common in the church than out of it. What if Christians, of all people, are even more prone to accepting formulas and clichés? What if they, more easily than others, are more willing to just accept whatever they are fed as long as it fits the comfort and strictures of what they have been taught to expect?
“Like myself, my friend Eugene Suen - a filmmaker of faith and former co-director of the Reel Spirituality Institute at Fuller Seminary - bristles at the unwillingness of Christian audiences to experience films that are challenging or slow ... ‘It’s a shame when anything that even remotely deviates from traditional narrative (‘acceptable’) cinema is seen as alienating, boring, and pretentious,’ notes Suan. He sees this as symptomatic of a fundamental lack of openness, ‘an openness that we need as human beings - indeed, as Christians - in order to enlarge ourselves and arrive at a genuine understanding of others.’” (pg. 177)
“Cinema,” wrote film director Andrei Tarkovsky, “should be a means of exploring the most complex problems of our time, as vital as those which for centuries have been the subject of literature, music and painting.” Isn’t this how a person, who accepts the claims of Christianity to be true, ought to view film-making? If films really can enlarge our point of view and strengthen our ability to love others, then why are we not seeking out such films?
This, McCracken hints, could be a powerful way to witness. If we pursue the very best in quality - that which is capable of moving and changing us for the better - then we will begin to cultivate those things that attract others. This is just one example of how we could pursue the things of God in how we live every day.
“For Christians, approaching film in a thinking way also shows the world that we care: not just to be amused and entertained, but to glean all the value out of a film that we can. It shows that we care to explore all that a filmmaker wants to show us and that we respect the creator of the work enough to do a little interpretive work.” (pg. 177)
3 - ON THE WORK AND EFFORT THAT CULTURE REQUIRES
This isn’t a job that one has to grit one’s teeth over and finish. “The pursuit of a more discerning, well-rounded taste is never finished. It’s a process.” (pg. 128) It’s not just forcing oneself to eat one’s vegetables. It’s not just a chore. McCracken argues that it is a way of living that does not have to end at some utilitarian goal of “getting” the gospel or reaching some sort of security level with God. Real truth, goodness and beauty are not necessarily going to feel safe or comfortable. They can hurt us and shake us and shape us. It takes effort to seek them out.
“It’s very tempting to ignore difficult truth, or at least to hide from any of the truths that don’t line up in the comfortable, familiar ways we want them to. But art has the ability to shake us out of our comfort zones and show us the realities of existence - both beautiful and ugly - we might otherwise look past or ignore.” (pg. 162)
But some things, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable, are greatly to be desired and valued. These are, in fact, often just the very things that can give life meaning and make each day worth living through. If we don’t put in the work and the effort, then these are things that will always be lost to us. We will never be able to experience them.
“The value we derive from something is directly proportional to the effort we put forth to engage it. Whether we’re talking about relationships, jobs, cooking, painting, or parenting, we derive the most pleasure from that which we work the hardest at.” (pg. 178)
Making the effort equals increased value and worth. The more thought and feeling and work you place into your experience, the more your pleasure in it can surprisingly be deepened. Pursuing the challenging and the stimulating is an active pursuit. You can’t just sit back and hope that it comes to you. You can’t just let life happen to you. That is subjecting yourself to the manipulation of others and it is not giving the things of God that are embedded in culture the attention that they deserve.
“A passive consumer, who sits back and takes something in without much thought or interpretive effort, is not going to have as full or invested an experience as the consumer who takes a more active interpretative role.” (pg. 178)
“This goes for other aspects of culture too: if you do the work of learning the nuances of wine varietals, you’ll likely enjoy wine tasting more; if you do the work of researching the historical and aesthetic context of painting, your experience of a gallery will be more satisfying.” (pg. 178)
I worry that McCracken’s point is another one lost on the average American church. Far too often Christians avoid the culture as somehow being something separate from the gospel. They don’t pursue depth of thought about the world because they assume everything has already been laid out and explained to them. In order to experience the “gospel-centered” life, we somehow are supposed to avoid culture in the world as not part of the gospel-centered life. But McCracken argues that “knowledge rarely detracts from our experience of culture; it enhances it.” (pg. 178)
Why wouldn’t you enhance and deepen your experience of precisely that part of Christendom in which so many of the things of God can be found?
There are only two answers: either fear or utter laziness.
What does this kind of work and effort look like? It means the investment of time. It means refusing to prejudge something you have yet to gain much knowledge of. It means being willing to work your way through first impressions. It means pursuing that which may resist attainment after a firs try. McCracken gives an example:
“Some of my favorite films only became my favorites after I revisited them for a second or third viewing, giving myself time and distance to consider them more fully. The same principle goes for other cultural experiences, like music. The richness and beauty of an album rarely reveals itself on the first listen; it takes multiple listens to learn to appreciate it. Coffee doesn’t taste beautiful the first time one tries it. Nor does wine. The best things in life require more than just a passing assessment to be truly appreciated.” (pg. 184)
There is no good reason to just lazily or casually dismiss that which you have not truly tried - especially if others have already testified to the good that can be found within it.
Ridding our selves of our habitual passing assessments of things we do not understand is one of the preliminaries to deepening our lives.
4 - ON THE DEVELOPMENT OF TASTE
Far far too often, Christians define their experience of culture by what they avoid. Music is an obvious example. Some of the best music out there has been avoided by Christians - some of the worst music you’ll ever hear is made and produced by Christians. Christian contemporary music (CCM) is arguably some of the most cringe-worthy stuff on the radio. It’s not purchased by consumers looking for quality. Christians have developed a reputation for appreciating things like music for its message, for its use as a tool, for its popular appeal, for its almost anything other than technical craft or artistry. But, “Music appreciation,” McCracken argues “is also about community, artists, critics, tradition, and the development of taste. It’s not just about avoiding the bad and the unhealthy; it’s about energetically educating ourselves to better pursue the good.” (pg. 116)
This is a thought too easily dismissed. Everyone has their own personal preferences. We are told that we shouldn’t criticize other people for having different tastes than we have. Except, this isn’t true. Some people have better taste in some things than I have, and such critics and connoisseurs should be able to criticize and thereby improve my own uneducated taste. My personal preferences are often the result of lack of experience and education. My personal tastes are often the consequence of my own enclosed and limited life.
“Preferences are one thing, notes Christian art theorist Hans Rookmaaker, but ‘even if our preferences cannot be discussed, our choices can, since quality and content are not just a matter of taste, but a matter of norms. If we talk about portraits, some are more, some are less beautiful, of a higher or a lower artistic quality.’” (pg. 123) “Developing taste is important because it allows us to enter into a positive critical discourse that has as its goal the discovery and enjoyment of the best that is out there.” (pg. 124)
McCracken elaborates what I will call the fourth preliminary to thinking about legalism and liberty - the idea of developing improved taste:
“At this point we must talk about the notion of ‘having good taste.’ Is it even sensible to talk in objective terms about such a thing? Many people would say no. ‘Good quality’ is subjectively defined from culture to culture, class to class, they would say; there’s no such thing as objective good taste.” (pg. 123)
Is personal taste merely subjective? It does take a bit for McCracken to warm up on this one. “I’m not sure an ironclad, universal formula for ‘good’ art or ‘proper’ taste exists,” he writes. That’s fine, although no one arguing for objective standards in art would ever call what they were advocating for a “universal formula.” But he keeps going - “But I do think that within a given culture - and especially within a given style or genre - objective assessments of quality are valid.” (pg. 123) In other words, within the proper context, objective value judgments about quality can be made.
In fact, this necessarily follows if you claim to hold to the truths claimed by Christianity. If objective truth really does exist, then it will have some bearing on beauty. It is no coincidence that the “philosophy of aesthetics” (explored since Ancient Greece) presupposes and explores higher standards by which we can lift ourselves and our own limited understands up to something higher.
“When I asked my friend Laura, a music critic who writes for publications like Under the Radar and Filter, what constitutes ‘objective good’ in music, she said that it existed in different forms within each genre, but that one ‘universal’ marker of good was whether an artist believes in the story they are telling. ‘I need to feel some emotional truth they are exploring, some honesty,’ she said. ‘You can be authentic in any genre, but it’s all about whether an artist is attempting to tell a story that is true.’
“Laura noted that the ‘easy to swallow’ music that tends to appeal the masses often is created with mass appeal in mind as opposed to authentic truth-telling. Music that is authentic and true is often more difficult and requires more work, she said. ‘The best stuff isn’t always the easiest. We need to ask ourselves, ‘Are we feeding ourselves McDonald’s or are we going to a four-star restaurant?’’” (pg. 124)
The easy is very often not the best. What is easy to see and understand is often not that of the greatest worth. If you always just go for what is easy, then you are very likely cheating yourself.
“Christians should recognize that taste has both subjective and objective elements; it includes both our individual resonances with a work and also the larger community of interpretation and evaluation.” If this is true, then we can learn from the larger community and improve the subjective elements of our own taste. We can seek out the critics and connoisseurs who know more than we do and who have more experience than we do. We can pursue the hard and the difficult that we have never tried before. “Good taste is not simply pointing to one’s record collection and declaring it tasteful; good taste is being willing to expand one’s horizons, hear what others have to say, and seek a more thorough understanding of how a work of art can be better perceived, enjoyed, and evaluated.” (pg. 126) It almost follows from this that we possess a duty.
McCracken’s book then takes the reader through four different topics in order to use them as illustrations - Eating, Drinking, Music and Film.
I can admit that when I, with my limited perspective as a bachelor, think of culture, I most often do not think of food. I put very little thought into what I eat. McCracken makes the argument that we ought to make the effort to pay attention to what and how we eat. I was struck by his quoting Robert Farrar Capon: “The world is no disposable ladder to heaven. Earth is not convenient, it is good; it is, by God’s design, our lawful love.” (pg. 39) I have never really been taught this before, or if I have, I was never paying attention. Food is not fuel and neither is it a mere convenience.
The most utilitarian part of my life may actually be my diet. But this is unhealthy. For the Christian, it is really bad theology not to care what you eat. What a difference it could make if we were to eat for pleasure rather than utility and for health rather than only for energy. But, at the same time, McCracken warns against snobbery. Yes, we may enjoy using “Whole Foods” or “Trader Joe’s” or “Farmer’s Markets,” but the opportunities for healthy or organic produce are still often limited to a higher price level. There are those in our society how cannot financially afford to eat healthy. If this is true, then there is still something fundamentally wrong with the way we live.
“It can be easy for those with expendable time and money to talk about the healthier, environmentally friendlier superiority of ‘slow food’ and more natural, unprocessed food, but when you’re a single mom struggling to pay rent and feed young children, fast food can be a lifesaver. Some fast-food chains are getting better about offering healthy options, but the fact is, most healthy food is not all that affordable or convenient for the majority of eaters around the world ... What can we do to make healthier good more accessible to all people? Until we address these issues, none of us should look down our noses at those who eat at McDonald’s or shop at discount grocery stores. For many people, it’s the best they can do.” (pg. 63)
But there’s more.
Eating is not just a pleasure. It’s not just a good and healthy necessity that can be improved by intentional work. It can be spiritually healthy too. How we eat can affect how we relate to others. “For Jesus, the table was a prime opportunity to live out his generous gospel of grace - a symbolic activity that underscores the social significance of dining in community.” (pg. 40) Some of the best meals I have ever had were in the company of family and friends - or, when I was all alone in a strange place, being included at the table of a generous family I didn’t know.
We now too often neglect the communal part of eating. Hosting guests at your table was traditionally considered, in ages past, of more than mere material significance. Fellowship and conversation were meant to go together with dining. There is something perhaps even mystical about having a group of friends or family around your table and sharing in the pleasure of eating lovingly prepared and carefully crafted meals. It creates a bond. It is a form of love.
It is therefore, McCracken argues, no coincidence that one of the Christian sacraments is the act of participating in the Lord’s Supper, Communion or the Eucharist:
“Why is the Eucharist such a big deal? Well, for one thing it is the central symbolic action of the Christian life. In this meal, as we take the bread and the cup, we remember and give thanks for the suffering and sacrifice of Jesus for us, we join in communion with our fellow believers, and we look forward to the second coming of Christ and the messianic feast to come ... Peter Leithart says the Lord’s Supper is ‘the world in miniature; it has cosmic significance.’” (pg. 41)
“... the Eucharist - rebuffs the isolationist mode of consumption. It’s a sacred means of connection and solidarity. In it we identify with the suffering of Christ. We connect with our Savior and his body: our fellow believers throughout the ages.” (pg. 54)
And it isn’t just that a Christian can participate in the meaning of the Eucharist during a church service. It’s a form of participation in meaning during a hearty meal in fellowship with others. Therefore, part of being “cultured” ought to mean a significant amount of sharing. Something as simple as hosting others for dinner around your table is imbued with a tradition of communing - of community and love and friendship - that deepens the experience of eating. What we eat can obviously be good and pleasurable - and it will be if one makes the effort to pay attention. How we eat with others can strengthen who we are as social beings and members of a fellowship.
The fact that McCracken even has to discuss this is a clue to the problem. This problem in the American Church is twofold: (a) an almost total ignorance of the elementary rules for interpreting Scripture and (b) a vast ignorance of church history.
No, wine in Scripture is not grape juice. (pgs. 194-195) Instead, the Bible merely teaches that it is drunkenness, not drinking itself, that is a sin. (pgs. 195-196) But this teaching is one-sided unless we also take into account that alcohol is considered to be a joy and a blessing by Scripture, even in both a material and eschatological sense. (pgs. 196-198) Abstinence is not commanded by the Bible. While it does have its uses, it is not common. (pg. 198-199) Moderation is the answer - abusus non tollit usum - and this “goes without saying ...” (pg. 232)
The chapter on drinking makes for good reading because McCracken also takes us through some church history on the subject. In doing this, he is soon forced to admit: “Have Christians always been so divided about it? (Short answer: no.) Is it significant that followers of Christ were the first people to invent sophisticated wine-and-beer-making techniques (in medieval monasteries) but also the people who led the charge to make alcohol illegal in America?” (pgs. 205-206)
Thus the history of church theology and alcohol arguably begins in the second century with St. Clement of Alexandria -
“In his Pedagogia - perhaps the earliest Christian ethic of alcohol consumption - St. Clement of Alexandria discusses the Christian’s obligation to drink wine as part of the Eucharist while also being careful to avoid drunkenness. Clement urged ... ‘In what manner do you think the Lord drank when He became man for our sakes? ... For rest assured, He Himself also partook wine; for He, too, was man. And He blessed the wine, saying, Take drink: this is my blood - the blood of the vine ... And he who drinks ought to observe moderation ...’ (pg. 206)
And don’t forget the Irish missionaries like St. Patrick -
“In the medieval period, as Christians spread the gospel throughout pagan lands, beer played a positive role. As St. Patrick introduced the gospel to the wild pagan land of Ireland, he ‘captured many an Irish tribal chieftain with his tasty beer before he won the man for God.’ In the Holy Roman Empire, beer lover Charlemagne promoted improvements in brewing at monasteries throughout the empire ...” (pg. 207)
It was churches who first began improving techniques for cultivating the production of high quality wines. (pg. 207) It was Christians in monasteries who built the foundations for modern beer brewing, once again focusing on quality. In fact, there are still some “brews today - such as Weihenstephan (founded in AD 1040) and Leffe (AD 1240) - [that] originated in medieval monasteries.” (pg. 210) “Nuns also joined in the beer-making business. Hildegard von Bingen was a brewer and is sometimes credited with the discovery that hops added preservative qualities to ale.” (pg. 210) Martin Luther was an enthusiastic beer drinker. He taught some of his classes in taverns with beer and his wife also brewed her own beer. (pg. 211)
It is almost comical when we realize that, if the American church had only listened to Martin Luther, we could have avoided all the misguided nonsensical teaching we’ve been given on the subject. “You should be moderate and sober,” Luther instructed, “this means that we should not be drunken, though we may be exhilarated ... The mind will tolerate a certain degree of elevation, but this most be moderate, not indecent.” Luther even responded to potential prohibitionists of his day. “Do not suppose that abuses are eliminated by destroying the object which is abused. Men can go wrong with wine and women. Shall we then prohibit and abolish women?” (pg. 211)
Add to this the beginnings of American history. When the Pilgrims first landed on Plymouth Rock, the very first building they built was a brewery. (pg. 212) The ship that brought John Winthrop and the Puritans to the New World carried “more than 10,000 gallons of wine and three times as much beer as water.” (pg. 208) And “Post-Reformation Christians such as George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards, for example, were known to enjoy rum and hard cider, respectively.” (pg. 211) Let’s also not forget Arthur Guinness over in Ireland.
McCracken contrasts this history with what we have now:
“... folks like Stephen Reynolds (author of The Biblical Approach to Alcohol), who argues that the Bible teaches ‘an absolute prohibition against the beverage use of alcohol,’ and John MacArthur, who in a 2011 blog post on alcohol and Christianity said, ‘It is puerile and irresponsible for any pastor to encourage the recreational use of intoxicants.’” (pg. 193)
John MacArthur’s article “Beer, Bohemianism, and True Christian Liberty” is both strident and one-sided. He argues that the “image of beer-drinking Bohemianism does nothing to advance the cause of Christ’s kingdom.” (pg. 214) After reading it, I still find it unclear exactly how MacArthur distinguishes “beer-drinking Bohemianism” from “beer-drinking.” Many other believers like G.K. Chesterton would heartily disagree. (But, of course, Chesterton would have disagreed with a large amount of what the Calvinist MacArthur currently has to say.)
McCracken’s summary of the rest of the story is sharp and informative. It’s worth the read. He takes us through the fundamentalist and evangelical rhetoric that led to the American Prohibition. He explains how Welch’s pasteurized non-fermented grape juice replaced wine at church communion around 1869. (Stop and think about where that date stands in the middle of all of church history for a moment.) And McCracken also admits that the critiques of drinking do rely on some hard, real-world facts about the consequences of abusing alcohol.
The destruction on human lives that abuse of alcohol wrecks is real. It’s a problem in our modern culture that we cannot ignore. Thus, while drinking with friends and family is a form of communion and fellowship, McCracken cautions us that we ought to be careful about dismissing those who try to bring attention to the existence of abuse.
Alcoholism is not to be scoffed at. There are some critics of the church (and I’m one of them) who are very dismissive of the modern American church’s teaching on subjects like alcohol. “American evangelicalism is unique in its fear and avoidance of alcohol, they say. And there is some truth in this.” (pg. 225) But this doesn’t let us off from responsibility or from giving the other side a fair hearing either.
“But let’s be real here. Whether they like it or not, American Christians live within a culture in which alcohol is viewed in a particular way and where certain habits of consumption prevail. Ours is a culture of college binge drinking, keggers, underage drinking as rebellion, and Bud Light commercials.” (pg. 225)
So the question turns to what has caused these sort of modern cultural habits of excess and disregard. Perhaps it has something to do with mass market consumption, an evil that craft brewing may help provide an antidote for. (pg. 234) Perhaps, like almost everything else in our culture, it has something to do with the loss of thinking of wine or beer as the art form that the monks and nuns of history used to think of it. “We are artisans, not industry,” McCracken quotes a Spanish winemaker as explaining. Perhaps it is because, like so many other things, we view alcohol for what it can do for us rather than enjoying it for the thing that it is.
McCracken’s conclusion is refreshing: Don’t use alcohol. Enjoy it.
“When we use it,” he writes, “we diminish it to nothing more than a tool in service of disordered desires. We lose sight of the fact that alcohol can be as complex and aesthetically rich as a painting or ballet.” (pg. 234) “As a corollary to the ‘receive, don’t use’ approach to alcohol is this advice: love it for how it tastes more than for how it makes you feel. This isn’t to say that the ‘buzz’ of alcohol is always a bad thing - it is surely one of its manifold blessings, and we shouldn’t pretend otherwise. But when the buzz is the main reason we drink alcohol, it becomes far easier to abuse it. Plus, it turns the activity of drinking into a me-centered activity of ‘what this drink does to me’ rather than ‘how this drink communicates beauty.’ This is why people who drink primarily for the buzz - college kids, partiers, ‘bros,’ soccer hooligans, and so on - don’t mind drinking swill like Coors, Bud Light, Heineken, and Shock Top. It’s not about the taste for them. If it’s a cold beverage and gives them a buzz, it’s enough.” (pgs. 235-236)
“In my life, some of the most profound moments of connection and deepest occasions of feeling known have occurred over fermented beverages: discussing the mysteries of God’s grace over pints under the stars in Oxford; gathering at a pub with friends to laugh and share stories together long into the night; toasting to my best friend on the night before his wedding; sipping wine at an oceanside restaurant with the girl I love. These moments can be transcendent.” (pg. 227)
I cannot begin to describe the joy and fellowship that can result from the view towards alcohol that McCracken ultimately advocates for. It is the traditional Christian view, the loss of which has, perhaps not coincidentally, precisely coincided with what I can only describe as mass-produced watery horribly-tasting gag-inducing-smelling alcoholic versions of heavily carbonated soda-water - abominations produced with no sense of art that are drunk for no other reason than to experience their alcoholic effects. There is nothing manly about drinking for unrestrained appetite and oblivion rather than for pleasure and merriment.
At some point in church history in the United States, Christians became less serious about quality in art. It necessarily followed that when jazz and eventually rock music came onto the scene, the church decided to try to copy it. Unfortunately, in the copying, quality was not the point. The problem was all those impure lyrics. Thus the unfortunate business of having prominent voices like Rick Warren saying things like “There is no such thing as Christian music; only Christian lyrics.” McCracken respectfully disagrees.
Anyone who has grown up in the church recently has experienced the phenomenon of “Christian Rock” and CCM. “Christian rock flourished in the 1970s and 1980s. An entire industry - Contemporary Christian Music (CCM) - was born, offering Christianized (i.e., lyrically pure) alternatives that sounded like secular rock but didn’t lead listeners straight to hell.” (pg. 81)
The more you think about it, the more embarrassing it becomes. For example, McCracken provides us with Dan and Steve Peters as Exhibit A. These guys wrote books promoting the latest and trendiest Christian copycat music, and tried to sell inferior bands and their record labels by marketing them as alternatives to secular bands and labels:
“In [What About] Christian Rock? the Peters brothers suggest, for example, ‘alternatives’ like Ken Medema (a sort of Christian Stevie Wonder), Jerusalem (‘CCM’s answer to Scorpion’), In 3D (‘reminiscent of The Police’), Silverwind (‘Abba sound-alike’), and John Michael Talbot (‘Gordon Lightfoot-like’).” (pg. 82)
Thankfully, there has also now been some solid criticism of CCM from within the church. One example is the book, At the Crossroads: An Insider’s Look at the Past, Present, and Future of Contemporary Christian Music (1999) by Charlie Peacock. “Peacock’s critique presciently observes the identity crisis of CCM, noting that while most forms of popular music are named according to their musical style (jazz, blues, classical, folk, rap, rock), CCM has to tie its identity to the lyrics or to a profession of faith by the artists. But Peacock warns that ‘getting listeners to recognize Christian music does not ensure that they will engage the music and lyric with the depth of interest they need to derive some spiritual, emotional, or intellectual benefit from them.’” (pg. 85)
The problem is again that Christians today tend to think of music as something they can use to promote their own message. Music ceases to be an art form and becomes merely a tool. The music ceases to matter and quality is replaced in importance by the religious content of lyrics. Guitars and drum sets have created magic in the right talented hands. In the church, guitars and drum sets are used more as a tool to attract the young - to demonstrate how “cool” or with the times the church really is. The result is bad, poorly performed, amateur hour. McCracken notes that Peacock and others have been arguing for a different approach.
Theologically, if real beauty can point to God, then the best and greatest pieces of music will glorify God in ways that the less beautiful cannot. If the church were to focus again on the power that music can have, then it would focus on promoting musicians with talent rather than musicians who can’t cut it in the marketplace who cut it in the Christian world by simply adding the desired gospel lyrics. “In this approach, music is seen as an art form rather than an evangelistic tool.” (pg. 87) Historically, the church has supported some of the greatest composers and musicians the world has ever seen. Currently, the church is supporting many talentless performers for what is essentially religious utilitarian purposes.
Without viewing music as the art form that it is, the church is in danger of using music that does not affect anyone spiritually. And this is despite that fact that even Plato and Aristotle understood that good music can shape the soul and inspire virtue. The current state of the CCM offerings that one can find at one’s local Christian knick-knack store are not of the positive soul-shaping variety.
In no part of culture does browsing, flitting, transient attention reward us. Value arises from cultivated interest, from focus and thought. Our theater, DVD and film streaming movie watching will be worthless if we are not willing to put in the time and effort into treating it as any art form ought to be treated.
But this does not mean that, just as Christians have ruined their tastes in music by a sort of utilitarian gospel thinking, they ought to do the same with film. Unfortunately this is just what has happened. “Some Christians are only interested in films insofar as they explicitly preach the gospel or relay an unmistakably biblical message. This approach typically downplays aesthetics in favor of unmissable morals, preferring didactic directness over subtlety. Good films are evangelistic films. Examples: A Thief in the Night, Fireproof.” (pg. 133) “Or faith is reduced to schmaltzy simplicity, as in most ‘Christian films’ (Facing the Giants, The Grace Card).” (pg. 169)
But this is just the thing. “Christian” films are always B-movies or worse. They don’t attract any actors who are serious about their own profession. They don’t attract script writers or directors who are interested in film as an art. You have to pause for a moment to consider how films and music being produced out of this artless void are going to influence a person’s soul. Suddenly, you have people for whom art ceases to be art. For all intents and purposes, whole parts of culture have been wiped out for them - completely eliminated from their lives.
They are essentially listening to music or watching a film with a pre-packaged expectation that they ought to hear the gospel message. If we’ve learned anything from the actual films and music that has been made and sold to the church, quality of the work does not matter. If it contains the gospel message, then that satisfies them. If it doesn’t, they will be disappointed and may even question whether it’s “Christian” at all. Aesthetic experience is lost for them.
For a good recent example of the type of film this mindset produces, see Kenneth R. Morefield's thoughtful critique of the film, Grace Unplugged.
“But,” McCracken writes, “it’s too easy to just harp on how terrible Christian films are. The bigger question is whether or not the genre is even necessary. What makes one film ‘Christian’ and another not? If it contains a clear presentation of the gospel, is it automatically a ‘Christian’ film? If the filmmakers are Christian, do we call their films ‘Christian films’? Or is the term perhaps only fitting for movies that are made by Christian churches?” (pg. 186)
These questions are ultimately unimportant. When one finally asks them, it helps to realize just how much they just don’t matter. McCracken offers an alternative:
“As Christians seeking to be more thoughtful consumers of film, what should we make of ‘Christian’ movies? My short answer is that we should approach this genre of film in the same way we should approach any other, evaluating it with the same criteria we would evaluate anything.” (pg. 185)
In other words, he advocates for the traditionally approach. Instead of mixing our Christianity with marketing gimmicks and utilitarian motivations for using art, we could, after all, treat art as ... art.
This doesn’t mean we have to discourage Christian work in film or music, but it does mean demanding some of the basics fundamental to a work of art. Merely demanding these basic expectations for quality work would eliminate the vast majority of, well, just about everything sold in a local Christian bookstore.
“We should certainly support Christian filmmakers. But we shouldn’t coddle them, and we shouldn’t encourage low-quality work.” We shouldn’t encourage low-quality work by purchasing anything that they make. There are, in fact, a number of Christian production companies that ought to go bankrupt for lack of popular demand for their products.
“And as Christian consumers who care about honoring God through the arts, we should simply support the best - the most truthful, beautiful, God-glorifying - whether it is made by the hands of a Christian or a pagan.” (pg. 187)
This is so obvious that it is rather embarrassing that McCracken even has to say it.
So how ought those of us in the church to approach film. One option that McCracken discusses is what he calls the “aesthetically transcendent” approach:
“In this approach, ‘sacred’ films are those that - through exceptional artistry and powerful narrative - evoke feelings of transcendental longing akin to what Germans call Sehnsucht. They are films so beautiful that the viewer is brought to a place of stasis or spiritual contemplation. Christians who favor this approach are less interested in specifically Christian messages or plotlines than they are in true, powerful portrayals of beauty and longing. Examples: Tokyo Story; The Tree of Life.” (pg. 134)
This is not just some elitist art critic’s way of doing things. Since Ancient Greece through the Medieval Ages and Renaissance, thinkers and theologians have long discussed how art can point us to the things of God. True beauty is of divine origin. Art works that capture this will point all of us, no matter what our educations, tastes or vocations happen to be, towards that origin.
Another challenge to this approach is that which has been taken by many “Christian” film critics. To them, the acceptability of a film can be measured by its lack of what would be viewed as negative or uncivil conduct in a “Christian” subcultural setting.
“In 1968, the Production Code was officially replaced by the Motion Picture Association of America’s voluntary movie classification system, which assigned a rating (in their current form: G, PG, PG-13, R, or NC-17) to films based on content ... For Christians concerned about film content, this shift complicated things a bit. Was an R rating an immediate and in-all-cases marker of inappropriateness? ... This gave rise to publications like Focus on the Family’s Plugged In magazine, now a website that offers reviews of films (as well as music and television) for evangelical parents ... Plugged In includes eyebrow-raising discussions of a film’s ‘positive elements,’ ‘spiritual content,’ ‘nudity and sexual content,’ ‘violent content,’ ‘crude or profane language,’ ‘drug and alcohol content,’ and ‘other negative elements.’ Reviews are exhaustive in their detail, with vivid overviews of sexual content (‘A teen girl strips down to her panties in Jim’s room and touches herself.’) as well as exact counts of f-words and cautions that, ‘Unfortunately, the Lord’s name is abused 15 times (‘Jesus’ and ‘Christ’ are used six times; ‘g–d–n’ six times).’” (pg. 145)
It’s not that obscenity is not a real issue in the arts. The ways in which obscenity can affect the value of a work of art is yet another subject that has been deeply explored since pre-Biblical Ancient Greece. In philosophy, “aesthetics” has an entire line of thought that addresses obscenity. But this is not where these content measurers are coming from. I have read far too many of their reviews to fail to see how art is simply not their concern. And how could it be? If I was a reviewer tasked with counting each cuss word, detailing and describing every instance of revealed skin or sexual content, and if I had to sit down and make that list while watching the film, there is no way I could appreciate it. The entire approach precludes experiencing the film as a work of art in the first place.
“This curse-counting approach was ‘perfected’ in Ted Baehr’s Movieguide, ‘The family guide to movies and entertainment.’” (pg. 145) Indeed, Mr. Baehr has gained something of a reputation over the years. When you start reading about why he recommends some films and why he condemns others, the most obvious thing about Mr. Baehr is that he has allowed his ideological viewpoint to restrict his experience of film. He then advocates that everyone else ought to hold to his own limitations.
Most recently, the Movieguide has strongly recommended Grace Unplugged, Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs 2, I’m in Love with a Church Girl, Gravity, King’s Faith, Prisoners and Beyond the Heavens. Haven’t heard of some of those? There’s a good reason why. It has also, meanwhile, strongly condemned The Counselor and The Deep Blue Sea. This is the mindset that ends up writing this like this in its review of To the Wonder: “Malick breaks from traditional storytelling technique more than ever with this tale, leaving the movie too ambiguous and giving the audience little to take away from the story.” Or of Lincoln: “Also, there’s much strong foul language, to the point of being excessive. Finally, the movie suggests that the ends justifies the means.” This is a mindset that can summarize the film, Moonrise Kingdom like this: “It includes church scenes, but has an overall ironic feel to it. Each broken character is depressed or dealing with something negative and trying to piece together their life. In the end, however, many of the characters make the right decision.”
Or, if you want final conclusive evidence that there is a problem here, Movieguide strongly recommends the new Romeo and Juliet as “is a beautiful rendition of the classic play by Shakespeare, with wonderful performances and some important lessons.” This is because they “get married within a church and take counsel from a priest.” Somehow, Movieguide completely missed the entire much talked about controversy about this film and why it has garnered so many negative reviews. Why? Because the film is NOT a “rendition of the classic play by Shakespeare.” Shakespeare’s language has been gutted, replaced and dumbed down. It’s not Shakespeare. Sadly, I’m afraid that we may be able to reasonably conclude that Movieguide wasn’t able to tell. Case closed.
McCracken’s suggested alternatives offer a different way of thinking.
“Not every Christian film critic ascribes to Ted Baehr’s methods of evaluating movies, however, and increasingly, Christian approaches to engaging film are going beyond ‘curse counting’ and ‘family friendliness’ rubrics as methods of evaluating film. ‘Parents’ guides’ are still going strong, of course, but more and more Christians seem to be opening up to a relationship with cinema that is less about culture war defensiveness and more about thoughtful engagement.” (pg. 147)
“The 2011 Arts and Faith Top 100 Films list is a good barometer of an increasing sophistication in the way Christians value and engage cinema. The list, voted on by sixty-five professional film writers and lecturers, lifelong cinephiles, seminary students, and ordinary movie fans, celebrates films with overt religious themes (Jesus of Montreal, The Apostle, A Man for All Seasons) but also films with "sublime expression of humane values" (Tokyo Story, Bicycle Thieves), "populist favorites" (It's a Wonderful Life), and "dreamy art-house tone poems" (Wings of Desire). It's telling that the list is made up of nearly two-thirds foreign language films with only a handful of films from the last ten years. Christians are increasingly exploring the history and aesthetic accomplishments of cinema, finding in secular and world cinema great truth and beauty with incredible relevance to the life of faith.” (pg. 148)
I have to admit some bias here. I’ve been a participant over at Arts and Faith since 2009. But the point is that I am often challenged and am always learning whenever I converse with others who view film as the art form that it is. There is a vast wealth and treasury of great films that exist that are increasingly being seen by less and less people. Why would we ever choose to neglect or to be ignorant of these films?
I believe this question has special import for the Christian believer. McCracken tries to explain it:
“I’d say filmgoing is, from time to time, a worshipful experience for me. It doesn’t take the place of church, of course, but in a very real sense it can be an experience quite similar to church: a quiet, large room, filled with a wide swath of humanity immersed in an often very emotional, engrossing, powerful narrative. It’s no wonder movie theaters have been called ‘the church of the masses.’ ... [M]ovies can ... be quite profound, even life changing. They can enhance communities and spark lively conversations; they can show us things we’ve never seen and confront us with truth in jarring ways. And perhaps most vitally for the Christian consumer, a movie can most certainly bear witness to the majesty of God and the beautiful complexity of his creation.” (pg. 172)
Personally, I have been regularly amazed, refreshed and altered by the films of masters like Paul Thomas Anderson, Lynne Ramsay, James Gray, Susanne Bier, the Coen brothers, Whit Stillman, the Dardenne brothers, Wim Wenders, Peter Weir, Terrence Malick, Martin Scorsese, Krzysztof Kieslowski, Abbas Kiarostami, Terry Gilliam, Francis Ford Coppola, Andrei Tarkovsky, Eric Rohmer, Ingmar Bergman, Orson Welles, Michelangelo Antonioni, Akira Kurosawa, David Lean, Roberto Rossellini, Robert Bresson, Frank Capra, Jean Renoir, Carl Theodor Dreyer and many others. I've hardly begun to see all the films of some of these directors. Almost everyone I know have seen very little of any of these director's films. Almost everyone I know in the church has seen almost none of these directors' films. And yet, these are the very directors who often are trying to achieve the transcendent in their work.
This doesn’t mean that we ought to be always willing to try anything and everything. There can still be moral limits to the experience of art. I fail to see any serious arguments in the realm of aesthetics for excluding the moral sphere from art. McCracken rightly warns us not to go too far in the other direction.
“Even as a verified cinephile and apologist for the form, I would be deceiving myself if I ignored or downplayed the very serious perils that can accompany a reckless, indiscriminate or excessive consumption of movies. Christians may have gone overboard in the past in their confrontational, separatist, hands-off approach to Hollywood, but it would be equally problematic to err on the other side - embracing cinema uncritically, without careful discernment.” (pg. 187)
When it comes down to it, the problem is the lack of thought. Too many in the church have long been uncritical in rejecting works of art in film. It would be too easy to be just as uncritical in accepting all works of art in film. We need to cultivate what is truly of worth. We need to search for that which is edifying and spiritually healthy. And film can be incredibly invigorating if it is treated in this way.
“The reality is that cinema, like so many areas of culture, has the potential to be beautiful, life-giving, even transcendent, but it also has the potential to be degrading, exploitative, addictive, and desensitizing.” (pg. 187)
ON THE RELATIONSHIP OF THE CHURCH WITH ART
“There’s a great tradition of cultural patronage within Christianity; the church has been ground zero for some of the most magnificent art commissions in history (e.g., Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel). I say let’s revive our heritage of being leaders in patronage. Let’s support artists, paying for them to flourish and create more good work. Let’s fund legitimate artistic creation within our sacred spaces. More than just saying we are pro-art, we should let our money talk: fund forward-thinking architecture; commission stained glass artists, sculptors, and painters for works inside our churches; pay the aspiring chef in our congregation to cater a meal for the community.” (pg. 122)
Whether considering food, drink, music or film, there is a way of treating the creation of art that naturally follows from Christian theology. To withdraw from the arts & humanities is theologically unsound. To withdraw from culture, or to create merely a separate subculture, is also theological error. If anything, the doctrine of General Revelation demands that the Christian believer not be closed to the good inherent within culture. McCracken’s book is valuable because he is voicing this insight - one that has been lost in the American church over time.
The “uncultured Christian” is a Christian who doesn’t take his or her own theology seriously.
Here is the Link to Part Two.